By Hanna Milne
The world was horrified to witness state and police violence against crowds of Catalan voters, including children and the elderly, when they attempted to vote in a secession referendum that was declared illegal by the Spanish government.
Reuters and the Telegraph UK report estimates of 844 injured during the independence referendum held in the Spanish-occupied region of Catalonia on Oct. 1. Pictures of bloodied civilians have surfaced. Within hours of polling stations opening, shocking videos hit social media, showing Spanish riot police attacking crowds without provocation, beating voters already on the ground and even throwing them down stairs.
This is the price Catalan citizens paid for attempting to vote for their independence.
On Sept. 7, the day after it was officially announced, the referendum was declared illegal by the Spanish government, claiming that it breached the Spanish Constitution. Nevertheless, Catalan politicians declared that the referendum would go ahead as planned for the 1st of October (1-O), with many Catalan citizens taking to social media in support of “Referendum 1-O”.
The referendum fulfilled a campaign promise from pro-independence parties in the 2015 Catalan election. This election resulted in a minority victory for a coalition made up of the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), Democrats of Catalonia (DC) and the Left Movement (MES) — together known as Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”).
The referendum saw a 92 per cent vote in favour of Catalan independence with a 43 per cent turnout rate. Catalan officials claim the turnout would have been higher had ballot boxes not been seized and police brutality had not taken place. Critics say that those who would have likely voted “no” simply did not vote due to all the trouble.
Historical Bad Blood
Catalonia’s desire for independence is not new, but rather a desire rich in history. It revolted in the Franco-Spanish War (1635-1659) and has remained largely in favour of secession — most famously during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), where it fought against the fascist Nationalists led by General Franco. Under the Franco dictatorship, Catalan autonomy was promptly crushed, with the Catalan language banned from public spheres and thousands of Catalonian citizens imprisoned, exiled or executed. Catalonia’s fight for independence has always been a difficult and deadly goal to achieve.
Leading up to the referendum, the Spanish government launched Operation Anubis, with the goal of putting a stop to the referendum before it even started. Catalan representatives were taken into custody by the Spanish Civil Guard and printing companies were raided in search of ballot boxes and papers. The area faced an increased state police presence, in an apparent attempt to intimidate would-be voters.
Catalan citizens fought back against the Civil Guard, surrounding and damaging Civil Guard cars and preventing the arrested representatives from being taken from the area. The Civil Guard made calls for backup to the Catalan police, who ignored them. In turn, Spain called on police from all across the country to travel to Catalonia for the October 1st referendum and continue ballot-box seizure and poll centre closure.
Brutality En Masse
The day of the referendum seized the attention of the globe, as social media was flooded with photos and videos of police brutality in Catalonia. There were reports of batons and projectiles being used on civilians, while the police launched seemingly-unprovoked attacks on crowds of voters. Videos of local firefighters going head-to-head with Spanish police and forming human shields around voters shocked the globe, in addition to footage of civilians being beaten into submission and thrown down flights of stairs. Ballot boxes were seized by force and voting centres shut down. Prominent figures from around the globe were quick to condemn the violence, but the European Union refused to mediate, calling the referendum a “domestic issue.” Anti-independence rallies held around Spain quickly gained notoriety, with videos surfacing of citizens clad in the Spanish flag performing nazi salutes. Only one word could describe the situation: fascism.
Votes and Fears
Catalan “yes” voters persisted in their bid for independence, showing up to polling stations in droves. Despite the positivity surrounding the vote, many are worried about what would happen with either outcome.
Marina, a young woman from Catalonia, told the Leveller “Catalan powers are responsible [for] this blind support for independence, without questioning anything. This [automatic support from the public] scares me.”
However, she fears the actions of the Spanish government as well, saying “The Spanish government… is all authoritative attitude and no dialogue. I don’t want to be under the authority of [either] state, not Spanish, nor Catalan.”
Ethnic and religious minority groups in the region are caught in the crossfire. As of 2012, ethnic minorities make up almost 16 per cent of the Catalan population. Aitana Guia, a historian for Archive History, writes that they are “predominantly Spanish speakers from Latin America, Muslims from North Africa and Pakistan, and Eastern Europeans from Romania.”
A desire to foster Catalan identity and sovereignty can lead to the exclusion of “outsiders.” Guia notes that, “similar to sovereigntists’ demands for laws such as Bill 101 guaranteeing the survival and hegemony of French over English in Québec, Catalan nationalists are suspicious of the large Spanish-speaking group in Catalonia and perceive it as an obstacle for the Catalan cultural hegemony they envisage.”
In addition, the Catalan government has been reluctant to protect the religious rights of Muslims, compared to other Spanish regions. For example, the government has refused to implement an agreement whereby public schools would offer optional classes on Islam when enough parents request it.
While the current Catalan government presents itself as leftist and progressive, more repugnant forms of nationalism have also been on the rise this past decade. As recently as 2011, the anti-immigrant and fascistic Platforma party called for a Nazi-inspired “Night of the Long Knives” against Muslim clerics in Catalonia, and still won 16 out of 67 municipal council seats that same year.
More generally, as Guia notes that “Post-independence Catalonia is unlikely to welcome immigrants unless they are ‘assimilable’ (visible minorities tend not to be included in this category) and willing to culturally assimilate, as the former president of the Catalan government often explained.”
So although Catalonia’s bid for independence seems noble on the surface, the heightened nationalism it entails could turn dangerous for minority groups in the region.
After the violence during the referendum, Catalan citizens performed a general strike in protest of the Spanish government’s actions. Catalan president Carles Puigdemont declared independence after the referendum, but quickly suspended it in order to allow negotiations between Catalonia and Spain to take place.
After Puigdemont missed two deadlines regarding “clarification” of Catalonia’s position, Spain announced it was triggering Article 155 of the Spanish constitution. This article allows Spain to assert direct rule over a semi-autonomous region.
The decision has been met with harsh criticism, with many calling it “extreme” and an attack on democracy itself. It seems that Catalonia’s struggle for independence is escalating each day. With the disproportionate use of police forces, an imposition of direct rule over Catalonia and telltale signs of fascism surfacing surrounding the independence bid, the situation remains fluid and worthy of attention.
This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 2 (Oct/Nov 2017)