Text by: Albert Borrell 4.10.2017
When asked to write about Catalonia, my mind spins just to think about the events that happened these past three months, and that culminated in the organisation of a referendum dubbed “illegal” by the Spanish Government, and the following police brutality. Still, this motion continued with the celebration of a national strike that paralyzed the country on Tuesday, and the preparation of an Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), to be released next Monday.
I would like to make clear that I was not the target of this repression, since the voting station that I was assigned to was relatively hard to get to, compared to areas with big populations and easy-to-access towns in the countryside. Also, it is worth noticing that the police brutality seen in the morning and afternoon of the first of October (from now on 1-O) suddenly dropped in the evening, a point to which I will return to later.
I do not want this essay to capitalize on emotion, even though it is a subject very close to my heart, and deeply related to my identity. Instead, I would like to focus on what has made this movement possible, and perhaps what can we learn from it. A fellow peace student, Silke Jungbluth, researched how social networks and new technologies were aiding refugees in their journey through the Mediterranean and Europe. Both politicians and the population of Catalonia used phone applications such as Twitter, Telegram, Zonetacts or Whatsapp to livestream, document, and communicate with each other.
This usage of media is quite relevant, because it is a rare phenomenon that a president addresses its people without the filter of the press, as did Catalan president Carles Puigdemont. In a similar fashion, Gabriel Rufián, congressman and representative of the left wing group Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), addressed a right-wing forum frequented by ultra-right groups (forocoches.com), and organized an AMA (ask me anything)
Rufián offered to do the AMA in order to solve any questions the users would have about the referendum and the arguments for independence. He is well known for identifying himself as a “Xarnego”, a derogatory word used by both Catalan and Spanish alike to describe immigrants from the south of Spain that left the countryside during the fifties and sixties to find jobs in the cities.
It is worth noticing that the spectrum of pro-independence politicians, as well as their voters, range from the Catalan high society to the blue collar, from right to left, especially trying to incorporate immigrants and their families in the process. In the general strike organised Tuesday the 3rd, it was common to see people donning both the independentist flag and the Spanish flag, to show support to the referendum as a democratic tool, even if they did not want independence at all. In a similar way, many of these people have been surprised by the angry reaction towards the referendum of their relatives in Spain, who perceive a very different version of what is happening in Catalonia, thanks to the Spanish media.
The fact that the politicians of Catalonia have realized that the usage of new technologies is so widespread denotes their clear understanding of society, their attachment to the Internet, and their capacity to spread pictures, text and news everywhere. The Catalan government could be criticized for using this ability, and to a certain extent the suffering of the people, to create an argument for a European intervention. And I would argue that that is exactly the reason why police brutality dropped in the afternoon of the 1-O.
In contrast, Spanish politicians have kept their distance, especially the president of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, who is infamous for appearing in a press room broadcasting from TV instead of in person on more than one occasion. Other appearances, such as that of the vice-president, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, have only argued about the illegality of the process, but also congratulated the police for its “proportionality” in the use of violence.
Even the king of Spain, Felipe VI, appeared yesterday to justify his presence in the country. Many Spaniards appreciated his predecessor, Juan Carlos I, for stopping the military coup d’état organized by the paramilitary police Guardia Civil in 1981 in an attempt to return to a dictatorship. This time, with the Guardia Civil and the National Police Corps beating people in peaceful protests, the current king could have tried to mediate, but his argument was controversial, ignoring the police violence and only warning the Catalonian government that “they have totally moved outside of law and democracy”, and that “it is the responsibility of all legitimate powers of the state to secure the constitutional order”.
As you may realize, the Spanish discourse about the independence movement is very top-down from the Spanish government, while the Catalan is more of a dialogue. Since the beginning of the Catalan nationalism, there has been an argument from Spain that the upper classes of Catalonia were brainwashing the masses by encouraging movements for independence. This argument is still alive today, with the government of Spain always blaming the government of Catalonia, without acknowledging the investment that the Catalan population has made in this process.
As a personal experience, my mother has been volunteering in the ANC (Catalan National Assembly) for the last two major referendums: November 9th, 2014; and most recently Sunday, October 1st, 2017. Through her, I have had a window into the organization, which is a nongovernmental group that has coordinated a big part of the public events in past years, such as every year’s national holiday, the 11th of September. To coordinate protests, members create messaging groups and relay messages to effectively create networks that can mobilize considerable amounts of people. These messages have always encouraged pacific and orderly behaviors.
From experiences drawn these past days, especially before the police raids, Catalan people have generally had a very lighthearted idea about gatherings and demonstrations. Even in the voting polls, people were half joking that if they were put in prison, at least they would have voted. This may explain why there are senior citizens and children at these events: people do not expect them to be violent.
And this attitude is astonishing, because this amount of violence was seen before in the country. For young people like me, even after having studied history, it is hard to understand the hardships that people suffered during and after the Civil War (1936-39). The conflict between the standing republic and the rebel fascists ended with the victory of the latter, which carried out massive police repression (known as white terror) that lasted even after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco. Especially in Catalonia, one of the last bastions of the Republic. Many of our parents were also beaten in antifascist demonstrations throughout the 70’s, during which the last death penalties were executed in Spain.
Finally, my intention was to talk about the media, but the media in Spain has always been extremely political. The manipulation of information (in various degrees) is the eternal discussion, and although I would argue that the Catalan television gives voice to all political parties, including the anti-independence ones, I recognize there are biases in both sides.
Still, it is worth noting that the workers of the Spanish public television denounced that the coverage of Sunday’s referendum was manipulated. According to them, the channel avoided showing big groups of people going to vote, and repeatedly broadcasted images of violence against the police that had occurred days earlier. Bearing that in mind, I have tried to use sources from very different newspapers and media for my essay.
The spread of misinformation, similar to that which created such a disturbance in the U.S. elections, has been present in Spain to the point that people in different parts of the country believe in totally different things. Furthermore, these two groups hold to their beliefs so strongly that if a Catalan and a Spaniard start to argue about politics, things tend to get personal really quickly.
Finally, with this dichotomy of ideas present, the Catalan people documented the police violence, the peacefulness of the protesters, the frustration brought down by the Spanish government, and the growing support for democracy that they lived these past days, with the idea of showing the world that they were not “liars”. Nowadays, free from the filter of international politics, without censorship, one can share a video of police brutality that will reach even those who are completely against their ideology, and convince them that they are not lying about the injustices suffered by the Catalan people. These videos can reach Europe and beyond, but also within Spain as well.
I think that one of the most important messages that got sent to the international community Sunday was that the government of Spain had crossed the line, and even though there were people that insulted the protesters in Catalonia and laughed at their efforts; there also were those that were saddened, ashamed, and shocked by the actions of the Spanish government. Catalan and Spanish people that had never come out into the streets, that never supported the referendum, suddenly were by the side of pro-independence voters, Spanish and Catalan flags side by side.
The future now is clear. Catalonia is going to push for independence with full strength, with the possibility of dialogue exhausted. The Catalan president Carles Puigdemont is going to bring the Unilateral Declaration of Independence into the Catalan Parliament for vote soon. None of the Spanish government and state representatives have offered the possibility of negotiations, with the king of Spain being the last possible moderator having taken the Spanish Government‘s side. In order to get recognition, the Catalan Government is looking at leaders and personalities who have previously recognized the right of auto-determination, such as British premier David Cameron, the President of the European Commission Romano Prodi, or the Pope Francis.
This will inevitably be followed by Spanish action, most probably the Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which declares that “if an Autonomous Community (the division in which Spanish regions are separated into) would not fulfil the obligations that the Constitution or other laws are imposed onto it, or acted in a way that would gravely attack the general interest of Spain, the Government […] will be able to adopt the necessary measures to force it to fulfil these duties”9. With this, the Government of Spain will be able to take full control of the Catalan police and institutions, and depose president Puigdemont and his government.
Hence, violence will most probably continue in the following weeks, and unfortunately heavier and more widespread. The pro-independence voters are going to bet everything in that the peaceful resistance and massive turnouts in key places will arouse enough political pressure from Europe that they will be forced to intervene and mediate. Meanwhile, the Spanish Government is banking on the support from within, acknowledging that, as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange commented, “they have lost Catalonia”.