Forty-one Spanish Civil Guard raids on Catalan government-related buildings and private homes on September 20 led to the arrest of 13 high-level Catalan government officials and harvested a lot of “suspect material” for the prosecutors charged with stopping Catalonia’s October 1 independence referendum. However, the raid have provoked a mass revolt in response.
The haul included 10 million ballot papers stored in a printery warehouse in the central Catalan town of Bigues i Riells.
The proposed referendum, which the Spanish government considers illegal, is part of the long and growing struggle by the “autonomous community” of Catalonia, in the north of the Spanish state, to self-determination.
The suppression of Catalan national rights and culture was a big feature of the 1939-75 fascist Franco dictatorship, and the struggle for national rights against a heavily centralised Spanish state has escalated in recent years. For instance, 1 million people marched on Catalonia’s national day on September 11, the sixth year in a row the day was the scene of huge demonstrations in favour of self-determination.
The raid and the revolt
The raids are intended to stop the referendum, but also landed the central Spanish government of People’s Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy with a mass revolt by tens of thousands of outraged Catalans. Only too conscious of this reminder of Civil Guard operations during the Franco dictatorship, they protested outside the buildings being raided and occupied the centre of Barcelona and other Catalan cities and towns.
People were responding to the call of the Catalan government and the Catalan mass organisations — the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Catalan language and culture association Omnium Cultural — to maintain peaceful mass protests up until October 1. The aim is to make the Spanish government pay the highest possible price for its “de facto coup” (phrase of Catalan Premier Carles Puigdemont).
Their call was also backed by political forces and institutions that do not necessarily support Catalan independence, but defend Catalan sovereignty. For example, Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau publicly backed the street protests and warned Rajoy that he would find “the Catalan people more united than ever”.
In Madrid, radical anti-austerity force Unidos Podemos condemned the raids. Its MPs in the Spanish parliament staged a protest outside the building and later joined a rally in support of Catalonia’s right to decide. The Madrid rally, held in the central Puerta del Sol, was one of at least 40 that took place across the Spanish state on the evening of the raids.
Twenty major institutions of Catalan civil society representing 3000 Catalan social organisations — including the two main trade union confederations, Barcelona Football Club, and cultural organisations groups such as the Barcelona Atheneum to the Third Sector — condemned the raids. They called for the release of the detainees and reaffirmed their support for Catalonia’s institutions.
The Civil Guard raids, which came after the Spanish finance ministry took full control of Catalan spending, were aimed at dismantling the infrastructure of the October 1 referendum. Those arrested were 13 senior Catalan government officials in charge of computer technology, communications and finance.
The most senior were the secretary of the Catalan treasury Lluis Salvardo, the secretary-general of the department of deputy-premier Josep Maria Jove and treasurer Oriol Junqueras. Jove and Salvardo have been the two officials presumed responsible for referendum preparations.
Also arrested were the owners of the warehouse holding the printed material related to the referendum.
The charges laid are not yet fully known, but presumably are disobeying a lawful instruction, obstructing the course of justice and misuse of public funds. This last charge carries a prison term, as does the most serious charge that may used — that of sedition.
The huge public response to the raids started when the news spread through social networks and people began to gather outside the buildings being targeted, most importantly the economy ministry in central Barcelona.
The protests soon became thousands strong. After the Catalan mass organisations called on everyone to gather outside the economy ministry, more than 40,000 (council police figure) turned up to protest the raids and reaffirm their determination to vote.
“We shall vote!”, “They shall not pass!”, “Out with the forces of occupation!”, “Where is Europe?” were some of the chants that echoed across Barcelona until midnight, accompanied by singing of the anti-Francoist resistance hymn L'Estaca (“The Stake”) and the Catalan national anthem Els Segadors (“The Reapers”).
As protesters gathered outside the raided buildings, waving banners and posters produced on home printers (the Civil Guard had confiscated most of the official referendum posters) the workers inside draped banners and thank you messages out of the windows.
The protests cut major Barcelona thoroughfares such as Via Laietana, where the workers from the Workers Commissions trade union building came out to lead the picket outside the Catalan foreign affairs ministry across the street.
One reason the protests swelled so rapidly was because students from Catalonia’s main universities abandoned classes to join them. Behind banners with messages such as “Empty the lecture theatres, fill the streets”, students from the out-of-town Autonomous University of Barcelona poured onto the trains into central Barcelona.
At 10pm, with central Barcelona still full of protestors, a loud banging of pots and pans (cassolada) began, as people in all suburbs came out onto their balconies to show what they thought about the Civil Guard operation.
Protest rallies were also held in cities and towns across Catalonia on the evening of September 20. In the provincial capital of Girona, 13,000 people took part according to the municipal police — 13% of the total population.
Moreover, many people from provincial Catalonia left work early to join the Barcelona rallies.
The mood of the protests was one of determination to see the fight against the Spanish state intervention through to the end — Catalan rights re-won in the struggles against the Franco dictatorship had to be defended at any cost.
One typical comment from young people was that “our grandparents didn’t suffer under Francoism so that we would let it reappear”.
The rallies were peaceful and disciplined, a reflection of the shared understanding that the street clashes that have nearly always been standard fare in Barcelona demonstrations would only provide the Rajoy government with an excuse to ramp up repression.
The approach of organised passive resistance scored an important win when armed Spanish National Police, supported by a helicopter, failed to enter the headquarters of the left-nationalist, anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP).
The CUP headquarters were defended by a human barrier of up to 2000 supporters and sympathisers, led by present and former CUP MPs in the Catalan parliament.
A comic aspect of the defence, which ended after seven hours of siege, was the instruction that no-one was allowed to smoke a joint on the picket line: if they wished to, they had to go inside the building. According to one participant, the atmosphere inside the CUP headquarters was unbreathable.
That, however, was a small price to pay for getting every last piece of CUP referendum propaganda out of its headquarters and distributed.
Will the referendum happen? All the signs now point to rising conflict between the central Spanish government and the Catalan mass movement and government.
In his early afternoon address on behalf of the Catalan government, Puigdemont said: “From now until October 1 an attitude both of firmness and serenity will be needed, of alertness and of readiness to complain about the abuses and illegalities into which the Spanish state is falling. But on October 1 we’ll be leaving home with a voting paper and we’ll be making use of it.”
Rajoy replied with his own “institutional message”: “You know that this referendum cannot now be celebrated. It was never legal nor legitimate, now it is nothing more than a chimera or, what is worse, the excuse that some seem to be seeking to further deepen the rift they have caused in Catalan society…
“I insist, do not continue, you have no legitimacy. Return to law and democracy, let the people put these fateful days behind them.”
In case that appeal didn’t work, the Spanish PM cited his “determination to have legality enforced without renouncing any of the instruments of our rule of law.”
There can be no doubt about the determination of the central government to stop a referendum that would, if the latest polls are correct, see a 60% turnout and an easy win for the independence option.
If, despite the latest setbacks, the Catalan government still manages to equip polling stations with ballot boxes and papers, voters will in all likelihood find Spanish national police blocking the entrance.
Puigdemont has announced there will be 2700 polling stations. The plan of the Rajoy government seems to be to mobilise the 5000 available Spanish National Police to block voters. The police are to be housed on three ferries that have been berthed in the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona. Waterside workers in both ports have already voted not to service the vessels.
The Spanish authorities may first try to do the job of repression by placing the 17,000-strong Catalan police force under their control. However, the signs are that they do not trust the Catalan police to discipline angry crowds of fellow Catalans demanding entrance to polling stations.
That impression will only have been strengthened by a September 21 circular by Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero, in which he stated that force should only be used in the very last instance, when public order was under threat.
In the intensifying battle for hearts and minds, the Rajoy government’s message of the need to defend “the law” is now being repeated ad nauseam by the mainstream Spanish media.
“Opinion formers” get apoplectic about the “lawless secessionist threat”, but the Catalan case doesn’t even get a look-in — with the possible exception of the program El Intermedio on the Sixth channel.
The Spanish public is thus being prepared to feel that Catalonia “had it coming” if the Rajoy government decides to use more of the “instruments of the rule of law” at its disposal — such as fully suspending the Catalan government, arresting its leaders or closing down Catalan public media. It also prepares the public for any disturbing footage that might emerge of ordinary people being bashed for insisting on their right to vote.
The level of protest and resistance provoked in Catalonia by the PP government’s legal aggression already has the potential to lead to a major political crisis in the Spanish state.
In the short run, the minority Rajoy government enjoys majority parliamentary support for its crackdown against Catalonia. This support is enthusiastic on the part of new right hipster party Citizens, and obedient but sometimes shamefaced on the part of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), the traditional social democratic party.
However, given the prospect of an intensifying spiral of Catalan protest and Spanish police repression, the PSOE could increasingly pay for its complicity with the PP’s iron fist. Stress levels in its Catalan sister organisation — the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) — are rising, as more PSC mayors and members demand an end to the repression.
If that continues — as seems certain — Unidos Podemos would then be placed to win the struggle with the PSOE for leadership of the left. The greater the mass resistance in Catalonia, the more possible that outcome will be.
At the time of writing (September 21), the unity between the Catalan mass organisations, the government and the bulk of citizens supporting a Catalan right to decide (between 70% and 80%) is clear. The signs are that the mass of supporters of Catalan sovereignty are taking to heart the call of Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras: “We [the government] have done what we can, but only the people can save the people.”
On September 21, an all-day demonstration outside the courthouse hearing the charges against the arrested officials swelled to tens of thousands; students staged sit-downs on one of Barcelona’s main thoroughfares; a debate among pro-independence leaders before a crowd of a thousand at the Autonomous University has confronted the issue of when, where and how to carry out a general strike in support of the referendum; “illegal” mass paste-ups have attracted so much support that the police and Civil Guard have had to leave them alone; and, at 10pm, the night’s cassolada was as noisy as the one 24 hours before.
Late in the day, Puigdemont reassured Catalonia that the referendum would go ahead, announcing a new website where voters could find out where they should vote. He concluded by saying that every vote — for or against independence — would be a blow against the authoritarian and arrogant PP government.
Given the atmosphere in Catalonia, those words were an invitation for ever-greater mobilisations to make sure that October 1 happens.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An extended and updated version of this article will soon appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]