Catalonia referendum: the insurrection against the Spanish state is reaching a decisive climax

September 29, 2017
Firefighters march through Barcelona on September 28 in support of the October 1 referendum on independence.

The war without guns between the Spanish state and the 80% majority of Catalan people who support their parliament’s October 1 independence referendum is reaching a climax at the time of writing on September 29.

On October 1, it will become clear whether the Catalans have humiliated the central Spanish People’s Party (PP) government by succeeding to vote; suffered a setback because the 10,000 Spanish National Police and paramilitary Civil Guards in Catalonia succeed in closing polling stations; or achieved a mixed result due to only some voters getting into polling stations.

In this decisive battle in Catalonia’s long struggle for self-determination against a centralised Spanish state, the answers finally given to some tough questions will decide the outcome.

Police response?

For example, will the Catalan police (the Mossos d’Esquadra) carry out the role the Spanish state prosecutor and judge of the High Court of Justice of Catalonia (TSJC) have sadistically assigned them?

This is to seal off a 100 metre perimeter around all polling stations by September 30 and defend it — if needed with the help of the Civil Guard and Spanish National Police — against those seeking to vote.

This may sound like a simple policing operation, but education unions and parents associations have already developed a counter tactic: to keep schools open all weekend with programs of activities. They are inviting parents, students and the community to participate: in short, organising school occupations.

This means that on October 1, the schools that make up two-thirds of voting centres will be full of people inside and surrounded by people seeking to vote outside. Mossos d’Esquadra leaders have said that in this situation, they will not take action that would worsen public security.

Faced with this, will the Civil Guard and Spanish National Police try to force the Catalan police to act against their fellow Catalans? How would the Catalan police respond?

On September 27, Mossos d’Esquadra head Josep Lluis Trapero informed the TSJC and the Spanish state prosecutor that the Catalan police would carry out instructions to seal off polling centres. However, they would do so in accordance with the three principles of “guaranteeing public order and citizen safety and avoiding a greater evil”.

Given this, Catalan daily Ara pointed out on September 28 that only a mobilisation large enough to dissuade police action would guarantee that the referendum would take place.

Blows and counterblows

This challenge is well understood by the Catalan government, the Catalan social organisations organising volunteers in the referendum and the growing mass of people committed to ensuring it happens.

That awareness showed in the rapid response to the instruction to seal off the schools and other voting centres, and hand keys and security codes to police. The Spanish state prosecutor in Catalonia issued the instruction on September 26 (without a court order) and it was repeated the next day by a TSJC judge.

Yet by September 27, the education collective We Are School, the Alliance of Education Workers Unions of Catalonia (USTEC) and General Union of Workers (UGT) had launched the campaign Let’s Open The Schools.

The Open Schools web site — through which people could offer to maintain school occupations — was set up at the same time: in one day it attracted more than 50,000 volunteers.

For its part, the Catalan government, sensitive to the situation of school principals and community health centre directors, had its health and education ministers assume collective responsibility for all polling stations in schools and health centres.

This was a counter to the TSJC judge’s order, which made these principals and directors legally responsible for ensuring centres were kept closed.

On September 28, in a ceremony in the central Catalan government building in Barcelona, hundreds of school principals handed over the keys to their centres to Catalan Premier Carles Puigdemont. The act symbolised the Catalan government taking responsibility for having schools open on October 1.

Puigdemont said: “[The government] will go right to the end in taking responsibility for October 1 ... Thank you for your perseverance, for everything that you have done and will do — not for the government, not for the parliament, but for the citizens.

“Going to vote has turned into an epic, heroic exercise. I understand the anguish of everyone, because we have all become targets of threats and intimidation.”

To the familiar chant of “We Will Vote”, the short ceremony ended with a new addition: “We Will Open.”

Growing insurrection

In his speech, Puigdemont said that “for every difficulty there are two solutions, for every threat three hopes”. He added: “There is a growing multitude of people who are joining the new majority who want to vote.”

This last comment referred to the extraordinary growth of the movement in support of the referendum since September 20, when Civil Guard raids on Catalan government buildings led to arrests of 13 senior government officials. That evening, 40,000 people gathered outside the Catalan economy ministry while Civil Guards inside combed through files and computers.

On that night, deputy premier Oriol Junqueras first uttered the phrase that has become a sort of motto of the movement: “The government has done all it can, but only the people can save the people.”

Since then, the movement to ensure the referendum happens has expanded so rapidly in Barcelona, other main provincial capitals and in “the shires” that it has been very difficult to keep track. Major features to date have been:

  • University students go into action. The flood of university students into the campaign first became visible on September 21: they were dominant among the 20,000 protesting outside the TSJC building in support of Catalan government officials who had been detained the previous day.

Since then, the epicentre of student activism has been the occupation and sit-in at Barcelona University known as “Caputxinada 2017” — a reference to a famous 1966 anti-dictatorship teach-in that was held in a Capuchin monastery.

The occupation has already been the site of a broad September 29 public meeting involving both pro-independence parties — Together For The Yes (JxSí) and the People’s Unity List (CUP) — as well as deputy Barcelona mayor Gerardo Pisarello from Barcelona en Comú.

It was also the organising centre for a September 28-29 university student strike, as well as a practical help centre for people to find out where to vote.

Other Catalan universities have been the focus of discussions about how the movement for the referendum can best advance.

  • The entry of high school students. On September 27-28, high school students entered the struggle for the referendum with a 48-hour strike that featured marches down highways and teach-ins in schools.

The sight of high school students marching out of school in support of an “illegal” referendum caused apoplexy in the ranks of the ruling PP. The Spanish education minister instructed prosecutors to investigate if teachers were complicit in the walk-outs. The leader of the PP in Catalonia called for education to be taken away from regional governments and recentralised under the Spanish government.

  • The unions begin to stir. The more militant unions, most notably firefighters, are mobilising to defend the referendum. The firefighters union resolved to carry pro-referendum propaganda on fire trucks, participate as organised contingents in pro-referendum demonstrations and have offered to defend polling stations.

On September 28, Barcelona firefighters marched through the city to the Barcelona University occupation. They then erected a huge four-story-high banner reading “Democracy!” outside the Museum of Catalan History.

The broad union movement — covering the two main confederations, Workers Commissions (CCOO) and the General Union of Labour (UGT), but also the anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT) and other radical forces — is being shaken up by a discussion over how and when to hold a general strike.

The CGT and other smaller unions have announced they will strike between October 3 and October 8.

  • Other social sectors. As with fire trucks, so with tractors. Rural Catalonia has been the site of tractor processions in support of October 1. Farmers supporting the referendum are also organising to defend polling stations with their tractors.

Since September 20, there have also been statements — often taken out as full-page advertisements in the print media — from other Catalonian sectors: small and medium business’s “Lighthouse Manifesto” giving “unconditional support to the process launched by our parliament”; a statement from 3000 cultural workers condemning the police intervention and supporting October 1; statements from progressive Christian organisations in favour of Catalonia’s right to self-determination; and small printers and photocopying shops forming a network to help the Catalan government with printing in case of further Civil Guard confiscations.


The fight between the Spanish government and the Catalan movement has escalated almost daily. In a rising tide of legal and police attacks, there have been more than 90 actions and more 140 web sites closed down since September 6. The growing counter-tide of revolt is making the political price for the PP government very high.

A September 28 El Mon article quoted “a source close to the government who did not wish to be identified” who acknowledged this reality.

Yet, as the same source remarked, for the Spanish government, the cost of retreat would be higher. Therefore, all the remaining police and legal resources under Madrid’s command are to be hurled against the Catalan movement.

The Catalan mass organisations have called on every supporter of the country’s right to decide to make a last effort to ensure that this aggression fails — and that as a result, the PP administration experiences its own richly deserved crisis.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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