Historic protests take Catalonia to centre-stage in Spanish politics once again

October 25, 2019
One of the Freedom Marches heading for Barcelona. Photo: VilaWeb.cat

The final act in a week of protest in Catalonia, against the vindictive jail terms imposed on nine Catalan leaders by the Spanish Supreme Court on October 14, was a general strike and vast demonstration in the capital, Barcelona.

However, if you had been following Catalonia on Spanish state-run media, you would have been forgiven for not noticing such trivia. They were full of violent street battles between Catalan and Spanish police and groups of mainly young people, against a background of barricades made of burning rubbish bins.

Infuriated by the verdict, frustrated with the strategy of the established independence movement (seen as “getting nowhere”), and most of all, outraged by police violence, young Catalans, who had never been on a barricade in their lives, decided that “direct action” was the only solution.

By October 15, a double dynamic of protest had set in — peaceful mass action by day and clashes between police and demonstrators by night.

After seven days of convulsions, news emerged that Spanish National Police officers, who had been thrown into Barcelona to quash the protests, were sending WhatsApp messages such as: “This is a bloody war. You can’t imagine what’s going on here, it’s a bloody war.”

The Spanish media’s “coverage” also helped stir a counter-impulse within the Catalan sovereignty movement.  It led to the emergence of peaceful sit-downs, a tactic to separate the police from the groups behind the barricades.

By then, however, the clashes had left 576 people injured.

Political reactions

Spanish general elections are set for November 10 and political reactions to the disturbances came thick and fast.

Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, the People’s Party’s (PP) pathologically Spanish-unionist candidate for Barcelona and Inés Arrimades, Citizens’ lead Catalanophobe in the Spanish Congress, both raced to hold media conferences against the backdrop of still-smouldering rubbish.

The Civil Guard closed down the Democratic Tsunami platform’s website — the organising medium of the “citizen response to the Supreme Court decision” — on October 18.

The National High Court judge who ordered the site’s closure is also investigating nine members of the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) on possible terrorism charges.

On the same day, Spanish interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska announced that “we will soon find out who’s behind them” and that “violent independence supporters” would be met with the full force of the law.

The pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament — Together for Catalonia (JxCat), the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the People’s Unity lists (CUP) — failed to find a united response to the sentence and the events following it, presenting no motion to the October 17 parliamentary session.

This had changed by October 22, when they tabled a joint resolution condemning the sentences, and indicating that the parliament would not abide by Constitutional Court rulings as to what it could and could not discuss.

If adopted, the resolution will set the scene for a new round of conflict between Catalonia’s legislators and the Spanish legal system.

Week of indignation

The opening shot in the week of protest came only three hours after the announcement of the sentences, when Democratic Tsunami called on its subscribers to occupy Barcelona’s El Prat airport, 15km from the city centre.

The reaction was immediate and huge. Twenty-five thousand university and high school students dissolved their demonstration in Barcelona’s centre and set off to the airport, joining a crowd that was already overwhelming the bus, train and metro services.

Thousands had to walk the full distance to El Prat. There, despite the desperate efforts of the Catalan and Spanish police to defend its many entrances and exits, the airport was soon occupied.

Police then unleashed a series of brutal attacks, including driving their vehicles into demonstrators. More than 100 flights had to be cancelled that day, which ended with 115 people, including 11 journalists, needing medical attention.

The next day, the Spanish government issued a statement claiming the events cast doubt on the peaceful nature of the Catalan movement, while Catalan Vice-President Pere Aragonès (ERC) called in vain for those fighting the police to be isolated by the movement: “Let’s not hand them what they want, a disguised 155 [the threat of suspension of Catalan self-rule under article 155 of the Spanish constitution].”

Clashes increased the next day, fed by indignation at the police operations. After a CDR protest, barricades went up in central Barcelona and demonstrators started adding Molotov cocktails and fireworks to the rocks and paving stones they had been using as ammunition.

Strikes and road blocks

A three-day student strike began on October 16, with the Autonomous University of Barcelona suspending classes following demands by students who had occupied the vice-chancellor’s office.

Striking students also cut off one of Barcelona’s major ring roads, adding to the scores of road blocks that continued to be set up across Catalonia.

Freedom Marches to Barcelona from five provincial cities began on October 16, involving at least double the number of participants the organisers — Òmnium Cultural and the ANC — had envisaged.

These marches became a walking mass discussion about the differences within the movement and the pros and cons of the physical confrontations of the past two days.

The first of many demonstrations across the Spanish state, against the sentence and in support of Catalonia’s right of self-determination, was held in Madrid’s Plaza del Sol on October 16.

At this point the courts started to charge those arrested during the previous two nights’ disturbances, while the Constitutional Court threatened the Catalan government and parliament with sanctions if they disobeyed its prohibitions.

The political prisoners also issued a joint statement: “All our support to massive and peaceful mobilisations and marches. Any violence does not represent us.”

Catalonia paralysed

Huge student marches took place during the day on October 17, while street clashes with the police continued by night.

In the Catalan parliament, President Quim Torra raised the possibility of conducting another unilateral referendum. From Scotland, former Catalan education minister Clara Ponsati proposed three immediate demands for the movement: “Peace” [remove the Spanish police forces], “Amnesty” [for the political prisoners] and “Self-determination” [compel the Spanish state to accept a Scottish-style referendum].

With the general strike now under way, the swollen Freedom Marches entered Barcelona to applause, chanting and singing from bystanders on October 18. The marches seemed endless, stretching up to five kilometres and taking up to 70 minutes to pass.

The independentist unions stated that adherence to the strike equalled that of previous general strikes, including October 3, 2017, held in response to police violence.

The culminating mass protest rally in central Barcelona, involving at least 525,000 people, brought the entire city to a standstill, while 60,000 demonstrated in Girona — equal to the largest demonstration in the city’s history — also on October 3, 2017.

At nightfall, burning barricades were set up in Barcelona’s Urquinaona Square, beginning the most violent and prolonged clashes yet between police and demonstrators. Ambulance officers attended to 182 people, including 80 police.

A demonstration demanding the release of those arrested during the week was held in central Barcelona on October 19, behind a cordon of volunteers standing between police and protestors.

The presence of On a Peaceful Footing collective and other respected organisations such as the Open Arms refugee rescue collective, the Street-Sellers Union and the Firefighters for the Republic had a dissuasive effect on those who wanted to keep up confrontations with the police.

When some people started hurling bottles and smoke bombs at the police they were called to order by the demonstrators.

Who is on the barricades?

The sudden eruption of street fighting and burning barricades into the independence scene has disconcerted and alarmed Catalan public opinion, for whom its strategic line of peaceful, mass civil disobedience is a critical asset.

It has also led to facile attributions of the violence of October 14–19 to foreign members of the “black bloc” and provocateurs. Yet, the overwhelming majority of the young people who have been confronting the police are Catalans, the “sons and daughters of the referendum”.

Vicent Partal, editor of the online journal Vilaweb, came to their defence in an October 19 comment piece, in which he decried the criminalising of young people who have been standing up against “indescribable police violence”.

“Can we be surprised that Catalonia’s young people — who were taken to all the vast pro-independence demonstrations and taught to shout “October 1, not forgotten, not forgiven!” — have become frustrated with the non-violent civil disobedience that has not moved the Spanish state nor the European Commission a millimetre?

Their intense frustration is the real source of the confrontations.

Notwithstanding, the impact of the October 14–19 week of street fighting on the war of attrition between the Spanish state and Catalonia has, in the immediate term, been negative.

It has pushed the debate over the Supreme Court sentence into the background and given the Spanish government a useful lever with which to work on the tensions within the Catalan government — threatening a new suspension of self-rule if Barcelona does not quash the protests.

The situation has been made worse by the failure of any Catalan spokesperson of authority to express understanding for the young people, even if disagreeing with their tactics.

With less than three weeks to go, the turmoil of the Catalan struggle will determine the result of the November 10 Spanish election.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. For updates on Catalan’s struggle, follow Foreign Friends of Catalonia on Twitter, or visit the website. You can stay up to date and read past articles in GLW’s coverage of Catalonia here.]

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