If you have visited Barcelona in the past two years, you may have seen, alongside the senyera estelada, the pro-independence flag, yellow ribbons looped around railings, graffitied on walls, or hanging on flags from balconies with Llibertat Presos Polítics (Free Political Prisoners) emblazoned across it. The yellow ribbons are used to show solidarity for the Catalan politicians and activists who were jailed after the attempted illegal referendum in October 2017, and to demand their freedom.
Catalonia is a north-eastern autonomous region of Spain with its own regional government and a separate cultural identity because of its language, traditions, and distinct history. Since modern Spain was formed from the union of different kingdoms, Catalonia has had a complex relationship with Spain’s central government.
When my grandparents were growing up, they had to be careful when and where they spoke their language, for fear of repercussions. In my time, the pro-independence movement in Catalonia has grown rapidly, arguably due to the refusal of successive Spanish governments to establish any meaningful dialogue about an independence referendum, or even a moderate constitutional reform to accommodate Catalan demands for a more effective self-government. In truth, it was the overturning by the Constitutional Court of the Catalan statute of autonomy in 2010, which the people had already approved, that first led many Catalans to demand independence. As I write, the president of the Spanish government is refusing to even pick up the phone to the president of the Generalitat (Catalonia’s government) to discuss how to address the crisis in the streets.
This culminated in the Catalan government (whose majority party at the time was a coalition of pro-independence parties) unilaterally deciding to hold a referendum on 1 October 2017. On that Sunday, over two million people came out to try to vote. At this point, the Spanish government responded with disproportionate violence. The people who left their houses to vote were met by the Guardia Civil, Spain’s national military police force, who beat them with batons as they tried to place their ballot papers, and who smashed into polling booths, harming many civilians. In the days that followed, most members of the Generalitat, the speaker of the Parliament, and two leaders of grassroots pro-independence movements, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, were arrested. Others, including ex-President Puigdemont, chose exile rather than trust the Spanish judiciary, which has proved notoriously partial on this issue. Those arrested were tried for up to thirty years in prison on the charges of rebellion and sedition. Last Monday, after a two year investigation and trial, the sentences were announced.
Was this jailing proportionate according to the legal system? Although the referendum was not legal, the demand to have the right to vote on the independence of a region and the attempt to have a referendum were completely peaceful. Some people held flowers in their hands as the riot police beat them with batons, and the phrase “som gent de pau” (‘we are people of peace’) became popular on placards and in chants. Yet, these politicians and activists were charged and tried for rebellion, which is by definition a violent act – “an act of armed resistance to an established government or leader”, and found guilty of sedition, with sentence lengths comparable to those reserved for terrorism and rape. Should political dissidence make you a criminal? I believe that these sentences were not justice, they were revenge. One could even argue that they were a tool to further immobilise the pro-independence movement.
Last Monday, most of the leaders were sentenced to between nine and thirteen years in prison. In response, people in Barcelona and all around Catalonia took to the streets to protest, and on Monday thousands of people occupied Barcelona airport. Constant protests every day this week have seen police brutality to an extreme not seen in Catalonia since the death of Franco.
This week, for the first time some of the protesters, albeit a minority, resorted to some acts of violence, with a few policemen injured from rocks thrown by protestors. Protestors have also been burning bins in the streets of Barcelona in order to create barricades between themselves and rows of riot police. It is important to note, however, that this small number of acts is in response to police brutality: I follow various Instagram accounts to which people have sent in videos of policemen beating people that they have already arrested, of people who are sitting or walking peacefully being bombarded by four or five policemen beating them at the same time. I have seen videos of a child being hit, police vans purposefully driving into protestors, and four people have lost one of their eyes; just on Saturday, nearly two hundred people were injured. Rubber bullets have also been used, and tear gas thrown by police from the top floors of buildings. My friends in Barcelona have sent me photos of huge purple bruises that spill over their arms and legs, and a friend of a friend has had the top of their head split open by a baton.
These videos cannot be found in the mainstream Spanish media. Amongst the violence this week and in general since 2017, the Spanish press has been giving a biased and distorted account of the political conflict in Catalonia. This week’s reports from Spain’s main newspapers, in particular ABC and El Mundo, have focussed on victimising the few wounded police, and not reporting the wounded protesters. They have also expressed their belief that the Spanish government is not being harsh enough to protesters, and that it should intervene immediately and take over the Generalitat.
When the Spanish justice system tried the two main leaders of the grassroots pro-independence movement, the “two Jordis” as they are known, they unnecessarily imprisoned leaders that had always defended explicitly peaceful civil disobedience. After years of protesting massively and peacefully, of making pacifism a core belief of the pro-independence movement, this week people questioned why they should not turn to aggression if they would be imprisoned anyway. If you come to protests, exercising your civil right to political demonstration, with your hands held up, but leave with your face stained with blood, would you hold strong in your belief for absolutely no political violence? Most pro-independence Catalans still do, but the more radical ones, particularly young people, are beginning to question this.
In the place of the two Jordis came Tsunami Democràtic, another grassroots movement which organised the demonstrations this week. Yet, this movement is less explicitly pacifist than the one that came before, and seems prepared to disrupt on a more extreme level: for example, the occupation of the airport on Monday, and the burning of bins in the streets. What happens when you remove the peaceful leaders, and sentence them to disproportionate sentences? Something more provocative comes in its place. This does not make violence justifiable, but it helps to explain how people turn to it.
The justice system in Spain is clearly flawed: by unnecessarily criminalising leaders committed to a peaceful democratic process, after the government had already treated peaceful demonstrators with police brutality, it has further radicalised the independence movement.