On Tuesday morning, the day Catalonians shut down their part of Spain, thousands of young people carrying Catalan flags and hand-lettered signs jammed the narrow street outside the police headquarters in Barcelona, chanting and singing to protest police violence against voters in last week’s independence referendum.
A row of grim-faced Catalan police in berets stood in front of the police building, keeping the protesters back. Behind them, in an alley, stood a group of national police in riot gear, looking uneasy and menacing, ready to move in if heads needed smashing.
But Catalan protesters are not violent, and the students didn’t want to attack the Mossos—the Catalan police in front of them. They taunted the national police, made rude gestures at them, but repeatedly shouted in support of the Mossos, chanting “Our Police! Our Police!” in Catalan.
Later, I saw people on the street stop to applaud when the Mossos drove by, their sirens wailing, nee-nar nee-nar.
The Mossos are popular in Barcelona right now because on Sunday they ignored orders to disrupt voting in the referendum.
A constitutional court in Madrid had ruled that the referendum—any independence referendum—was illegal, so Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sent in thousands of riot police, who went to polling stations in schools across Catalonia, swinging batons at the school children and grandmothers guarding the ballot boxes, sending more than 800 to hospital.
In protest, Catalans held a general strike on Tuesday. Hundreds of thousands draped themselves with flags and filled the broad boulevards of Barcelona, singing and chanting. They were mostly young—students enjoying a day off from classes and the chance to protest a clear injustice—but everyone here is shocked and angry.
“It’s incredible now, in the year 2017,” said a bearded, bespectacled man in his 60s queuing for coffee in one of the few cafes open downtown during the strike. “Incredible. Spain is not democracia. It’s the same as Germany in 1936.”
MORE: If Spain wants to lose Catalonia, it will keep up its brutality
For urbane, prosperous, liberal Catalans, the events bring back bad memories of Generalísimo Francisco Franco, of old doomed battles against southern Spanish authoritarianism.
At the end of the day, after the protesters had gone home, leaving their empty beer cans in orderly piles next to the overflowing trash cans, Spanish King Felipe VI made a rare televised address, attacking the Catalan authorities, saying they “have placed themselves outside the law and democracy.”
This is the central argument from Madrid. The Spanish constitution is based on the “indissoluble unity” of Spain, so any referendum is illegal and therefore anti-democratic.
Catalans are aware that not all countries take the same approach.
Marc LLorens, 19, an economics student, told me Catalans only want what Quebecers have: the right to vote on their future.
“Most of the people in Catalonia feel an example for us would be the situation of Canada and Quebec because most of us feel the Spanish government should support a referendum like the Canadian government did.”
You can’t look at the protests in Barcelona and conclude that Madrid’s approach is wiser.
A decade ago, only a small minority of Catalans supported independence. The support has slowly but steadily grown as the central government rejected Meech Lake-style arrangements that would have given the area greater autonomy, including the designation of Catalonia as a nation within Spain.
By frustrating Catalan demands for more powers, refusing to allow a referendum, arresting secessionist politicians, cracking down on political parties and, finally, beating civilians trying to peacefully conduct an election, Madrid has pushed ambivalent Catalans into the arms of the secessionists.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is preparing to use the referendum result—92 per cent in favour—to make a unilateral declaration of independence, which may lead the central government take over the Catalan government, sending the hated Guardia Civil to enforce edicts from Madrid.
The central government has charged the Catalan police chief with sedition for failing to carry out its orders to stop the referendum, setting up a struggle for the loyalty of the Mossos.
Puigdemont want the European Union to mediate, but Madrid has refused, and many EU countries have restive national minorities of their own and can’t afford to lecture the Spaniards.
Does Puigdemont have a plan, as Jacques Parizeau did at the time of the 1995 referendum, to woo elements of the security forces after a declaration of independence? If so, there could be fighting in the streets of Barcelona again, for the first time since the Spanish Civil War.
Montserrat Guibernau, a sociology professor at the University of Cambridge, says the violence has pushed her father, all his life a proud Spaniard, into supporting Catalan independence.
“There are many people in Catalonia who lived through the Spanish Civil War, people that thought that they would never have an experience like this again,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “My father, who is now 92, is devastated by the current situation. He is just going through a nightmare twice.”
Guibernau, who has lived in Quebec and studied nationalism there and in Catalonia for decades, says that cultural attitudes to political violence may explain the contrast between the legalistic approach of Ottawa compared with Madrid’s authoritarianism.
“It is true that the image of what’s permissible and what is not permissible has very different nuances if you are in Quebec or if you are in Spain.”
Like Quebec, Catalonia is a nascent country, a cultural nation inside a larger state. It has most of the things a country needs, including millions speaking a distinct language and a cosmopolitan metropolis. But unlike Quebec, Catalonia is richer than the rest of Spain, and transfers an estimated eight per cent of its GDP to the rest of the country in taxes every year, making the economic argument for separating stronger than it is in Quebec.
Still, as in Quebec, opinion is divided on whether Catalans would really be better off declaring independence or sticking with the larger state, a division between practical matters of public administration and a kind of national yearning, which doesn’t need to be practical to be a powerful political force.
Faced with this division of feeling in a viable potential nation, a central government can take the approach that Canada and Britain have taken, and admit that your country might be—in certain circumstances to be determined at a later date after a lot of long and boring meetings—divisible—or you can do what the Spanish have done, and say never, under any circumstances. No. Forget it. And stop talking about it. Or else.
There is no doubt that the second approach feeds nationalist movements, which thrive on oppression, but it offers one big advantage—you don’t risk losing part of your country—so long as you don’t mind swinging batons at grandmothers and schoolchildren.
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