In English Voices From Spain

Inside the Catalan hurricane – Part III: «October 1st.»

Excerpts from: “En el huracán catalán. Una mirada privilegiada del procés” a book by Sandrine Morel Ed. Planeta 2018

Chapter 20.
October 1st. And that which was feared came to be.

Everything was ready for the high-risk, illegal referendum. In the preceding days, some people in the secessionist camp tried to convince Puigdemont to desist from holding the referendum. So told me later a PDeCAT MP who feared the voting would unleash violence.

On October 1st, a soon as I wake up, I go to the poll station at Fort Pienc. What is going to happen? Everything seems possible. The court order that requires police to seize ballot boxes instructs that the operation shall not upset “social peace”, which leaves ample margin for interpretation. Anyway, it seems evident that the six thousand police members deployed since mid September are not going to continue playing just a passive role, since its obvious that their mere presence has not served as a deterrent.

When I arrive at the polling station (a school), around 08:00am, I find a huge waiting line that goes around the building. The place is not open yet, but many people have been here since 05:00am to disuade police from intervening. Parents, locked inside the school with the ballot boxes -which had arrived just a few minutes earlier in the car of an anonymous activist-, block the the doors from the inside. I talk with several persons. Some express their views in favor of independence with serenity. Others display their hatred for Spain without reservations. Others just limit themselves to invoke the need for democracy to triumph. […]

After making sure there is no police presence in the surrounding area, except for two mossos [Catalan regional police -TN] chatting against a wall in front of the school without paying attention to the crowd, I decide to go and visit other polling stations. I had been invited as a guest in the Cadena SER morning radio show A vivir que son dos días. I arrive late at the radio studio, in Casp street, but I had warned the producer in advance that my priority was to cover the vote. In fact, when I get into the studio -where New York Times correspondent Raphael Minder and Deutschlandfunk German radio station correspondent Hans-Günter Kellner were already sitting- and I see the first images of police charges in the screen I turn back and leave. The violence in those images stands in contrast to the calm I had witnessed in Fort Pienc school. I explain to the show producer that under such circumstances, I need to go immediately to the place where news are unfolding. Although I thought there could be a police intervention, I was not expecting such shocking images.

One hundred meters away from there, in front of the Sagrat cor de Jesús school, still in the same Casp street, people are queueing to vote, but they complain about computer glitches. Spanish government announces they have deactivated the vote-count system, but the Generalitat is working relentlessly to restore it.

[…] Diego Torres, a colleague from tells me of a clash at Ramon Llull school. We take a taxi to go there, along with Georges Bartoli, a photographer for Le Monde. When we arrive, there are still a lot of people. Huddling on the sidewalk and on the middle of the Diagonal avenue, they talk about what happened. I walk close to an ambulance I had seen farther away. I’m only able to see the paramedics put inside a man on a stretcher with a wound close to his eye. A young man claiming to be a journalist calls several colleagues. I get close to him. He takes a rubber ball from his pocket and he assures that the police started shooting, “suddenly” on the crowd. He gives me the ball, explaining that this type of projectile is banned in Catalonia. I hold it my hand, impressed by its weight, and I give it back. I cannot understand the police decision to employ these projectiles. I decide to look for other witnesses, but most of the people gathered there arrived after the battle. I walk towards a young couple, wearing hoodies and piercings, who are talking about the events. The young man describes to me how the events unfolded: police arrived and tried to enter the school to seize the ballot boxes, the protesters resisted and, in the end, the police agents managed to enter and yank the boxes from the organizers hands. “When they came out, policemen tried to walk up this street, but dozens of people blocked their way, and more and more people were arriving as reinforcements. They turned back and tried to go in the opposite direction but we also blocked them down the street. We had them surrounded!”, he explains with enthusiasm and pride, unaware of what his words actually convey. In summary, they surrounded armed policemen, they blocked their way, they ambushed them. […]

I go back to the hotel to start writing. I watch images of the police clashes in TV3 again, in loop. They are hard. I don’t think their relevance stems from the violence they show. Actually, they are common whenever police disperse protesters. They are impactful because, while we have grown accustomed to see young anarchists taking beatings in demonstrations against globalization or austerity, we are not used to seeing older people, mothers, shirt-wearing civil servants or tietes -those archetypical bourgeois women, around sixty, with perfect hairdos, that represent traditional Catalan society- dragged through the ground. Even less so when it’s in the act of protecting some ballot boxes. The effect is demolishing for the image of the state.

Nonetheless, the surprise and the rage of secessionist leaders does not match with what they have stated and repeated to me for months. For many of them, it was necessary to push the state all the way to the limit and force it to react, if possible in a disproportionate manner. Rajoy’s silence and indifference was unbearable for them, because it gave them cause neither to push forward nor retreat.

Chapter 21.
A hard digestion.

[…] During that time, days and days, TV3 continues to show a loop of the police violence scenes with varied and odd excuses. A young injured woman, who had assured a police agent had broken her fingers one by one, is forced to retract and acknowledges she simply has a swollen finger. In contrast, the man I had seen in that stretcher has lost sight in one eye. The version according to which he was simply going home when he got hit is rectified by the images that show him throwing a barricade fence against the police and attacked a police agent. This does not justify the use of rubber balls. A controversy is also growing surrounding the actual number of injured people. In Catalonia, all authorities talk about more than 800 injured people. I decide to get in contact with the Spanish desk chief for Agence France Presse (AFP), Michaëla Cancela-Kiefer, to find out why this French news agency is the only one reporting “at least 92 injured”. She explains it’s hard to avoid being manipulated by potentially false information: “On Sunday, October 1st, when I called to the press office at the Catalan Department of Health, at midday, they told me around 400 people had required medical assistance. I then asked what that meant. Where they counting, for example, someone with a headache or anxiety in those figures? The answer was ‘yes’. So I asked for detailed data. It turns out the actual number of people considered injured was ninety. To that figure, one has to add two people that had been hospitalized. The controversy around the number kept growing and, as the day continued, the press office blocked the information When we called later, they refused to give any detailed data anymore”. […]

Generalitat leaders are convinced that the images of the police charges are hard enough to force Brussels into a reaction. But they are wrong. They believe that if they push forward, Madrid will invoke Article 155 [Spanish Constitution article that allows for suspending a regional government -TN]. And they warn me, with a self-assured tone: if the central government suspends Catalonia’s autonomy, Europe will intervene. They are wrong about this too, but they still don’t know it. I ask a French diplomat about this issue, who does not hide his surprise: “Why would such a suspension shock us?”, he says, worried about the recklessness of Catalan leaders who, in his opinion, have not learned that many of history’s catastrophes have been the result of an uncontrolled succession of events. He explains his disappointment because, since the summer, when the moderates jumped ship, not a single “sensible” contact is left in the Generalitat. […]

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