On the 10th October Catalonia’s President, Carles Puigdemont, declared independence for the region, only to suspend it seconds later in order to negotiate with the Spanish government. This has caused mixed reactions in Catalonia, Spain, and the international community.
This is part one of a two part blog series by our intern Zahia. She explains her personal experience of the ‘unconstitutional’ referendum that took place on the 1st October, and what is going on with the process of independence in Catalonia.
You can read part two here.
“I am going to vote no, but I am going to vote”
It was 6am in a very rainy Barcelona, I overslept. I was hoping to arrive at 5am as the civil society organisations that were pushing for the referendum had indicated: Catalonian police, the “Mossos” were instructed to close polling stations unless doing it “could cause major civil problems”. People had to protect themselves way before the polls opened if they wanted to be able to vote.
When I arrived to the polling station the first thing that struck me was how solidarity between longtime neighbours was patent. Stories of darker times in the past could be heard. A middle aged woman was standing nearby the door visibly upset; I heard her exclaiming in Spanish: “I am going to vote no, but I am going to vote”. Other neighbours thanked her, some in Catalan, some in Spanish. It was not about independence - they said - but democracy.
The crowd was diverse, from children with their parents, to older citizens of the community. Some of them had been there since Friday evening, parents that had to pick up their children from school decided to stay there knowing that if not, the Mossos would shut it. Young people that substituted those parents, with the mattresses they had been using during the weekend, and older people coming from their homes with warm tea and coffee to share. All of them united by their will to vote.
Human rights observers arrived prior to the Mossos getting to at the polling station. People listened very closely, leaflets describing how to act if police abuse were to happen were handed out. Whilst police brutality to peaceful voters from Spanish national police sent a shockwave through international media, under Sunday’s early rain, many Catalans expected it. At this point, roughly half past six, ballot boxes had not yet arrived.
Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s Prime Minister, had repeatedly said that the vote was not going to be held. Spanish national police and Spanish civil guards raided printing houses, newspaper headquarters, warehouses, and were able to successfully seize 2.5+ million ballot papers and 100+ ballot boxes. Any advertisements related to the unconstitutional referendum were forbidden, those private media that refused to stop broadcasting advertisements received threats from the Spanish courts to be held criminally liable if they didn’t stop broadcasting them.
However the referendum was still going to be held. Using the routes that exiled Catalans used under Franco, ballot boxes were being safely kept in Elna - a little village part of the Catalan-speaking area of France also known as “North Catalonia”. Volunteers, who were not aligned with any political party, crossed the border in their private cars, with ballot boxes hidden in rubbish bags. At 7am and the ballot boxes arrived at Drassanes School through a back door. Chants of “we will vote” started, cheers and weeping eyes could be seen in that small local school. The Mossos, already on the scene, observed this calmly. Once the ballot boxes were inside, there was nothing that they could do. Shortly afterwards, they left. Even though the most tense moment had passed at this polling station, people stayed there, receiving the first news about police brutality in Catalonia on their mobile phones.
A phone call to one of the activists suggested that a nearby polling station was not protected caused distress. This is how, at roughly half past nine, I ended up in the Official Language School of Barcelona-Drassanes, at the other end of Les Rambles. Given the location and size of the polling station, organisers expected that their fate would be that same as other polling stations of similar characteristics around Catalonia - with police raids and people injured. When I arrived, the Mossos, who tried to do more of an attempt of closing the station than in the one that I previously was, were leaving followed by a crowd loudly chanting “we will vote”.
People organised themselves in order to be able to protect the polling station: the youngsters willing to face police brutality in the front and an orderly queue for the elderly, pregnant women, families with children and those that weren’t willing to suffer the consequences of the police arriving. As more and more images and videos of police brutality were arriving from different parts of Catalonia, more and more people arrived and stayed the whole day protecting the polling station.
Even without the Spanish national police, voting wasn’t easy. The Spanish government took down the software that it was supposed to be used and closed polling stations. Some people weren’t able to vote and fear was very much a thing. This is probably why, every time that voters exited the polling station with smiley faces, the crowd will burst out chanting and clapping. At that point, many imagined that the context in which the vote was being held will not have the necessary checks and balances for being recognised by the international community, that didn’t stop them.
When the polling station was finally closed a festive atmosphere broke out in the square. Leftover ballots were thrown by the windows of the building, someone brought confetti. Happy chants of “We have voted” could be heard. However, unlike many other electoral processes that I have been able to witness, activists’ first choice wasn’t to go to their party’s headquarters but finally home to rest.