The streets of Barcelona

21 Oct
this post also features on offguardian

One of my most enduring friendships is with Pete, who in 1976 took off to Barcelona and never came back. A passionate Catalan separatist, whose knowledge of the city and Catalan history puts many a native to shame, here’s his view from the barricades.

One or two people may be curious about what is happening in Catalonia these days and why.

It’s a long story.

Leaving historical grievances from the Compromise of Caspe in 1412 to the continuist transition of the late 1970s behind, we might say that today’s circumstances stem from the trashing of the Statute of Autonomy in 2006 and the extreme right-wing PP’s drive for votes. The idea behind the reform, agreed with the then President of Spain, was supposedly to revise and reform Catalan self-government.

That is also quite a long story; suffice it to say that a Catalan proposal was approved first by the Catalan Parliament and then admitted as a formal proposal by the Spanish Parliament.  The PP filed a complaint to the Constitutional Court which threw out 14 articles and imposed mandatory interpretations on others.

That led to a massive demonstration in Barcelona of more than a million people under the slogan in Catalan Som una nació. Nosaltres decidim (in English, “We are a nation. We decide”).

Then it was negotiated again, reapproved, except for the right-wing PP and the disgusted Catalan nationalist parties and finally approved in a referendum in Catalonia in which participation was under 50%, an unprecedentedly low figure for this type of vote.

People here were pissed off.

Meanwhile, the leader of the PP was travelling Spain collecting votes against the use of Catalan for teaching in Catalan schools. Backed by a mass-media campaign “Do you know they force Spanish children to speak Catalan in school in Catalonia” “Spanish is under attack in Catalonia” he drummed up the latent anti-Catalan sentiment common across Spain, which had already been inflamed by the Statute of Autonomy negotiations.

This is a little story in itself.

First off, using Catalan as a vehicular language in school was largely promoted by neighbours’ and other popular associations of people who had moved to Catalonia from across Spain. (And therein lies another tale for another day: “the deliberate dilution of Catalonia”.) They rightly argued that any attempt to segregate by language would cause rifts and split society. The Catalan government also had plans for “normalising” the widespread use of Catalan, which had been prohibited since 1939. Catalan became the language of education, administration and even, up to a point, the legal system.

Secondly, Catalan kids get significantly higher marks in Castilian Spanish than Spanish kids do. Nowhere else do they question the fact that people who learn more than one language as kids find it easier to learn others. (And there’s another story that would fill a few pages, because outside Catalonia people really dislike our speaking another language. And I should know, because as a guiri, or foreigner, they openly speak of this dislike and ask poor me how I’m bearing up with “those bloody Catalans”.)

Thirdly, Spanish is hardly under attack. If you walk around town, you’ll hardly hear Catalan spoken at all. Add the many TV channels, YouTube, the rest of the Internet, the influx of South Americans, the Erasmus students and you might be able to work out which language is under attack.

The PP won the elections and directly set about attacking Catalonia.

“We’ve got to Hispanify those Catalan kids”, said the Minister of Education. Budgets were withheld, investments frozen, European infrastructure plans blocked. The deep state started working overtime spying and lying, poisoning public opinion.

This deflected attention from the massive corruption scandals involving public works, banking, real estate that the PP was mired in.

It also gave the independence movement a massive boost.

The annual 11th September marches have since congregated over 2 million people in totally peaceful, fiesta-like demonstrations. People of all ages attend them. In wheelchairs, with prams, with granny walkers, with papooses…And there’s never as much as an empty beer can on the street afterwards.

As the movement grew, so did the demands. The then conservative Catalan government was faced with a choice, support it or lose votes. They sort of supported it. A non-binding referendum was held in which participation was more or less confined to people with separatist ideas: 80% yes, 10% no.

The movement continued to grow on the streets and in Parliament.  Eventually, pushed by the grass roots movements a referendum was organised for October 1st, 2017.

Before that, the police raided the Catalan Treasury to search for documentation on misuse of public funds. There was a mass demonstration to prevent them. Two grassroot leaders tried to stop the crowd from preventing the police from doing their work;

The PP government, true to type, swore to stop the vote and failed. The wily separatist movements had the ballot boxes in place on time all over the country in a feat of organisation that left the State’s forces flatfooted. There were even comic scenes as when the President swapped cars under a bridge and the police helicopters followed the wrong one to the wrong place.

So, having imported thousands of riot police from across the country (who embarked to chants of “Go and scrag ‘em” from their neighbours) the State decided to confiscate the ballot boxes.

Again, the vote was attended by people of all kinds and ages; school children who had camped out in the schools to prevent occupation, grannies (there’s no revolution without our grannies!!), old codgers like us, workers, students and even a few who came to vote no and carried Spanish flags, to the applause of the crowd.

Soon, we had scenes of police smashing up schools, jumping two-footed on prostrate ladies, coshing grannies over the head and generally doing what they do best. This upset a lot of people who, while not being separatists, switched to defend the right to have our say. Some of these are on the streets as I write.

 Despite all this, very few ballot boxes were confiscated.

(Why did the state take this route? Wouldn’t it have been easier to allow the vote and disqualify it or simply ignore it? Talk about it? Search for an alternative. No. They never have, and they never will.)

Catalonia has a history of pacts, agreements, deals, treaties and generally looking for a way of working together. Up to a point; and don’t forget we’re talking 40 years of this last phase alone.

Castile has a history of conquest, of centralised dominion from its perch atop the meseta. Madrid was artificially created to that end. To dominate, control and exploit.

The PP has consistently centralised all rail and road communications to ensure that everything has to go through Madrid, even the European Mediterranean Corridor running from Morocco to Finland. It has tried to standardise and Hispanify Catalonia. That’s its nature.

Andalusia is Madrid’s theme park, Levant its beach and Catalonia and Euskadi its industrial and creative money spinners. And nothing else.)

After the vote and under pressure form the widespread grassroot movements, the government made a big mistake. It declared independence and then “suspended” it in the hope of negotiation and naively, some kind of mediation from Europe.

The state shutdown the autonomous government, imposed direct rule and gloated about “decapitating the Catalan independence movement”. Elections were set for December and the separatist parties again won a majority.

And so, after the police violence, judicial violence. 9 politicians and grassroots leaders were jailed for 2 years before going to trial and then sentenced to up to 9. The Speaker has been sentenced to 9 years for permitting the debate and vote.

The retired Catalan public prosecutor, not a sympathetic figure and certainly not in favour of independence or the vote said “First the sentence is for sedition, which is not an offence similar to rebellion, because it is against public order and not the Constitution. But then, the Court gives a political dimension to sedition to avoid ruling on a simple question of civil disobedience”.

And: “Sedition is an offence against public order and not the Constitution. A public order offence can never deserve a harsher sentence than murder or rape. If the convicted people serve all their sentence, they will be in jail for longer than rapists and murderers, which they do not deserve. Even people who are not in favour of independence can see this”.

And so we took to the streets. What else can we do?

As Jordi Cuixart, one of the grassroot leaders said in court, “Do you think you can stop this by sending us to jail? You, who are conniving in the prosecution with self-declared right-wing extremists against people who organised a popular vote? People who are in favour of a democratic solution to this conflict? It’s my responsibility to say here and now that we’ll do it again”.

I’ve just dashed this off with no editing.

It’s been a long week for us. On Monday,  M took care of her Mom and I finished a load of work. Then we were cutting of the traffic in Diagonal/Passeig de Gràcia. Then we tried to get to the airport but the pollies had shut down the railway and metro. So we cut off the traffic at the end of the Diagonal and when all the students who had thronged there left to walk 13 km to the airport , we went and had a bite before heading to Plaça Sant Jaume for the 7 o’clock demo, which, as there was not a pollie in sight, was perfectly peaceful.

After a curry, we headed to the central pollie shop on Via Laietana to chant “Forces of Occupation out!” and there was no violence at all. Until the pollies knocked down their own barriers and chased the -till then- peaceful crowd. M got carried away in the crush into a nearby building and I, having lost sight of her and casting around, was quickly surrounded by 4 pollies, 3 of which laid into me with verve and gusto. This had nothing to do with me. Even when I was walking away they came at me from behind, hitting to hurt for no reason. After about an hour the people in the building were allowed to leave one by one, hands in the air.

That was the first outbreak of violence and since then, they have all followed the same pattern. People standing or often sitting have been repeatedly beaten and charged. If the pollies aren’t there, there’s no violence. When they show up and start shooting, clubbing and running people down, it breaks out.

(Above: President in functions visits Catalonia, sees injured police, not injured Catalans, is shouted out of hospital by doctors and nurses and leaves with windows down and machine guns at the ready. Spain is a fascist state.)

On Friday there was a general strike and the columns of people who had walked 100 Km in three days along the main roads of all Catalonia reached the city. Officially, we numbered 575000, but, compared to the 11th September official figures of 1.5 million, there were far, far many more. And not a beer can on the ground.

Since then, we’ve been out every night; sometimes quite by chance at a safe distance. Clothes stinking of burning plastic. We’re off out later…

Meanwhile …

… there have been big demonstrations in the Basque Country …

… and in Madrid!  where the pollies had no end of a good time. I wonder why?

You can say one thing for the pollies though; they don’t discriminate. They hit anybody of any age, standing, sitting or semi-conscious. The press, usually young, are also taking a pasting and being arrested.

PS Oct 21. Four people have lost an eye to rubber bullets, of which thousands have been fired. 28 in jail, nearly a thousand arrested and nearly 600 wounded, not counting those like me who did not go to hospital to get a report.

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10 Replies to “The streets of Barcelona

  1. thank you Philip. I am only now reading your last month of SCS. This catalan business is painful to watch. It evokes so much, from the history of Navarre and Languedoc & the great Provencal/Catalan culture that was snuffed by statism, to the cynicism of the post war, the Lincoln brigade, the persistence of Carlist elements (I saw recently that franco was exhumed and vandalized, which shocks me less than the existence of a shrine tohim,)For those who don’t wish to wend through history to evaluate the evening news, a single sentence from your friend’s report will do: “…the Speaker has been sentenced to nine years for allowing the debate and the vote..” Yes, a nine year jail term for allowing a debate and a vote. Thisis a political repression plain and simple, defamed by neoliberal press, like an article in Liberation claiming that most of the protestorsare “greeks and Italians,” which seems unlikely &that citizens of Brcelona are taking local hams to the police with words of comfort and gratitude. Perhaps the 8% of Catalonians who voted against autonomy are taking hams to the police.

  2. The only local hams I know of are members of the amateur dramatic society. However, members of Ciudadanos, the right-wing, neo-con, anti-Catalan party did give the police flowers. As did dozens of locals. Then, Ciudadanos never miss a photo op of this kind. They have been stirring things up with statements like this one “Os vamos a montar un Ulster que os vais a cagar”. (We’re going to organise an Ulster here that will have you shitting bricks). So much for flowers.

    • Interesting but disturbing that the anti-secessionist right in Spain would consciously identify with the Loyalist gangs of the Six Counties.

      • I don’t know who they identify with and know nothing about Ulster. They meant they’ll create violence and strife.

        • Well you wuz there and I warn’t but three fings strike me as signif. One, you make clear they are of the far right. Two, of all the world’s trouble spots – Aleppo, Donbass, Gaza, Hong Kong, Mosul etc – why pick one that’s been quiet for two decades since the Good Friday Agreement? Three, why use a term – Ulster – dear to Loyalist hearts but shunned by Republicans?

          I dare say the chanters are but dimly aware of Irish history, but all the same sniff the Red Hand of their soulmates, Billy’s Boys.

          • Well. I just think they mean that they want try to create a long-term, disruptive, violent, divisive, painful, pitiless and exhausting situation, whether the model is Ulster, the US, Britain, Iraq or Afghanistan. Whatever they believe will favour their ambitions. We are now in a world where you can say anything. Truth no longer has value; statements are merely what you use to get your way. Ciudadanos are somewhat similar to Farage, but have sharper teeth. Last Wednesday, M and I had to (shame on me) take refuge in a bar which rattled down the metal shutters to prevent about 20 Ciudadanos supporters (armed with baseball bats and accompanied by the police) beating the shit out of us. As they did to one of ours just one street away before the indulgent gaze of the pollies. Here is the link.:

  3. By the way. Someone on one side must have spoken to someone on the other because the riot police have been withdrawn and the demos are back to the normal, pacific ones. They just don’t make the international news any more. Nothing else has changed.
    The pollies went home to applause from their neighbours. Well done lads!

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