Disobeying Spain: the Catalan Referendum for Independence

Voting can often be a fairly mundane task, a ritual we do as some sort of promise to ourselves and others that we care in the shaping of our society. It is a peculiar sensation based upon a collective understanding that the sum is great than its parts; that while our vote may not matter, voting itself matters. It is a commitment to a process, rather than a politic.

On Sunday, all across Catalunya ballot boxes were ripped from people’s hands by masked police and a dangerous violence was unleashed, at random, upon some of the 2,262,424 people who stood in long linesto cast their vote. The repression dealt by the Spanish State to prohibit the Catalan Referendum, in every bloodied baton and ever rubber bullet, transformed the day from a question of independence to a question of democracy. People were voting for the right to vote.

I was one of the tens of thousands who, while we cannot vote, did what I could to make sure that others could. I did not mind what they were voting for, showing up was enough bravery to win my support.

October 1st, 2017

2 am: The center of Barcelona seems as normal, though emptier than is common for a Saturday night. The terraces and bars have jovial youth sipping drinks and speaking louder than the neighbors would like. But no one is speaking Catalan. Catalans know what is coming, the tourists seem to have no idea.

Across Catalonia people are hunkering down into long nights in the polling stations. They know the police will come and try to shut them down, so the best defense is to be inside already. Polling stations are public buildings: schools, museums, and hospital, but since Spain has declared the referendum illegal it is also illegal to physically organize the elections. In response, each polling station has organized “parallel” events. There are poetry readings, movie marathons, open mics, continuous choirs, and countless other slightly boring events advertised to last all through the night. People lay on school floors, trying to sleep, jumping at each noise — voting shouldn’t have to be like this.

9 am: We shuffle across the city to an open polling station. Already a number of those in the city center have been raided by the police, their ballot boxes stolen, and closed. We pass by the tourists taking selfies, I wonder if they know that 5,000 police have been mobilized from all across Spain to come to and stop the referendum. Tensions are high, this could easily slip out of control.

We pass a polling station, a line of umbrellas stretches around the block and out of sight. For the past weeks the city has been awash with the catalan flag and t-shirts that say simply “Si”. But today no one wears propaganda, people understand that they should not express their views as they vote — this must be a safe space for everyone.

We arrive at our polling station, a sign on the door announces the “24-hour pajama party” we have come for. No one is wearing pajamas. There is a small line but the computers are down so it does not move. All day there will be a fierce technological battle to keep the online platform that allows for distributed voting open.

11.30 am: I am sitting on the floor of the polling station in central Barcelona, a long line has grown behind us. We have been here for hours already, but it doesn’t bother us. Just by being here we are useful. The rain has slowed to a drizzle and faces are emerging from beneath the umbrellas. It could be the line of people waiting to see a movie, young couples, the middle-aged with their adult daughters, families with children — these are not protestors, these are people.

There is a nervous tension, as we wait we are seeing realtime images of polling stations that look exactly the same as ours having their doors kicked in, people pulled away by their hair, elderly women thrown down stairs; twitter is a scroll of police clubs and rubber bullets. In some places the hundreds of people, with arms linked or hands in the air are enough to turn back the police, in others masked men walk out of schools holding half-filled ballot boxes.

Please take a second to imagine this: you go to your usual polling station and, as usual, you wait in a short line to vote. As you wait, masked men in dark armored suits smash their way in, pushing the elderly, clubbing your neighbor and firing rubber bullets into the crowd. They grab the ballot boxes and march out. They steal your vote; steal your voice. Twitter says there are 234 people injured.

This is the largest act of civil disobedience I have ever seen, and the bravery it required of the everyday people should not be diminished. Just by standing in that line we were all risking great harm. We wait our turn, patiently and calmly, but nervously. We pass the time by chatting to those next to us in line. The woman in font of us tells us of the first time she voted after fascism ended; of the student protests and the police brutality. In a country with such a recent history of dictatorship, voting means something different for the older generation.

The crowd cheers after an elderly woman walks past the long line after voting, she claps her hands in joy and the crowd joins her. Having spent most of her life under fascism, democracy must taste sweeter. I see the woman in front of me wipe away a tear. The crowd cheers next for a old man in a wheelchair and a young couple with their baby, the noise follows each of them from the polling station. We cheer for everyone, not for how they voted, but becausethey voted. This has become about more than independence, it is about the right to vote; the right of a population to ask itself a question and to answer it.

3.30 pm: We are nearing the front of the line, behind us there are perhaps 500 hundred people. The line folds back upon itself to keep everyone close to the doors so we are ready if the police come. We are ushered into a small room with tables upon which the sealed ballot boxes are placed. Everyone responsible for one of these tables risks a 300,000 euro fine for their participation on the voting process. Identifications are cross-checked and votes are placed into sealed envelopes. I have been impressed all day by the formality with which this referendum is being conducted. Despite all the hardships wrought upon it, there is extreme diligence to conduct this referendum according to the law. Yet the Spanish news states the people are voting as many times as they like, informally on the streets. My partner drops her vote into the ballot box (I cannot vote, for I lack Spanish nationality), it joins a rising tide of paper opinions. We walk past the crowd that is cheering: “Votarem! Votarem!” (“We will vote”).

5 pm: For weeks the Spanish government has been calling the referendum a “farse” and trying to frame it as just another political ploy by the ruling caste of Catalunya. Today they claim “they” are using elderly and children to protect “themselves” from the police. But the elderly shuffle in on their own, the children hold their parents’ hands; the polling centers are self-organized, the risks are shared. This is truly a bottom-up political process. The “farse” spoken of, I believe is far graver. As one tweet commented: “The ruling political party (Partido Popular, PP) are counting their votes with every smashed skull.” The violence here may have less to do with stopping a vote that has already been framed as “illegal”, but with building anti-catalan antagonism across Spain and proving themselves to be the powerful patriarch they claim to be.

Saenz de Santamaria, vice-president, of the Spanish State has held a press conference. She speaks to the cameras: “The complete irresponsibility of the Catalan government demanded to be assuaged by the professionalism of the forces of order. They have carried out the order of law, acting professionally, and adequately. The objective of their interventions has never been the people, but the electoral materials. They have always worked to protect the rights and liberties…. And they have completed their democratic obligation…. There was no referendum, nor anything close to it.”

There is a schizophrenia to the story of this day, in that the official discourse is so far from the lived experience of anyone here. The headlines of the government-aligned papers refer to the referendum continually as the “Catalan Betrayal”. But the betrayal goes far deeper than a single referendum. To anyone who heard the praises of the Spanish State lavished upon the police violence, that they themselves risked or endured — Spain has lost all legitimacy. A trust has been broken and is sowing the seeds of a deception deep enough that I believe many will never trust the words of the Spanish State again. This quantitative shift, may be the most important lasting impact of October 1st. It may be this, in the end, that which pushes Catalunya to independence.

Spain has proved its point: it is an imposed democracy, rather than an elected one, and the tally of the injured rises steadily.

7 pm: The polling stations close in one hour. Dusk is falling. The helicopter swoops across the skyline at regular intervals. A crucial hour has begun — the ballot boxes are filled but uncounted, a single raid police could steal thousands of votes and people could not vote again. 400 hundred of us are gathered outside the polling station where I have spent most of the day. It is an uneasy calm. A woman tells the crowd the plan: “When they come: protect the doors and windows. Link arms and sit down, stay calm and stay peaceful. We will hold this space as long as we can.”

The day has been filled with the mix of bravery and savagery that is perhaps the modern day equivalent of a massacre. As of now 761 people have been brought to the hospital with injuries. I tremble to think what the Spanish “Forces of Order” would have done 200 years ago, if were we not armed with Twitter, cameras and the international eye.

The church clock strikes 8, and the doors to the polling station are closed. A small group retire to a small room to count the votes. The door will be locked until all the votes are counted, or until it is kicked in by the police. A hush falls over the crowd and we wait. A helicopter hovers low over us and a small crowd of police disappear, it seems something is beginning. We huddle closer to the doors.

9.30 pm: The counting room is unlocked and the votes have officially registered. We have been lucky, or we have been enough to discourage any raid. A relief falls upon us, the votes cannot be stolen now. A joyous man who has been there all day unlocks the doors and tells us the results of their counting: 1,960 votes. 1,668 “si”, 144 “no”, 114 left blank, 34 discounted. A cheer jumps through the crowd almost before his words are out. The chant changes from “We will vote” to “We voted”.

10.30 pm: Across the city the sound of pots and pans banging is spreading. Leaping from balcony to balcony, contagious. These are the largest “caseroladas” I have heard in this city, and every night for the past week even the dishes scream for justice. I walk down a pedestrian avenue, we are all clapping our hands for we have nothing more than our hands. The energy is reciprocal — the more we clap the more they bang the more we clap. The night fills with rebellious music of instruments that will never be taken from us; even the church bells have awakened to join the chorus.

In the end, the Partido Popular mounted not only a media disaster but a strategic one. Despite 844 injuries, only 4% of voting centers had been closed. Despite the violence, the threats, the complications and the uncertainty, 2,262,424 people — 42% of registered voters — were able to cast their vote in the largest act of non-violent civil disobedience I have ever seen. 90% voted for independence. I doubt today will result in an immediate independence from Spain, but it is undoubtably an immediate victory for democracy.

October 1st has taught me something I will never forget: that democracy is an ongoing process, it is alive and must be nourished. And when well cared for, it grows. The messages of support I have received from around the world reminds me that for many people this is still the political norm. That elections are never simple affairs, that state violence upon civilians is not a rarity. Our freedoms must not be taken for granted. From this day forth, every time I vote I will think of the disobedient bravery of the generations who have won me this privilege, who maintain it and all those who work to share it.

Spain calls this vote illegal. That is precisely the point, we want to write our own laws. And until we do can do that, we must disobey.

All photos by Kevin Buckland.