The brutal crackdown in Catalonia

The Spanish state’s repression of protests is pouring gasoline on the separatist fire.

William McGee

Topics Politics World

Barcelona, usually a laid-back Mediterranean metropolis, has recently come to resemble a warzone. Since the Supreme Court of Spain sentenced nine Catalan independence leaders to between nine and 13 years behind bars, protests have raged in the Catalan capital and beyond.

One would have thought the Spanish state would have wanted a bit of positive PR after its missteps two years ago. The world was shocked when voters, including the elderly, were beaten with batons and dragged away from polling stations by overzealous policemen sent in to quash the independence referendum. The Spanish state rightly received widespread condemnation for its heavy-handedness. However, two years later, it does not seem to have learned anything from this.

Since the latest wave of protests erupted, Amnesty International has condemnedthe Spanish police’s use of excessive force and its deployment of anti-riot equipment and munitions. Officers have used batons on peaceful and subdued protesters. Four protesters have so far lost eyes from rubber bullets fired at close range. One protester required surgery after receiving a shot to the testicles. Officially, these bullets are banned in the region.

Amnesty has also condemned the police’s use of the ‘carousel’: the practice of driving vans at full speed towards crowds of protesters to disperse them. The police have also used tear gas and water cannon on demonstrators. The crackdown has not been limited to Barcelona, either. Twenty-six people were injured at a solidarity protest in Madrid last week. In total, close to 600 protesters have been injured during the latest wave of demonstrations. Some 200 have been arrested.

Journalists have also been hassled by police during the protests. A photojournalist from El País was manhandled and detained after attempting to photograph a protester being arrested. Other journalists have reportedly been roughed up by police, including one from Catalunya Ràdio and two teams from public-service TV network TVE.

The political response to the crisis has been wanting. The prime minister Pedro Sánchez has refused to meet or even take phone calls from Catalan president Quim Torra. Sánchez was also criticised for visiting injured police officers but not meeting injured protesters during a visit to a Barcelona hospital. His caretaker government has, in an undiplomatic fit of pique, threatened to suspend the Catalan government and assume direct rule of the region. Sánchez’s opponents in the People’s Party have criticised the government’s response but only to say it has not been tough enough.

Spain’s judiciary has also been complicit in the crackdown on the protesters. Spain’s criminal court has announced that it will investigate the separatist group, Democratic Tsunami, which has organised protests and occupations, for aiding and abetting terrorism. A national judge has also ordered the removal of a number of web pages belonging to the group.

The protesters have not all behaved angelically, either. Masked youths have set fire to cars and street furniture. They have attacked residents who have tried to put out their fires and have assaulted elderly, peaceful counter-demonstrators. Walls, bus shelters and storefronts have been vandalised; the damage to Barcelona has run into the millions of euros. The protesters’ closure of Barcelona-El Prat airport caused over 100 flights to be cancelled.

The protesters have reserved most of their ire for the police, attacking them with rocks, flares, Molotov cocktails, acid and allegedly chainsaws. A group of protesters aimed fireworks at a police helicopter. In total, nearly 300 officers have been injured.

While there is much to condemn on both sides, the inconvenience for the national government is that the protest groups are not, at least officially, affiliated with the Catalan regional government, whereas the national police, parliament and judiciary are undeniably representatives of the Spanish state.

The Spanish state’s heavy-handedness is backfiring severely. Though less than half of the Catalan electorate currently backs independence, there has been a surge in support. Recent polls show that only a fifth of Catalans believe the trial of the Catalan independence leaders was fair. Around 70 per cent want an officially sanctioned independence referendum – an issue on which successive Spanish governments have been unhelpfully intransigent.

While the No and Remain campaigns in the UK were criticised for using ‘Project Fear’ to (successfully) campaign against Scottish independence and (unsuccessfully) campaign to keep the UK in the EU respectively, Spain has gone a step further in essentially employing ‘Project Repression’ to try to quash Catalonia’s aspirations for independence.

The Spanish government must change course if it wants to avoid harking back to its pre-democratic era, especially if it wants to win the ideological battle against the separatists. Right now, it is shooting itself in the foot.

William McGee is a spiked intern.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Demetrio Cipriano

2nd November 2019 at 7:46 am

Is it not surprising that Catalonia, precisely a region that enjoys more self-government than almost any other federal region in the world, is complaining about repression? People must know that the Catalans who want to continue being Spanish citizens are the ones repressed by the Catalan government. The politician in prison were breaking the law, they were advised several times that they were breaking the law; moreover, they used unlawfully huge amounts of public money to keep alive the hope of becoming independent. Now, the protests by CDR groups, 7 of them in prison because they were already preparing attacks with bombs, are being actually organized by the government.

Every Spanish citizen must decide the fate of Catalonia, not only inhabitants of Catalonia. They dont have to and they dont want to their sovereignity.

And anyone willing to go out to protest to burn public spaces, must know that the state will respond.I only regret that those posh children who call “colonizers” the Spanish-speaking low class immigrants, do not get more violence from the police. They really deserve it.

Gareth Edward KING

2nd November 2019 at 2:24 am

The comment in the article about Spain being clearly responsible for the repression but whether the demonstrators do or do not receive official sanction from the Generalidad is moot. Catalonia lives in a kind of a chimera with its insistence on the use of Catalonian. In Barcelona there is no sign of Spanish (or Castillian, if you will) at all; everything is in the regional language. But Catalonian is by far not the majority language in a región of 6.2 million inhabitants: 62% have Spanish as their mother tongue! It’s interesting that if c. 39% do have Catalonian as their MT this roughly coincides with those who support so called ‘independance’: 39%. It’s almost as if the use of the regional language becomes a political cry in itself. I know from my working in a school in Barcelona province how much speaking Catalonian has become so charged. It is afterall (quite ridiculously) the language of instruction despite the statistics quoted earlier. Not coincidentally, school drop-out rates in the Autonomous Community are amongst the highest in Europe. The Generalidad is on a collision course with the Spanish state and for what? Most people there do not go along with their politics and why should they? It’s a form of political suicide. They seem to care not one ‘pimiento’ about what MOST people think. It’s rather like the remoaner political elite in the UK.
Get over it Generalidad! Barcelona is a Spanish city in which most people speak a language which has become erased from the city’s architecture. Go to the Industrial heartlands of Martorell and the situation is the same there: they’re Spanish-speaking territories. The PSC (Catalonian Socialist Party) is very much responsible for the current impass with its Catalonian identity at all costs being taken on as from the late 1990s, much to the chagrín of its erstwhile voters who have since deserted this party.

Manel Carreras

1st November 2019 at 7:45 am

Police intimidating tactics and plain clothes infiltrated police creating violence to make peaceful demonstrations violent are clear violations of people’s rights. There is plenty images showing this is happening.
Police hurting their fingers whilst beating demonstrators with batons -including illegal metal ones by secret police- counts as injured officers.
A police was injured by another with a close range rubber bullet and another fell from a van chasing demonstrators at high speed with doors open.
Police have arrested an elderly man for trying to put off a fire. Police have been recorded stoving fires.
Police use if batons heating heads is illegal, as is use if rubber bullets which have been directed to heads with 4 losing sight on one eye each.
Alleged torture has happened to detainees inside police vans and stations.
Spain’s understanding of democracy is far from a real democracy.
In trying to present both sides the article misses a key point: this is a fight for democracy and civil rights against fascism. It goes much further than a fight to self determination. If we do not protect human rights and freedom in Catalonia, we risk losing then across Europe.

Tom Wintringham

31st October 2019 at 11:31 pm

The Catalan political prisoners should hire European lawyers to take their case to European courts that they should be released because their imprisonment is unlawful in European law.

There are lots of ways to argue the case in court but I would start with asking for a writ of Habeas Corpus, ordering the Spanish authorities that the political prisoners be brought in person to the European court for consideration of the case their lawyers have to make.

If the Spanish authorities refuse to hand the political prisoners over to the European court then ask that the European judge hold those Spanish officials responsible in contempt and issue a summons and if necessary a warrant for their arrest to answer for their contempt before the European court.

The appropriate Spanish officials would be the King, the Prime Minister and the Justice Minister of Spain.

(Translation in Catalan follows)

Els presos polítics catalans haurien de contractar advocats europeus perquè portin el cas davant els tribunals europeus perquè hagin de ser alliberats perquè el seu empresonament és il·legal en el dret europeu.

Hi ha moltes maneres d’argumentar el cas als tribunals, però començaria per demanar un escrit d’Habeas Corpus, ordenant a les autoritats espanyoles que els presos polítics siguin portats personalment al tribunal europeu per examinar el cas que han de fer els seus advocats. .

Si les autoritats espanyoles es neguen a lliurar els presos polítics al tribunal europeu, llavors sol·liciteu que el jutge europeu retingui els oficials espanyols en menyspreu i emiti una citació i, si cal, un mandat per a la seva detenció per respondre al seu menyspreu davant el tribunal europeu.

Els oficials espanyols adequats serien el rei, el primer ministre i el ministre de justícia d’Espanya.

Winston Stanley

31st October 2019 at 1:35 pm

If politics are to be democratic and consensual then any religion must be free to leave any state anytime it wants. Otherwise the ppl are captives of the state against their will. The whole point of democracy is that no state, no institution, no policy has any legitimacy without the will of the ppl.

In the UK, the TP is refusing to give a Section 30 any time soon, to allow Indyref2, saying that a referendum is “once in a generation”, which could be 30 or 40 years these days. The TP desire is to hold the UK together regardless of what the ppl of Scotland want. It is fundamentally undemocratic.

The TP has also declined to clarify on what basis it would accept that it is “likely” that the ppl of NI would vote for Irish unity, which is a precondition of a border poll under the GFA. The TP has also reneged on the GFA requirement for the British government to remain neutral over NI, with May declaring, “I will never be neutral about the union.”

Again, it is anti-democratic, politics must be about what the ppl want, not politicians. The two-party, manifesto system reinforces the party mentality that democracy is all about a party “winning” and then doing what it wants. The parliamentary system is disconnected from the demos, apart from a vote for red or blue every five years. The system is designed to shut out the demos, so it is no wonder that politicians fancy that politics is all about what they want.

I would award the UK maybe 1 out of 10 for democracy. Scotland would do well to get out and to have a system of PR and regular referenda on policy matter. There is no good democratic reason to not engage the demos. The NI sectarian statelet has always been a complete disaster and they would do well to give the Republic a try, if they want a materially and socially better future.

Ultimately England would do well to devolve to independent regional governments with complete democratic control, PR and referenda. The UK as a national state is an outdated, imperialist set up. The future must be about genuine democratic control by the ppl and not about the power of a capitalist state.

Winston Stanley

31st October 2019 at 1:58 pm

* If politics are to be democratic and consensual then any REGION must be free to leave any state anytime it wants. (blush)

I DEPLORE the absence of an EDIT function.

Marvin Jones

31st October 2019 at 1:19 pm

OH! how I wish that our tea service cops had the Cajones of the Spanish cops in dealing with these ignorant Eco Terrorists. This is the only language they would understand.

Roland Bruynesteyn

31st October 2019 at 10:54 am

“One would have thought the Spanish state would have wanted a bit of positive PR after its missteps two years ago”

While I agree with the observation, I don’t think that the Spanish state can really influence the courts. What it should do (imo, of course), is change the laws, and possibly the constitution. At the moment, the courts could perhaps be more lenient in punishment, but they cannot judge the Catalans to be innocent…

Ven Oods

31st October 2019 at 10:02 am

I bet those Catalonians are glad that their rights are protected by the good ol’ EU.

Jim Lawrie

31st October 2019 at 10:31 am

Next for these nationalists might be what the EU fears – talk of referendums on EU membership. So Madrid is serving Brussels well, and the illusion of democracy in Spain is evaporating as surely as it has here.
In the UK Remain have controlled the Brexit debate and limited it to name calling and brickbats, but elsewhere Brexit has sparked discussion on the machinations and unchecked power of the EU itself.

Catalonia has found that the appeasement strategy of declaring themselves pro-EU with no thoughts of leaving has not worked. Appeasement never does, as we will discover if we are put in legal limbo by London and Brussels.

Michael Lynch

31st October 2019 at 9:07 am

Brussels silence over this is deafening. Tells you all you need to know about their attitude to democracy. These politicians were elected in a perfectly legal way. I’m with the Catalans on this. Fascist oppression is happening, right now, within the borders of the European Empire.

Stephen J

31st October 2019 at 9:07 am

The problem is that none of the countries that joined the EU understand the human desire for family and nationhood. It is as if politicians have never been to a football match, which is ritualised conflict designed to prevent real conflict.

Not only do they want to destroy these very human instincts, they want to deny that the nation as a concept, despite there being four times more of them than there were at the end of WW2, is either real or sane.

Jim Lawrie

31st October 2019 at 10:13 am

Football matches are their favourite place for showing how tough and virtuous they are.

Lord Anubis

31st October 2019 at 10:45 am

The whole point of the EU is summed up in the original coal and steel treaty preamble (And indeed in the Nazi pre war plan for a post war German dominated Europe)

Its entire purpose is to destroy the economic and industrial independence of the member Nations, disperse and displace national populations, and eventually remove the concept of national borders altogether.

The motivation for this may well be worthy, (Its aim was to try to make War between the European powers impossible) but I still feel it is misguided and I intensely dislike it. Which I why I voted Leave.

The EU meets all the criteria of being an Empire. And while Empires actually have many positive attributes for peace and prosperity, they also have the downside that they ALWYS fall, and when they do, the consequences are ALWAYS catastrophic.

The EU will eventually collapse as all Empires inevitably do when they overreach themselves (As the EU has with its expansion to the East) An I for one would rather be comfortably ensconced on the fist lifeboat to leave this sinking ship rather than desperately scrabbling for a seat on the last one!

Dave Spart

31st October 2019 at 1:52 pm

Lord Anubis

31st October 2019 at 4:34 pm

Too late, China is already there!

Winston Stanley

31st October 2019 at 5:11 pm

Yep, Guy Verhofstadt has made it absolutely clear that the EU is a capitalist neo-imperialist bloc-state that cares only about profits and money. The approach is purely demographic-economic. It is totally bizarre that both the left and the right totally fail to grasp the EU on its own professed terms. The left imagines that it is “internationalist-progressive” while the right imagines that it is a “Marxist conspiracy”. It is about money, what is so hard to grasp about that? It is a capitalist set up, the motive of which is profit, money. 101. At some point, the political spectrum needs to wise up and to “get it”.

>> “Let’s create a single Euro-African economic area. It would have enormous potential, that today remains untapped: 1.5 billion consumers, 20 trillion in value, able to rival China!” said @guyverhofstadt opening our #ALDEPAC Conference in Cape Town.

Winston Stanley

31st October 2019 at 5:32 pm

A more general observation: the economic base drives ideology and not vice versa. If Gramsci had paid more attention to the premises then he would not have become obsessed with the construction of a supposed “Marxist counter-ideology”. Contemporary “leftist” ideology simply reflects the latest needs of the capitalist class for an increase in labour, raw materials and markets, to expand capital in the post-imperialist, post-capitalist period of capitalist development. The leftist idea seems to be to conflate historical capitalist tendencies with socialist tendencies and to then pretend that they are socialist tendencies rather than capitalist. They are thus entirely assimilated to capitalist ruling class ideology and to the perpetuation of the capitalist economic base – in the name of “anti-establishment” or even “anti-capitalist” politics. Entirely bizarre.

Winston Stanley

31st October 2019 at 5:38 pm

* to expand capital in the post-imperialist, post-COLONIALIST period of capitalist development DOH twice in one day – da mn that auto-correct (cringe)

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