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.

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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.

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