Tears and Flowers, Barricades and Rubber Bullets: Catalans' Vote for Independence Divides a Nation

'If Madrid continues to use its violent methods to stop our campaign for independence, the entire world will see why we need it so badly'

People react as they listen to Catalan president Carles Puigdemont during a gathering at Plaza Catalunya after voting ended for the banned independence referendum, in Barcelona, Spain October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera
SUSANA VERA/REUTERS

BARCELONA – The Catalonian government claims that more than 700 people were wounded on Sunday in clashes between Spanish policemen and local residents, who had gathered at 2,315 schools and other institutes to vote on a referendum on the province’s future.

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Initial results gave the "Yes" camp over 90 percent of the votes, and the full referendum results will be announced on Monday, mainly due to the technical obstacles which the Spanish placed in the referendum organizers’ way. But in the view of many separatists, the battle has already been won. They believe a declaration of independence is only a matter of time.

At 5 A.M., Catalonians began preparing to vote in the referendum. They gathered at the schools where they were supposed to vote “yes” or “no” to the question, “Are you interested in Catalonia becoming an independent state?” Hundreds spent the night in those schools to keep the Spanish police out.

Pro independence supports wrapped by ''esteleda'' or Catalan pro independence flags stand in front a balcony while people protest with banner reading, ''Self determination'' in support of the Catalonia's secession referendum, in Pamplona, northern Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017.   Catalonia's defiant regional government is pressing ahead with a ballot on seceding from Spain.(AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)
Alvaro Barrientos/AP

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The Spanish government declared the referendum unconstitutional, due to a provision of the constitution which states that autonomous communities cannot hold referendums or otherwise decide on seceding from the country. It therefore authorized the Spanish police to do everything possible to prevent the referendum from being held.

First came the Catalonian police. Normally, they operate under orders from the Catalonian Interior Ministry, but last week, they were subordinated to the Spanish government.

People prepare to spend the night inside a school listed to be a polling station by the Catalan government in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, Sept. 30 2017. Catalan pro-referendum residents vowed Saturday to ignore a police ultimatum to leave the schools they are occupying to use in a vote seeking independence from Spain.(AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Felipe Dana/AP
A poll worker holds up a ballot box after polls closed at a polling station for the banned independence referendum, in Barcelona, Spain October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso
ELOY ALONSO/REUTERS

They arrived at the Pau Casals school on Providencia Street at 6 A.M. Under orders from the Catalonian police chief, Josep Trapero, they asked who was in charge there. Thousands of people chorused “We are!” and the confused policemen retreated.

“It’s not easy, we’re Catalonians, and we also have relatives who want to vote,” said one policeman, speaking from the post where he and a colleague were observing the school. “We’re obeying the orders we received, due to the fact that what’s happening here is illegal.”

The next sentence, uttered a moment before he received a wreath of flowers from the crowd, was delivered with a hint of a smile: “We’re only two people; we can’t deal with the thousands who are here.”

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When the schools were opened to voters at 9 A.M., a few people could be seen crying with emotion. But soon, the pictures from other schools began arriving – the ones that were forcibly entered by the Guardia Civil, Spain’s paramilitary police force.

They Guardia Civil ran right over the Catalonian policemen who stood in their way, but then they encountered a human barrier that refused to give in. Catalonians who knew this clasg was just a matter of time came had prepared for it, and they had received instructions on what to do to waste the police's time until the ballot boxes could be removed from the schools. In some places – the town of L’Hospitalet, for instance – residents set up improvised barricades in the streets leading to the polling stations.

Conflict was inevitable, pitting civilians of all ages against policemen well-versed in dispersing demonstrations and clad in black from head to toe. In Girona, police sprayed tear gas at people’s faces; in Barcelona, they fired rubber bullets – illegal in Catalonia. In other places, they clubbed people indiscriminately with their batons. As of Sunday evening, 761 wounded Catalonians and 15 wounded policemen had been reported.

In the afternoon, the daily El Pais reported that Spain’s prosecutor general had opened a criminal investigation against the Catalonian police for failing to take action against the illegal referendum. In the evening, the Catalonian government reported that Spanish police had managed to completely seal only nine percent of the buildings used as polling booths. Many Catalonians wondered aloud how many wounded people there would have been had the Spanish police managed to close them all.

Barcelona's midfielder from Spain Denis Suarez (L), Barcelona's forward from Argentina Lionel Messi and Barcelona's defender from Spain Gerard Pique (R) warm up before the Spanish league football match FC Barcelona vs UD Las Palmas at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on October 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / JOSE JORDAN
JOSE JORDAN/AFP

Political football

In the afternoon, the focus shifted to Camp Nou, Barcelona’s soccer stadium – or more specifically, to the offices of FC Barcelona’s management. The managers were dealing with fans’ demands that in light of the morning’s events, Barca shouldn’t take the field for its game against UD Las Palmas, which had received special permission from the Spanish Football Association to play with the Spanish flag on its jerseys.

Barca fans announced that if the team didn’t cancel the match, they would do so for it by running out onto the field. But under pressure from the players, and for fear of being penalized by the Spanish football association, the club ultimately decided to play the match and close it to spectators.

“This was the worst experience of my life,” said Barca’s captain, Gerard Pique – who had managed to vote before the game – as his eyes filled with tears. “We've taken to the streets for years and demonstrated peacefully, but today, the Spanish police came and destroyed it. I’m prouder than ever of my country, which, despite all the violence from the Spanish police, behaved peacefully.”

Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, said Sunday afternoon that the police had acted professionally and proportionately. She blamed the Catalonian government, which decided, “with utter irresponsibility,” to hold the referendum.

Real Madrid fans display Spanish national flags in support of a united Spain against the Catalonian referendum for independence during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Espanyol at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Paul White)
Paul White/AP

A spokesman for the Catalonian government, whose members are liable to be arrested by the Spanish police in the coming days, responded, “The Spanish government is the shame of Europe.”

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy – whom many people in Spain, and especially in Catalonia, blame for the fact that the referendum degenerated into bloody violence – took a characteristically low-key approach toward the day’s events.

“There was no referendum on Catalonian independence today,” he declared shortly before the polls closed, following a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Today we have every reason to be proud of our democracy. We can’t abandon 40 years of progress because of extortion. The people responsible for everything that happened today are those who acted against unity and the law.”

Rajoy also claimed that “Most citizens of Catalonia didn’t want to take part in the scenario the separatists wrote for them.” But in fact, the Spanish government’s efforts to suppress the referendum have caused Catalonians to unite around the idea of independence.

“We’ve already won,” said Pau, who was waiting his turn to vote at the polling station in the Gracia neighborhood. “If everything goes smoothly, a declaration of independence will arrive in the coming days, because nobody has any doubt that the ‘yes’ won. If Madrid continues to use its violent methods to stop our campaign for independence, the entire world will see why we need it so badly.”

'Yes!'

 By late Sunday, official results indicated that over 90 percent of Catalans have voted "Yes" to leaving Spain, and Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan regional government, had opened the door to a potential declaration of independence.

"On this day of hope and suffering, Catalonia's citizens have earned the right to have an independent state in the form of a republic," Carles Puigdemont said in a televised address, surrounded by members of his government.

"My government, in the next few days will send the results of today's vote to the Catalan Parliament, where the sovereignty of our people lies, so that it can act in accordance with the law of the referendum," he also said.

The law of the referendum foresees a unilateral declaration of independence by the regional parliament of Catalonia if the majority votes to leave Spain.