Protests Expose Tensions On Anniversary Of Catalan Independence Vote

On Saturday, September 29th, protests against police erupted in Barcelona during a counter-protest against police officers, just days ahead of the first anniversary of the Catalonian independence vote, leaving fourteen injured.

The Police Association of Spain (JUSAPOL) organized the protest on Saturday to support police officers demanding equal pay between Spain’s National and Civil Guard and Catalonia’s regional police. Approximately 3,000 people populated the streets of Barcelona to protest in support of police officers. However, a counter-protest of about 6,000 Catalan separatists derailed the police protest, forcing police supporters to find an alternate route through the city. Despite Mayor Colau’s urges to avoid confrontation and protest peacefully, anti-riot Catalonian police and separatists clashed, with separatists spraying police with colourful powder and police officers pushing protesters back with batons. Over the last few weeks, police officers again had to prevent clashes between separatists and unionists because of high tensions nearly a year after the October 1st referendum on Catalonian independence.

“Get out of here fascists,” exclaimed Catalan separatists, during the counter-protest. “The streets will always be ours!” The sentiment separatists expressed has echoed through Catalonia, prompting a vote for secession on October 1st, 2017.

The referendum resulted in an overwhelming, 90 percent vote for Catalonia’s independence. Yet only 42 percent of Catalonia actually turned out to vote. Subsequently, Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, central government and highest court completely invalidated the vote. The referendum was marred by violence as anti-riot police sprayed voters with rubber bullets, used batons against voters and confiscating ballot boxes – attempting to prevent voters from casting their ballots. In rural villages, some voters even used tractors to stop police forces. After the referendum, Human Rights Watch even accused Spanish police of using excessive force. The Catalonian government (mostly led by separatists) declared Catalonia’s independence due to overwhelming support. However, from the beginning, the referendum was flawed and the results could not be confirmed by an independent agency.

In 2014, Catalonia held a similar, non-binding vote in 2014, in which 80 percent of voters also voted in favor of secession. The results of both referendums demonstrate just how strong the separatist sentiment is in Catalonia.

Catalonia is one of Spain’s most prosperous economies, and it is a region characterized by its own language, history and distinct culture. 7.5 million people make up this part of Spain, with its capital city, Barcelona, alone home to over one million people. During the 1970s, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco suppressed Catalan autonomy – from censoring the Catalan flag to restricting its language and culture. After the Franco administration fell, Catalonia regained its autonomy and made provisions to protect Catalan identity. Now, Catalonia controls its own education systems, governance and economic activities.

Catalonia also accounts for almost 20 percent of the Spanish economy, which has not performed very well with Spain’s increasing debt. The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated Catalonia’s conflict with the Spanish central government in Madrid. In 2010, the Constitutional Court of Spain rejected a statute, spurring a push for independence. The 2006 Statute of Autonomy in Catalonia would have allowed provisions such as raising the Catalan language above the Spanish language and upholding regional decisions over Spanish judges and courts. Its rejection caused major protests at the time, and only served to revive nationalism in Catalonia. One such protest saw the people of Catalan claiming their citizenship each 11th September, National Day of Catalonia.

The recent clash between Catalan separatists and police was just one event in a long history of pushback Catalonia has shown the Spanish central government – which, with its show of police force, has demonstrated a similar push against secession. Catalonia is one of seventeen autonomous regions of Spain, all with their own histories and cultures – and their own motivations for independence. Perhaps, a successful Catalan independence movement could result in changes throughout all of Spanish regional politics, presenting a challenge to Spain’s future – and leaving the Spanish central government to pick up the pieces.