Repression and revolt in Catalonia

The Catalan revolt, met with attempts to portray protestors as terrorists, has revealed the flawed nature of the Spanish 1978 constitutional settlement, writes Paul Amby.

Demonstrators marching to Barcelona airport (Jordi Borràs)

On 23 September 2019, hundreds of Spanish Civil Guards raided the homes and premises of nine Catalan independence activists, members or supporters of the grassroots organisation Committees for the Defence of the Republic. Although all nine were charged with terrorism, two were released from custody on the same day. The CDR seven were taken to the Civil Guard headquarters in Madrid, where they remain until today. The Public Prosecutor has no evidence of terrorism and the detentions were clearly designed to dissuade people from protesting against the forthcoming verdicts in the show trial of the Catalan civil and political leaders involved in organising the independence referendum in October 2017. 

On 14 October, nine of those Catalan leaders were sentenced to between nine and thirteen years imprisonment for sedition and misuse of public funds. 3,000 riot police were mobilised to deal with the inevitable protests in Catalonia. But no-one could have predicted the scale of the response from the Catalans, most impressively from the young. The Tsunami Democràtic, a new activist platform using the instant messaging service Telegram and a ‘bespoke’ Android app, called on people to make their way to Barcelona’s airport to shut it down. The authorities cancelled all public transport to the airport but didn’t anticipate that tens of thousands of mainly young people would march over three hours to get there. Over a hundred flights had to be cancelled on that day and the next.

Two days later, thousands of protestors set out from five Catalan towns to walk over a hundred kilometres to converge on Barcelona. By the time they arrived in the Catalan capital, their numbers had swollen to half a million according to the understated figure given by the police (in the UK, this number would be equivalent to 4.5 million). But what had been a peaceful mass demonstration quickly turned violent later with the police apparently seeking to inflame and provoke with the indiscriminate use of rubber bullets, foam projectiles, tear gas, water cannon, baton charges and the driving of police vans at speed straight at demonstrators to disperse them. Some of the police violence has been captured on video and such was its ferocity that Chinese media outlets made comparisons with Hong Kong so as to claim that their police are more restrained than the Spanish.

Spain’s Minister of the Interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, previously a judge, is in charge of police operations in Catalonia. His record does not exactly inspire confidence. The European Court of Human Rights has issued a total of eight verdicts condemning Spain for failing to investigate alleged torture and police brutality on Basque detainees, five instances of which happened when Grande-Marlaska was the presiding judge. Indeed, the Spanish state’s strategy in Catalonia owes much to its experience in the Basque country. It explains why Grande-Marlaska has recently claimed that: ‘the violence in Catalonia has had a greater impact than that in the Basque country’. Although this is clearly nonsensical since ETA was responsible for over 800 deaths while nobody has died in Catalonia, it opens the way for more convoluted accusations of terrorism and yet more judicial repression of the independence movement. If there is no violence, it can always be invented is the message. Indicative of these machinations is the recent take down of the Tsunami Democràtic website and app, the latter hosted on the software development platform Github. Following the example of China and Russia in similar cases, the Spanish government requested that Github block access to the app. The company, owned by Microsoft, complied but published the request from Spain’s Civil Guard. It states: ‘Tsunami Democràtic has been confirmed (!) as a criminal organization driving people to commit terrorist acts’. Tsunami currently has over 385,000 followers on Telegram. It must be the first time in history that a ‘terrorist’ organisation has 7% of the adult population of a country signed up to a messaging app.

The Spanish state is clearly out to smash the Catalan independence movement come what may. Pro-independence Catalan parties, most notably the anti-capitalist CUP, could be made illegal as might various civil organisations and the judicial persecution of pro-independence activists will continue. However, the resistance and revolt against repression will also undoubtedly continue, creating as we have already seen novel forms of protest. Sometimes they are inspired by activists in other parts of the world such as Hong Kong (the airport occupation, the use of apps) and sometimes they are perhaps more homegrown, like the Picnics for the Republic involving ad hoc sit-downs in railway stations and other public places. 

The Catalan revolt has revealed the flawed nature of the Spanish 1978 constitutional settlement, a transition from Francoism negotiated with the remnants of the fascist regime, which confirmed Franco’s designated heir, King Juan Carlos, as head of state and left largely untouched a whole raft of Francoist institutions such as the army, police, judiciary and state bureaucracy. The constitution also enshrined the quasi-metaphysical ‘indissoluble unity’ of the Spanish state. Hence the refusal of its defenders to countenance a vote on self-determination for the Catalan people. Until that vote happens, the crisis will continue and, in all probability, worsen.


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