Violence: criminalising the Catalans

Throughout the Catalan crisis, the Spanish government has unerringly stuck to the ‘rule of law’ narrative despite many top jurists at home and abroad accusing the judiciary of exceeding its powers, going beyond the letter of the law, misapplying the criminal and constitutional codes for political ends, infringing European and United Nations human rights laws. Spain’s secret service, the National Intelligence Centre, Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI), is again in the spotlight, this time for the possibly illegal nature of its surveillance operations on foreign soil. Belgium, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom should all be interested in what the CNI have been up to in their backyards. Everyone is still waiting for clarification of their role in last August’s terror attacks in Catalonia, when it emerged that the Ripoll imam responsible for forming the cell, Abdelbaki Es Satty, had been a paid informant. Then, last Friday, president Carles Puigdemont was released on €75,000 bail by a Schleswig-Holstein court in Germany and, as suddenly as the cava corks had been popped in nationalist Spain at news of his detention on a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) on March 25, a bucket of cold water was thrown all over the Spanish government’s strategy.

The main plank of their plan has always been the dismantling of the pro-independence movement via the law. There has barely been a pretence of a separation of powers since last summer, when Spanish gloves came off, but in truth all important legislation passed by the Generalitat since 2015 has been blocked by Spain’s Constitutional Court. Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution; articles 472 (rebellion), 544 (sedition) and articles 432-435 (embezzlement) of the Spanish criminal code are the main instruments of the decapitation. Article 510 (hate crime) and the 2015 Citizen Security Protection Law, Ley Orgánica de protección de la seguridad ciudadana, aka the ‘Gag Law’, or ‘Ley Mordaza’, have been used more against wider Catalan civil society and the grassroots of the pro-independence movement. Now the National or High Court, Audiencia Nacional, is considering the charge of rebellion for use against the Committees for the Defence of the Republic, Comités per la Defensa de la República (CDR). As back up to the public prosecutor is far-right political party, VOX, which performs the role of defunct ‘union’, Clean Hands, Manos Limpias, by filing private prosecutions against leading independentists. It is important to remember the cost of the Spanish government’s strategy to the independence movement:

  • 9 political prisoners: Sànchez, Cuixart, Junqueras, Forn, Turull, Bassa, Rull, Romeva, Forcadell
  • 7 exiles: Puigdemont, Rovira, Gabriel, Ponsatí, Comin, Serret, Puig
  • 712 mayors investigated
  • 254 sackings
  • 24 organisations closed, 16 seized
  • Dozens more investigated in the Generalitat
  • 2,286,217 voters in 1 October referendum: 1,066 wounded by police violence
  • 4,392,891 voters’ ballots not respected from the 21 December regional election
  • 100s investigated or prosecuted for protests, dissidence and expressions of ideology
  • Attempt to suppress the Catalan school model, the Catalan media (the CCMA, TV3, CatRadio, etc) and Catalan culture
  • A purge of the autonomic police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra

Independentism has basically been illegalised by Article 155, and a future illegalisation of independentist political parties and civil organisations is certainly on the Spanish government’s legal wishlist. This Partido Popular (PP) government, which has been described as a criminal organisation by still practising prosecutors, would like to continue criminalising its opposition. Could they get away with it?

The relentlessness of the judicialisation of Catalan politics also allows the Spanish government to ensure as little attention as possible is paid to the 900+ politicians, officials and members of the ‘business community’ connected to Spanish national and local governments of recent years who are accused of corruption. They are only very gradually processed by the courts in this densest of smokescreens. That the Catalan crisis has banished the Gürtel corruption case to the shadows has been a boon to this shaky minority government. To the independentists they say ‘no one is above the law’, but it is obvious that the Spanish establishment and the far-right enjoy high levels of immunity, or are at least very leniently treated by it. Spanish law can be painfully slow when it suits, none of the brutal haste of the past six months when it has come to the secessionists.

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The key offence in the Spanish government’s lawfare strategy is rebellion. For it to exist, there is a prerequisite of violence. Some would consider it a daring strategy, others foolhardy, to try to demonstrate the invisible violence of your avowedly pacific enemy while doling out large doses of it to that selfsame enemy, claiming they had provoked it by not doing as they were told. Nevertheless, since Maza’s original ruling, the Spanish State has stuck to the ‘violent rebellion’ narrative so carefully polished by Supreme Court judge, Pablo Llarena. Many feel that the Spanish State is itself breaking laws of Spain, Europe and the UN by acting with obvious violence against its own people, and in defence of nobody.

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‘There’s no smoke without fire’ is a saying that one should be careful about using if you are talking about anything involving the Spanish judiciary, politicians and media. In Spain, it is perfectly possible for a judge to redefine an important legal concept at the behest of a government in order for a law to be applied to certain actions that it would like to prosecute. It is also possible for that definition to be extended and applied more generally, and for the definition to be adopted by lower level politicians and a majority in the media. If, even after this redefinition, events still do not quite fit, a narrative is created, characterised by a blithe disregard for facts, deeds and the truth, and which relies on anything from exaggeration to downright fabrication.

This means, for example, that a newspaper wanting to paint a particular group as being violent and dangerous, but having no evidence, might find some unrelated but particularly violent footage and claim it has been perpetrated by the group they wish to discredit. Such things are easy to disprove, but, as the publication is unlikely to be sanctioned for its fake news, and a rectification or even an apology will not be forthcoming unless legal action is taken, the lie can be considered a success if enough people swallow and spread it. The fake news will be reposted by other media, shared in the medieval atmosphere of Tabarnian social media, as full as it is of kings and queens, of ancient peoples and gods, of Cids and Thors, always ‘X of Tabarnia‘. Their brand of Spanish nationalism is terribly old-fashioned too in its defence of a kind of fantastical Spain.

The fake news will also be repeated by the aforementioned politicians, unapologetically and with impunity. The numbers of regular people that will take such falsehood at face value is spectacular. Black propaganda is rife in Spain and, as reality is stranger than fiction, it is a conspiracy theorist’s dream. To give just one example, here’s La Razón‘s ‘Police and Civil Guard stations, the CDR’s next targets: “We’re coming for you”‘ (Las dependencias de Policía y Guardia Civil, próximos objetivos de los Comités de Defensa de la República: «Vamos a venir a por ti»). The headline quote is a complete invention and the images used in the piece are, in fact, images of far-right violence from the 9 October attacks by the far-right on independentists in Valencia.

The important question here is: if violence by pro-independence groups, especially the CDR, is so common, why is it necessary to use pictures of unrelated violence committed by the CDR’s ideological antithesis?

This is the umpteenth media storm launched by the government as part of the Save Spain, Destroy Catalonia  mediastorm saga, and this one focuses on ‘violence’. It aims to prove the independentist movement is actually violent despite all appearances to the contrary. They have decided on the ‘Kale Borroka‘ analogy, though the CDR are far from being radical urban guerilla groups. They are, in fact, yet another product of associative and cooperative Catalan civil society that lacks any kind of structure or hierarchy, and the Spanish authorities do not get them at all. Although the initial, and extremely inaccurate, Civil Guard report on the CDR makes no mention of violent activity, judge Lamela’s High Court press release revealed the civil groups would also be investigated for rebellion.

On 3 April from Algeria, Rajoy expressed his concern at direct action taken by the CDR in cutting off motorways during the week leading up to the Easter holidays, calling it ‘violent intimidation’. He also defended the Mossos d’Esquadra operation to disperse the demonstrators that had filled the streets surrounding the Spanish government delegation the previous Sunday in Barcelona, when nearly 100 demonstrators were injured in police charges. ‘Groups of Catalan independentist vandals’, they were called. Enric Millo, the Spanish government’s delegate in Catalonia, argued that there had been an ‘increase in aggressiveness and violent incidents’ and promised to ‘increase security for those suffering intimidation’ without going into detail as to the nature of the intimidation or identity of its victims. Interior Minister Zoido called them ‘cells organised to do damage’.

As expected, political pyromaniac, Albert Rivera, went a step further, repeatedly referring to CDR groups as ‘commandos‘, deliberately bringing to mind memories of ETA and Kale Borroka. Rivera is the incendiary anti-Catalan Catalan leader of Ciudadanos and, if the opinion polls are to be believed, potentially the next prime minister of Spain. Rivera is a dangerous figure .

Pedro Sánchez of socialist party PSOE met with right-wing Spanish nationalist organisation, Catalan Civil Society, Societat Civil Catalana (SCC), and representatives of trades unions UGT and CCOO. The PSOE leader praised SCC’s work in Catalonia, accepting their role as victim in the current Catalan situation, and urged a solution for ‘100% of Catalans’.

The unanimity and frequency with which Spanish constitutionalist and unionist politicians trotted out the narrative was convincing to the vast majority of Spaniards, who have no knowledge of Catalan civil groups. As Podemos resignee and political activist, Albano-Dante Fachín, pointed out in his brief reflection on the narrative – entitled ‘It wasn’t Chomsky, but Timsit that nailed the ‘CDR is violent’ narrative‘ (No va ser Chomsky, va ser Timsit qui la va clavar amb la “violència dels CDR) – the government’s strategy follows to the letter Timsit’s 10 media manipulation strategies, not just to flood the media with a particular narrative, but also to distract from extreme difficulties being suffered at the heart of government: their inability to pass their budget without the support of centre-right Basque nationalist party, PNB, which won’t be forthcoming until Article 155 is lifted, not to mention a severe public debt problem and constant stream of corruption cases.

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In the media, the worst piece published pushing the ‘independentism is violent’ narrative appeared first in the English edition of Spain’s number one title, El País, on 2 April. It was an opinion piece from regular contributor, one of the founders of SCC, who also has links to far-right Somatemps, Joaquim Coll. Coll attempted what even Llarena would find insane: to prove that the pro-independence movement has always been violent. Mr Coll is nothing, if not ambitious:

Opinión | The Catalan independence push: a catalogue of violence

It is convenient to reflect on the insurrectionary nature of the Catalan independence push in order to examine the question of violence in the broadest sense of the word. This is important because a large section of the public, especially in Catalonia but also in the rest of Spain, views what has happened thus far in a benevolent way and insists it has all been peaceful – “exemplary” even.

Coll rails first against the subtle violence of the intimidating pro-independence flag, then against what he calls ‘institutional violence’, which actually turns out to be the support of social, cultural and sporting entities for a referendum on independence. The third area of violence he points to is pro-independence propaganda from the Catalan media that he perceives as leading to name-calling: the standard ‘Fascist‘ or ‘Falangist‘. The connection here is particularly tenuous. The use of these epithets is directly proportionate to the numbers of Fascists and Falangists there might be in Catalan society at any given time. They have been on the rise again in recent years. The epithets are usually directed at those perceived as sympathising with far-right ideologies or nostalgic for the times when they were prevalent. Coll is, of course, talking about himself. Like so many so-called Socialists in Spain, and Catalonia is no exception, he is also a Spanish nationalist and has no problem rubbing shoulders with the far-right at SCC rallies.

The last, and most important form of violence identified in his piece is predictably Llarena’s narrative. Coll calls it ‘physical violence’. The Mossos d’Esquadra’s non-violent ‘inactivity’ on 1 October is next in his firing line. Apparently, it was somehow violent of them not to use violence. He should not worry too much about this; the new-look Mossos have more than made up for their violent pacifism since, and their former chief has been charged with sedition. There is, of course, no mention of the hundreds of verbal and physical assaults perpetrated in the name of the unity of Spain in the past six months alone, of the actual injuries caused by police violence: over a 1,000 on 1 October referendum and nearly 100 on 25 March at the demonstration outside the Spanish government delegation in Barcelona, with dozens more hurt during other demonstrations and direct action.

Coll’s is a loose dictionary definition of violence, stretched even further than Llarena’s in his most recent ruling on 23 March, which saw five more Catalan political leaders enter prison and one more choose exile. In his head it constitutes a ‘catalogue of violence’ that has split Catalan civil society and brought us to the brink of civil war. The talk of civil war always comes from the same quarters as talk of a coup d’état. To most, it seems more that the Spanish State is at war with a sector of its own society, a sector it will not negotiate with, and is determined to destroy.

Coll writes vague anti-Catalan propaganda and rarely refers to actual events. His work slots perfectly into the Spanish nationalist propaganda assault, in overdrive for the past few weeks and so poignantly punctuated by the very Spanish passion at Easter; up to our ears we were in Spanish Legionaries carrying Christ on the cross around the country while top members of the PP government sang along to the Legionaries’ biggest hit, The Bridegroom of Death.

* * *

The German connection was again present in the particularly tendentious El País opinion piece ‘Guardiola’s, and other lies‘, Las mentiras de Guardiola y otras mentiras, where Guardiola was dubbed Goebbelsdiola for his wearing of a yellow ribbon in support of Catalan political prisoners and public defence of self-determination. British ‘supremacism’ was also referenced, presumably something to do with Guardiola working in England, or perhaps Clara Ponsatí’s warm reception in Scotland. I do not imagine many outside the most febrile Spanish nationalist circles were very impressed with this article, least of all the British and the Germans. The world must now be getting used to the reactions it can expect if the wishes of Spain’s government are not fulfilled.

Puigdemont’s release on bail brought offended reactions from both mainstream and social media in Spain. On being freed, he fielded questions from the international media in a variety of languages. Tellingly, and embarrassingly, some Spanish journalists berated him when he answered in Catalan a question asked in Catalan. ‘In Spanish!’ they shouted. No such cries were forthcoming when he spoke in English or French. These outbursts of catalanophobic Spanish nationalism, so much part of day-to-day life in Spain, raise eyebrows abroad. Among the most extreme outbursts from the mainstream far-right [sic] media came from controversial ultra-conservative journalist and radio personality Federico Jiménez Losantos of Libertad Digital and esRadio, who called for the breweries of Bavaria to be blown sky high and pointed out the 200,000 potential German hostages resident in the Balearic islands:

Spain’s diplomatic corps has been throwing its weight about, mainly in Europe, in six months of frenzied activity that has mainly involved the three Bs – bribery, blackmail and bullying. Every time things do not go quite the way Spain wants, it gets upset. Now, with the Schleswig-Holstein court’s refusal to regard Puigdemont’s Spanish rebellion charges as equivalent to German high treason due to the absence of an evident violent element, it lashes out again. Threats, abuse, hate speech.

The tragic and fatal vehicle attack in Münster, Germany, has brought a deluge of offensive content from the more extreme Spanish nationalist elements on social media and the far-right news media. In the twisted Spanish nationalist mind, the Germans got what was coming to them. One of the hateful tweets is one of Joaquim Coll’s erstwhile colleagues, another of the founders of aforementioned far-right Spanish nationalist organisations, Somatemps and Societat Civil Catalana, Josep Ramon Bosch. This Twitter thread also contains a flashback to some of the vile comments directed at the Catalans, Germans and French when Germanwings flight 9525 was flown into a mountainside by suicidal co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, on 24 March 2015. None of the comments makes very pleasant reading.

Beware of the dog

Do not cross the Spanish or you will live to regret it. Or not. It is obscene. It is, and always has been very obvious where the violence and hate are coming from in Catalan society, and with every day that passes it becomes clearer to the outside world too: the police and Spanish nationalism. Unionist politicians are like cheerleaders. This Twitter thread on the violence seen and suffered in Catalonia since 1 October features violent acts from the groups mentioned before. Violence in the streets and media of Spain always flies the same standard – the rojigualda:


For Spanish nationalists, too many Catalans are not Spanish enough, or too Catalan, depending on which way you look at it. Catalonia is not Spanish enough either, or too Catalan. The Catalan language is also not Spanish enough. In Catalonia, Spain, anywhere Spanish nationalists may be – it is like a dog whistle. The sound can send them into a frenzy. It can cause them to attack its source verbally or physically. They think it should not be allowed, that it should not exist so much, perhaps at all, and should certainly not be spoken when around the Spanish. Perhaps it would be better if it was spoken only in private, like in the good old days of Francisco Franco. Do not doubt for a minute that this is what this is all about: Spanish cultural supremacy.

Catalans are too different from, and for, the Spanish, and if there is one thing that most characterises the differential now, it is the very choice and embracement of non-violent protest and resistance by secessionist Catalan civil society. All pro-independence Catalans, and I mean ALL of them, know that violence on their part would mean a redoubling of the level of repression and a waning of broader public support, which still remains high. It is why so much punishment has been taken without violent reply and why selling the ‘independentism is violent’ narrative is a tall order outside the Spanish nationalist bubble.

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