The violent uprising that never happened, and never will
So much has been said about it. There are Catalan politicians and civil leaders in prison and exile for it; four of them on hunger strike. The Spanish media is, and has been for more than a year, full of stories about the violence of the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs). And there have been constant demands from the three main Spanish parties – the Popular Party (Partido Popular – PP), Citizens (Ciudadanos – Cs) and the Socialist Workers Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español – PSOE) for a reapplication of direct rule because of it.
But there has been, and will be no violent uprising. No matter how much “constitutionalists” scream about last year’s “coup d’état” and call Catalan politicians and officials “coup leaders”, it never happened. The military coup that got Spain into this mess happened in July 1936, was followed by three years of civil war, 36 years of military dictatorship, a far from peaceful transition to democracy and a continuist take-it-or-leave-it constitution, whose 40th anniversary was celebrated, mourned or ignored on 6 December. There was another coup d’état on 23 February 1981 when Spain was already a “full democracy”. The level of political violence throughout this period, and beyond, is shocking.
Reports of the unbearable levels of violence in Catalonia today are not greatly exaggerated, they are quite simply a fiction. Even the clear contrast between events in France in the past month and Catalonia in the past 15 months are not enough to mute the hysterical cries of “coup” and “violent independentist paramilitary commandos”. Having insisted on the absurd narrative in the courts and the media, Spanish unionist parties now see a chance to support the rhetoric with actual incidents as the pro-independence movement takes a few timid steps of direct action once again. In France, thousands have been arrested, hundreds injured and there have been deaths. Calls for Spanish unionists to tone down their incendiary rhetoric and get a little perspective have gone unheeded, however. It is as if they do not know what violence is. But they do. They just lie.
On Constitution Day, the Catalan president was in Slovenia meeting the Slovenian president. During last Saturday’s presentation of the Council for the Republic in Brussels, Quim Torra remembered the “Slovenian way” to independence, saying: “The Slovenes were clear about it, they decided on self-determination and forged ahead on their path to freedom, whatever the consequences, until they achieved it”. He went on to suggest that the Catalans “do as they did, accept that there is no going back and that we are ready for anything in order to live in freedom”.
As the “Slovenian way” involved a ten-day war that resulted in 62 deaths, Torra’s words have been much criticised. There are obvious differences between Slovenia in 1990-1991 and Catalonia in 2017-2018: in 1989 Germany was reunified, Germany supported the independence drives by four of the republics of communist Yugoslavia, almost all Slovenes participated in the Slovenian referendum, almost 90% were in favour of independence and Slovenia had its own army.
The Speaker of the Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent, from the Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Repúblicana de Catalunya – ERC) chided the president and defended the “Scottish way”, which involves a referendum on self-determination agreed to by the State. Spain’s Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, revelled in the inferences that he could make from Torra’s words and accused him of inciting an armed insurrection. And the mainstream Spanish media is trying to give the impression that the streets of Catalonia are controlled by paramilitary militia.
Truth be told the past year has been a story of general inaction from the Catalan people as they have tried to work out what has happened. Action has been generally limited to peacefully symbolic acts of support for political prisoners and exiles, and now the hunger strikers. Political and civil leaders have always insisted on the course of non-violence, without ever really seeming to understand the true nature of direct action.
On Constitution Day, far-right Spanish nationalist party, Vox, were present at two demonstrations in Catalonia. In the morning, Spanish nationalist platform “Borbonia” – supported by Vox, PP and far-right anti-immigration party, Plataforma per Catalunya (PxC) – gathered in Girona’s 1 October Square (plaça de l’U d’Octubre), previously Constitution Square (plaça de la Constitució), under the slogan “United for the Constitution”. In the afternoon, they were in Terrassa. Both events were met by anti-fascist counter-demonstrations.
When counter demonstrators timidly attempted to break the line formed by the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, officers reacted with the customary extreme baton charges. The controversial riot guns with foam projectiles were also used, injuring a representative of the Popular Unity Candidacy (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular – CUP), Maria Sirvent, as she was assisting an injured demonstrator. The expandable baton, banned in such situations, was used by this helmetless officer.
Defenders of the Mossos state that Vox’s lawyers pressure Catalan judges and the judges in turn pressure the police to act, threatening them with sanctions for inaction, as occurred on 1 October. It would have been sufficient to simply block the counter demonstration. Those trying to break the cordon did not seem at all convinced of their chances of success and it is not clear what they intended to do had they succeeded. The Mossos’ reaction was out of all proportion. This has become the norm at all the spontaneous actions and counter-demonstrations by independentists or anti-fascists. In contrast, the Mossos are protective of the far-right.
On Sunday, a group of around 100 CDR members, protesting against the pre-trial imprisonment of Catalan political leaders and in favour of the implementation of the Catalan Republic, cut off the AP-7 motorway near L’Ampolla in the south of Catalonia for 15 hours. In the absence of the BRIMO, the Mossos’ mobile riot police, there were no incidents between officers and activists. The only threats of violence came from angry drivers stuck in the massive traffic jams. On Sunday, drivers were less annoyed as the CDRs lifted the barriers at motorway toll gates around Catalonia speeding up people’s return home at the end of the holiday weekend.
However, the Spanish government has written three letters to the Generalitat of Catalonia asking why the Mossos did not beat or forcibly remove those cutting off the motorway, and threatening to send in the Spanish police once again. The letters were sent from the Vice president, Carmen Calvo, the Minister of the Interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, and the Minister of Development, José Luis Ábalos, to their Catalan counterparts: Pere Aragonès, Miquel Buch and Damià Calvet. The question is why did the Mossos not intervene this time? Catalonia’s judicial police force has given the Spanish government yet another stick to beat Catalonia with.
Buch, having promised to look into the disproportionate actions of the Mossos d’Esquadra in Girona and Terrassa saying “we have seen images unworthy of a democratic police force” on Friday, visited Mossos HQ yesterday to apologise for his criticism and state that the Catalan police operations of recent days had been “generally correct”. One can only conclude that the Mossos must always act violently against independentists and anti-fascists. Inaction against fascists causes no such reactions from the government, even if the governing party’s name contains the words “socialist worker”.
On 21 December, the anniversary of the elections forced in Catalonia by Mariano Rajoy’s PP government after the imposition of direct rule, Pedro Sánchez will be in Barcelona to hold a cabinet meeting. His visit will meet with mobilisations from the main civil organisations, and several new platforms which are as yet being treated warily. It is possible that there will be a blockade across Catalonia and the action taken will be more direct. It is still not clear how long the protests will last, but even if Catalonia grinds to a halt, it will not be for long.
The suspicion with which all acts of protest are now treated by the general population can be put down to several factors. In the case of the new organisations that have sprung up, it is mistrust. Direct action taken by unknown groups, without careful planning, the necessary precautions, protection, and clear objectives, can go awry. The Spanish authorities are itching for an excuse to reapply Article 155 of the Constitution and many see 21 December as a trap. At the other end of the spectrum, the mass demonstrations full of symbolism are little more than performances, make no one uncomfortable, and are easy to sneer at or ignore. I do not doubt that such actions make large numbers of people feel better for a while, but they achieve nothing.
To see demonstrators now covering up to avoid identification by the police is seen by some as a turn for the worse and by others as a positive development. The demonstrators’ obvious lack of experience in non-violent direct action is worrying for pro-independentist organisations. They are walking a tightrope. Spanish nationalism has been trying to make Catalonia violent for over a year now, either through violence, abuse or provocation. The tactic has not worked so the violence has been invented. So far the amount of direct action undertaken and numbers of activists participating have been low.
Catalans have demonstrated repeatedly that they are generally law-abiding and principled people, squeamish even. There is no point in talking of the Slovenian way, or the Scottish or French ways come to that. The Catalan way is what it is: non-violent, messy, slow, plural, riddled with doubt and riven by division. They have been left rudderless by their politicians, who seem more interested in internecine disputes than in the people they are supposed to represent. The vast majority of Catalans are tired of so much hot air; from all sides. Even a non-violent uprising looks like a pipe dream.
The independentists still active are barely so. They are overtired and overwhelmed by more than a year of psychological warfare. After so many months of limited non-violent action, how is it possible that they are still treated like terrorists? It is like a recurring nightmare. There is a disturbing disconnect between politicians and people, between the narrative and reality.
This is the real Spain.