dilluns, 6 de novembre de 2017

My thoughts on Referendum Day in Catalonia

[versió en català d'aqui un parell de dies] For better or for worse, it’s taken me weeks to write this down – how I lived the Catalan referendum on Sunday, the first of October. [Background info: after several years and numerous official attempts to get Spain to agree to a referendum (as desired by 80% of Catalans), Catalonia finally passed a law in its own parliament allowing for an independence referendum on 1 Oct, and Spanish courts ‘suspended’ it, claiming it was unconstitutional. As Catalans prepared to vote, Spanish police spent weeks searching for the ballot boxes or voting slips, censuring referendum publicity and websites, raiding Catalan govt buildings, arresting govt officials, and shipping in thousands of Spanish National Police and Guardia Civil ready to move into action on referendum day. Judges ordered the Catalan police to stop the vote by not allowing polling stations to open. In a very sensible and logical move, Catalan police said they’d do that only if it didn’t involve creating greater problems such as having to use physical force on crowds of citizens. Many people camped out in polling stations on the Friday and Saturday before the vote to ensure police couldn’t close them. The Catalan police said they’d come to seal them off at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. So, many of us who hadn’t camped out decided to go there before 6...]

After going to bed at 1.a.m, mind awhirl with news reports coming in from around Catalonia of what was happening at different polling stations, the alarm went off at 4.30 a.m on Sunday. Shower, and computer and phone back on to get a quick update via the tweets of tens of thousands of Catalans active on social networks. We made two flasks of coffee and a few sandwiches and left the house in darkness and silence (leaving the kids in bed). My wife and myself got to our polling station around 5.15 and there were already about 30 people there. Within minutes someone had turned up and unlocked the building and we were in! Big sigh of relief that we’d got it open and were in before police officially sealed it off. Someone then came in with two giant flasks of coffee and a box of buns and croissants. Those in charge of organizing and watching over the vote then stayed in the building – those chosen to be electoral officers and volunteer observers (including my wife as a member of the cultural association Omnium). The rest of us went outside to crowd around the door to prevent police from entering if/when they turned up. We relaxed then, a few of us had brought picnic chairs, some brought chairs out of the building and we all started chatting nervously about what the day would hold. Two of our ex-students, now both great musicians-composers, were there with their parents, also great friends of ours (Manel, a retired literature teacher and poet, and Cinta, an artist/sculptor and teacher of art) so we had a grand time with them. Then (my memory of the exact times is vague, but probably around 6ish) a van screeched to a halt outside and someone pulled a black bag out of the back and ran into the polling station. The ballot boxes had arrived! Big moment as Spanish security forces had been searching for them for months, and the Spanish government had even claimed they didn’t exist. As the people inside started to set up the tables and lay out voting slips, our optimism rose outside as it was confirmed that the Catalan government hadn’t been bluffing when they’d promised they could organize this despite having the weight of the Spanish police and judicial system against them. 

Around 7ish a Catalan police car turned up, so we all packed together around the door. About 50 of us. Two Catalan policemen got out and came up to us. “Who’s in charge here?”. “We all are”. “What are you doing?” At this point, Manel moved to the front of the crowd and said “We’re going to hold a poetry recital. We’re going to read poems by local authors all day. Starting with this one by Gerard Verges” This poet was probably the greatest poet to come from Tortosa, and one of the greats in Catalonia – and also the author of the best translation into Catalan of Shakespeare. He passed away two years ago. And his son was in the building, as an electoral officer. So when our friend then started reciting Verges by heart in his magnificent voice, there on the doorstep of the polling station, at 7am on Sunday morning, to the astonishment of the police officers, more than a few tears were shed. And we realized, if we hadn’t already, that this was going to be a special day.
One of the policemen then told us that it was his duty to inform us that any activities linked to the referendum were illegal and that they’d be watching us. They then walked about 20 yards away and stood on the other side of the road.
We eventually relaxed and stopped huddling around the door en masse, spreading out down the steps outside the building and along the pavement and started chatting again, everyone with one eye or ear on their phones to follow social networks or listen to the radio. Then the mayor and our local MP came to check everything was OK before moving on to another station. Some time just after 8, we had another boost to our confidence. The Catalan government announced that the vote would be run under what they call a “universal census” – basically as you vote, they check your ID details, and tick you off electronically using a tablet with internet, which means you can vote at any polling station. This was major news as it meant that even if the police managed to close down stations, if you could get to another one, you could still vote. Also yet one more confirmation we were running rings round the Spanish government who had no idea that this system would be running. Obviously during the day, Madrid got its IT experts into action and they managed to bring the system down several times, but each time we got it running again. A cyberwar, as they say.

Next big moment, 9 a.m., when doors opened. By this time there were around a hundred of us outside. We decided to go in about 6 at a time to vote to ensure there would always be a large group outside in case more police came. People started to queue to go in, while others just milled around commenting on news coming in from other stations and tweeting about what was happening at ours. We also discussed the importance of voting and then staying at the station - most of us had made plans to stay there all day until the station closed and votes were counted. What would the Catalan police do? Would they do as we believed and not use physical force to close down the stations? Would the Spanish National Police or the militarized Guardia Civil turn up? These conversations went on all morning. Some of the voters more experienced in civil obedience were explaining how to sit down, arms linked, not offering resistance etc, while others were talking about going inside the station, locking the doors and barricading ourselves inside. All very theoretical... until tweets started arriving before 9.30 announcing violent interventions of Spanish police forces at different polling stations. Photos and videos of people being beaten with truncheons, and dragged out of polling stations in Barcelona and the north of Catalonia. One particularly shocking photo of an elderly lady with blood streaming down her face. In a state of shock, I realized this was going to be much worse than I’d imagined.
What did I think would happen? That Spanish police would line up outside polling stations, intimidating voters and allowing the Spanish government to claim the vote was ‘illegal’ and chaotic and thus ignore it, as they’d ignored 2014’s public consultation. I knew there were literally thousands of Spanish riot police brought in from other areas of Spain – often to a patriotic send-off in their home town, flag-waving, cries of “Go get them” etc – but assumed it could all be just for show. About 10 minutes later, however, people in the crowd at our station started to say “Guardia Civil have attacked the station in La Ràpita” and minutes later videos were circulating on Twitter. La Ràpita is a small peaceful fishing town in the south of Catalonia, many miles away from the capital – one of those towns you thought the police would ignore as their objective must surely be to create chaos amongst the millions of voters in Barcelona, not down here. I was wrong. The video shows about 20 police vans, maybe 100 officers in riot gear beating people, throwing them out of the way, smashing their way through the doors to get at the ballot boxes. And all the while, those waiting to vote simply stand there with their hands held in the air, until they’re beaten into submission and try to get out of the way. People I know, youngsters, elderly people, people I’ve marched alongside on our “Save the river Ebro” rallies, a friend of mine who’s a journalist covering the event, all beaten and forced out of the way. Images of people in shock, blood everywhere, no one can believe they would do this. It really brought it all home to us.
I suppose psychologically we reverted to a self-defence mechanism and all started to huddle together around the door once more, eyes and ears open. One of the only things I believed I could do, as a Brit, and a good English-speaker, was to do my bit to try and get the message out to whoever wants to listen. On my Twitter account I had followed the 30 or so international observers (many MEPs) who had come, as well as many international journalists whom I knew were covering the day. So, like many others I know, I spent most of the next couple of hours retweeting news stories, photos, videos to them, translating key headines into English (on top of all the dozens of letters and emails I’d sent before the vote, and afterwards). The collective powers of Catalan citizens together with the presence of these people here on the ground was essential to get the news out to international media (and the TV sets of European leaders) as soon as possible. We must be grateful for this; I think it’s only because the news was spread so quickly that things didn’t get any worse than they did (which was horrific anyway, as you’ll see).

More news in; police raided and smashed up the polling stations where the Catalan President and the Speaker of Parliament were due to vote. The President switched cars under a bridge to fool the police helicopter following him and managed to make it to another station to vote before the police came to that one too. The education minister was pushed and shoved by police as she tried to vote. Convoys of police vans were going from station to station doing their worst. Catalan police refused to use violence, and only closed down stations ‘unprotected’ (in some towns, given the “universal census”, the organizers chose to abandon some stations and concentrate the ballot boxes and citizens at just one to make it easier to protect, leaving the other stations ‘unprotected’). But, as feared by many, the Spanish police and Guardia Civil just did their worst. Full riot gear, batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, you name it - all to try and prevent a vote from happening. If it was illegal, (a) surely it’s the organizers who committed the crime, not the voters; and (b) police should respond to a “crime” with a proportionate response. Voting doesn’t deserve a beating.

Next excitement, a van full of Catalan police turn up. They didn’t look so friendly as the first two, who were still there, and judging by their uniforms these were from the Catalan riot police department but not wearing the full gear. They milled about on the other side of the road and stared at us. Then another van. And another. Eventually there were about 20 or so police agents and they formed a line and crossed the road towards us, eventually stopping 2 yards in front of us. This aggressive staring, and telling people not to take photos didn’t bode well. One of them got instructions over the radio, and with a couple more he tried to come up the steps but the people didn’t move. The police finally stepped back. As you can imagine our adrenaline had shot through the roof. I have been on many protest marches but never felt the fear of police violence before. I was shaking and looking around me and, as I’ve said, we were a mixed bunch. There were people in their 80s in the crowd, people who’d waited all their lives (half of it under a dictatorship) for this moment, but luckily no babies or small kids at this moment – earlier on people had come to vote with babies in pushchairs as you do if you think voting is a normal activity. Eventually the police backed off and went back to their vans. About 20 minutes later they drove away. Later we heard they did manage to close a station in another part of Tortosa. A polling station at the end of a narrow cul-de-sac, the police formed a line and prevented anyone else from entering, and prevented those inside from leaving. The only ‘funny’ story is that a few hours later, some police officers needed to ‘relieve themselves’ so the people inside (where the toilets are) were able to negotiate a truce and either leave the building or have food brought in!

La Rapita is about half an hour from Tortosa, so the big question on our minds was ‘where are the Guardia Civil? Are they coming for us too?’ About an hour later, we knew where they were .- in the next town to us, Roquetes. Same tactics, about a hundred came, beat people, smashed windows and doors and took away a ballot box (only one because the people inside had hidden the others and so they were able to continue voting afterwards!). As the police retreated to their vans, with weapons in their hands, the images of about 500 local citizens walking after them chanting for them to leave still brings tears to my eyes now every time I see it. The definition of dignity.
Tortosa next? Rumours fly. ‘They’re in Tortosa, they’re at this station, that one’ Quick, everyone at the door. Hide the boxes, take the lists of people who’ve voted and their ID numbers and hide them. The Mayor came back, telling us to keep calm, keep voting, we have nothing to fear, if they come to prevent us voting this is the picture the world will see, a state which uses  force on its own citizens for voicing their opinion peacefully. The rumours were just that, rumours. They didn’t come to Tortosa.

At one point a fire engine drove past very slowly to loud cheers. Catalan firefighters had promised to come, off-duty, whenever/wherever they could to defend citizens against police violence. It wasn’t necessary in Tortosa but in many towns the photos of firefighters forming a human barricade between riot police and peaceful voters still bring me out in goose pimples.
A bit later, another Tortosa poet came. He must be in his 90s and was wheeled in in his wheelchair by his son. Voted and left the building to another round of applause.

Then I had my sandwich and some coffee and went in the building to be with my wife, Silvia, a while. They’d been very busy inside too. Trying to keep the electronic voting system up and running correctly was hell. Police had even closed down internet in some polling stations. Apart from that, and the nerves, the vote was going well, plenty of participation and people – despite the violence – were still turning up happy to finally be able to vote.

Given the rumours, I phoned my sister-in-law and advised her not to bring her two little kids when she came to vote. Also messaged our kids, and my parents back in the UK who might have been seeing nasty scenes on TV, to say we were OK so far. Back on Twitter, we saw that the international media were really on the ball giving very clear coverage of what was happening. Even some of the international observers had posted their own footage of police violence that they’d seen in person. More chatting, more translating of news to tweet to anyone listening. About two-ish the rate of voting slowed down, and rumours of police moving about locally died down – although we could see that police were in action all around the country. So, time for a sit down inside the building, a sandwich and a drink with Silvia and some friends. Another ex-student of ours was in tears, of emotion and anger, which of course set us all off again. We started to check out videos and photos of what had happened as Silvia hadn’t really had time to see them yet. Horrendous. After our lunch break, when we saw there were enough people around to block any attempts by police to enter (the two original policemen keep coming back and asking if we’d let them in), Silvia and myself decided to go and visit a couple more polling stations in town. We’d just got to another one, where we met Silvia’s nephews and nieces amongst a crowd of about 200, when we got word that the Guardia Civil had finished having lunch in nearby town, Amposta, and were getting back in their vans. It turned out that, since the Roquetes incident, ‘we’ had had someone following them in a car to report on their movements! So, back to our station. More discussions – what to do, obstruct them, move out of the way, lock the doors, is it worth a beating, hide the votes... and eventually another message told us they had driven straight past Tortosa and continued upriver. Another sigh of relief and we decided to visit another polling station. At this one the voters had prepared a bucketful of carnations to give to the riot police if they came. We had a chat with friends there, no one could believe how violent the police have been, but everyone was determined to see this through to the end.
Then back to our station and more and more people coming in to vote. The afternoon/evening passed quickly, with more or less the same events as the morning –horrific images coming in from different towns, rumours, messages about the location of the police vans and so on. Our two police officers went off duty and were replaced by two more at 18.00, so we had to do the same “Can we come in?” business again. About 19.00 we hear the Guardia Civil had raided a couple of towns upriver and were driving back down. The Catalan police closed down entry to another station in Tortosa, but didn’t confiscate the ballot boxes so those inside started counting. Some other stations in Tortosa decided to close now and start counting rather than risk staying open to the offical closing time of 20.00, and risk being raided at the last minute. We decided to chance it, in the hope that we could always hide one of our boxes before the police managed to open the door if they came. Seeing in person all these decisions and efforts to ensure the vote was as well-organized and correct as possible under the conditions (threats, cyber attacks, police violence) just make me even angrier when I hear Spanish politicians saying the vote was fixed. They have literally no idea what happened, and what happens when a people really believe in democracy and their chance to have a say on their own future.

Just before we closed at 20.00, I had to go and pick up our kids who’d been for lunch and spent the afternoon at their grandmother’s house. We called off at McDonald’s for obvious reasons, then I left them at home to fend for themselves, while I went back into town. When I arrived the door was locked, as it should be, while the count went on. Many of us still ‘stood guard’ at the door just in case, until eventually around 21.30 the door opened and the results of our station were announced to a round of applause, sighs of relief, and a few more tears. All that was left was to tidy up, send the results electronically, and head home to see the final nationwide results. The two Catalan policemen politely asked us if we had finished and we said yes, and they also left.
What did I vote? I didn’t. As I am not a ‘Spanish citizen’, I couldn’t vote, but simply went along to help out as I believe in democracy and listening to citizens.

Results: 2,286,217 votes were counted (43% of census) i.e. over 2 million people risked a police beating to vote
2,044,038 Yes (89.4%)
177,547 No (7.8%)
64,000 void/null/blank votes
Also around 770,000 potential voters either couldn’t vote or had votes confiscated after their polling stations were raided or closed down (which would have pushed turnout over 50% mark, not bad considering Spain declared it illegal and many No voters stayed home). 
Over 900 people needed medical attention as a result of the police violence.

My conclusions; 1. Still amazes me that so many people, of all ages, shapes, and sizes, believed in this vote which the Spanish government had tried so hard to stop – that they believed in it and managed to pull it off. The logistics of the months leading up to the vote, what happened on the day, and the mere act of going to vote after you’ve just seen TV scenes of people being battered, thrown down stairs, dragged out by their hair. Whatever happens now regarding the political and legal situation here, the Catalan people have earned the legitimate right to go ahead and declare independence. It doesn't matter to me whether this vote was legal or constitutional or not. Laws and constitutions are meant to be tools for citizens, not strait jackets, and it's clear there is/was a huge demand here by millions of citizens to simply have a say on their future. Governments should acknowledge this and work towards a political solution.
2. The police violence was planned and deliberate. They knew the ‘crime’ being committed, and the kinds of ‘criminals’ they would find, and what we’d do, and they went ahead with a completely over-the-top disproportionate response nationwide. The tactic of driving from town to town, apparently at random was also planned so as to instill us with a sense of fear. I have seen (on TV) extremely violent police actions in Europe before but never in this context. These weren’t ‘clashes between protestors and police’ as some claimed. No one was ‘clashing’ and no one was protesting. This violence was carried out by thousands of police basically attacking innocent people peacefully waiting to vote on a nationwide scale.
3. Spain considers Catalonia to be a colony they must control and subdue. Attitudes from all mainstream political parties, the media, the judicial system, all indicate that they don’t worry about having an attractive proposition to convince Catalonia to stay, but that they focus on insults, disdain, threats, repression, violence, to ‘make’ Catalans stay in Spain. The photos of Spanish police setting off for Catalonia whilst waving flags and playing the Spanish anthem have no place in democratic policing.
4. However much they deny it, Franco’s ghost is still in the room. The arrogant inflexible attitudes showed by all these parties, and the Spanish Establishment in general, as well as their policing methods, and subsequent denial of having used violence (really) all confirm that Francoist attitudes still run deep. Many members of the Spanish political and judicial establishment have direct links to Francoism, and many others seem to have learnt that this is how to behave. Forget dialogue, negotiations, listening to citizens, the role of the Spanish State is to control its citizens apparently.

La Rapita Roquetes

2 comentaris:

  1. It was such a long blogpost that at first I was daunted by the prospect of reading it all but in the end I was gripped by this personal and very human account of what happened that day and your reflections upon it all. One thing that has puzzled me since the referendum is that the media are reporting that more than half of the Catalan people wish to remain with Spain. These are people who have allegedly felt intimidated or silenced by the noisy Catalan independence movement. My instinct is that this is all blatant propaganda designed to emasculate and undermine the movement to independence. The story is not over by a long way. I wonder what the next chapter will be. It seems incredible that the state could use its power so terribly against peaceful citizens. Such a crude response will surely have the effect of galvanising the Catalan people.

    1. Thanks for calling by! Yes, the first few days after the event I was far too emotional to "put pen to paper", but I eventually thought "Ok, I'll just write a few lines.." and before you know it I'd written a mini-book! The next post will cover what's happened since then. I agree with you, this kind of response by the Spanish govt has done nothing to calm things down or work towards a negotiated outcome. Independence may come later than many hoped for, but I can't see anyone going back now. The 'number game' is not clear as very few clearly worded opinion polls have been published. My feeling is that it's about 60/40 in favour of independence but we'll never know for sure until they hold a referendum accepted by everyone. I'm pretty sure the Spanish govt must think the same numbers, otherwise they'd have held the referendum already!