All last week, Barcelona went to sleep to the sound of police helicopters hovering overhead, as smoke rose in columns from burning barricades in the city centre. Each day brought new images of riot police firing foam and rubber bullets into large crowds and swatting stragglers with batons. Each day, too, brought news of angry young people in hooded hordes sowing chaos in the streets. Helmeted television journalists scrambled behind them, broadcasting a shaky live stream. The background noise evoked war films and video games.
Things have become messy in Catalonia. The harsh sentencing of pro-independence politicians and civic leaders has unleashed a tidal wave of indignation. On the day it was announced, thousands of protesters shut down the Barcelona-El Prat airport, the action called via an anonymous, highly centralised app called Tsunami Democràtic. Over the next several days, roads were blocked, railways sabotaged and demonstrations held, and pro-independence mayors announced they would march into the capital to protest.
The mobilisations peaked on Friday night after a massive demonstration and a regional work stoppage. Smaller clashes had taken place throughout the day but intensified in the evening when police charged on protesters at Via Laietana and Plaça Urquinaona. They were met with a hail of paving stones ripped from the surrounding streets. Confrontations also broke out in Girona and Tarragona. By the end of the weekend, demonstrations in support of pro-independence politicians had reached Madrid, Valencia and Zaragoza, along with clashes sparked by far-right counter-protesters.
These scenes are new for the Catalan independence movement. Until now, its repertoire of collective actions was decidedly pacifist, revolving mostly around large demonstrations, symbolic actions and massive displays of civil disobedience such as the prohibited 1 October referendum two years ago. To understand this shift, one might start by looking at the writing on the wall. In Barcelona city centre, graffiti reads: “You have shown us that being peaceful is useless.”
What is also new is that the movement’s rage no longer focuses exclusively on the Spanish state. Earlier this week, clashes broke out in front of the Catalan Ministry of Home Affairs. There, demonstrators voiced their outrage at interior minister Miquel Buch and at the hypocrisy of Catalan president Quim Torra, who simultaneously cheered on the protesters and authorised the use of force against them. In a ghastly display of political cynicism, the Catalan government spokeswoman Meritxell Budó argued at a press conference that police attacked the demonstrators to ensure they would not be charged with sedition.
Though atypical of the Catalan independence movement, last week’s clashes were hardly unpredictable. In the two years since the prohibited referendum, public attention in Catalonia has been focused on the sentences handed down to the independence leaders. While more than 60% of the Catalan population believes they should be pardoned, the same proportion of the rest of the Spanish population believes the opposite.
At this point, the territorial crisis in Catalonia is a constitutional crisis. As such, it is ultimately political in nature. But it is possible to imagine another world where it could have taken the form of an administrative conflict, with a public debate on whether Catalan, Spanish or even European institutions are better suited to organise the pensions, healthcare, housing, employment, political participation and welfare of the population. But the pro-independence right has long been happy to avoid this framing, not least because its implementation of austerity led to rapidly deteriorating electoral support earlier this decade. Instead, it has often favoured dog-whistle nationalism and a discourse of moral superiority.
Spanish nationalists were similarly happy to respond in jingoistic terms. By turning a political conflict over to the courts, rightwing unionist parties reinforced the notion that this was a conflict over national belonging. As a legal battle, it could only be interpreted through the lens of 1978 – that is, the weak bargaining position of pro-democratic forces at the time of the constitution’s writing and the threat the old regime saw in its population. It is no surprise, then, that the definition of sedition deployed in the prison sentences affects not only the struggle for Catalan independence but any movement that challenges the status quo through nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. In 2015, the penal code was reformed to do just that, specifically to contain mass mobilisations against evictions and austerity. The reform was applauded by the pro-independence Catalan right.
The predictability of the reaction in the streets suggests much about the decision of the Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez, to forgo a coalition government with the leftwing Unidas Podemos and instead call elections on 10 November. Either Sánchez foolishly did not expect the sentences to spark popular outrage or, contrary to his rhetoric on the campaign trail, his priority was to form a coalition with a rightwing party in response to the unrest in Catalonia. Whether such a strategy will work remains unclear. In the days leading up to the sentencing, polls had the rightwing People’s party closing in on Sánchez’s Socialists, with support for the far right rising rapidly and the technocratic Ciudadanos losing support. Barring a pact with the People’s party, another stalemate in parliament seems likely, albeit with a reinforced and hardened right. Meanwhile, the left continues its fragmentation with the entry of the party of former Podemos leader Íñigo Errejón, Más País, and the pro-independence radical left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) in Catalonia.
But what will happen in the sphere of political representation matters less than what will happen among the population of Catalonia. This conflict has not only overwhelmed both the Spanish and Catalan political class, it has also escaped the control of the civil society organisations that have run the pro-independence process until now. In all likelihood, a large swathe of the youths in the streets are those who saw police attacking teachers, classmates, neighbours and family members during the prohibited referendum in 2017. In interviews, they express a profound lack of hope in their leaders and the democratic status quo. With false promises and an inability to sacrifice electoral gains for democratic compromise, the Spanish and Catalan political classes have done little to prove them wrong.
But rioters tend to have little control over their own message. Normally, it is translated by the media and myth takes over from there. The electoral context guarantees that the majority of political parties will continue to spin their own epic tales to suit their own interests, exaggerating crimes and silencing contradictions as they further inflate nationalist caricatures of the other. The unionist far right demands a state of exception be declared. Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos promises to suspend Catalan self-government and lock up more pro-independence leaders. Pro-independence leaders press for a unilateral declaration of independence. Some suggest a new referendum. Spanish courts are investigating Tsunami Democràtic as a terrorist organisation. Sanchez refuses to take Torra’s calls. Torra escalates his rhetoric in an angry letter to Sánchez. Rivera turns up the volume.
All the while, social tensions are increasing as civil rights and civil liberties are sacrificed in the name of national unity. If we want to achieve a social peace and not only preserve but expand our democratic freedoms, cooler heads must prevail in Catalonia.
• Carlos Delclós is a sociologist and associate researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB). His views do not necessarily reflect those of CIDOB