Madrid has repeatedly asserted that Catalonia has no right to self-determination in international law. The argument is that this only applies to colonial territories whereas Catalonia is part of Spain in the same way as its other territories. Well, allow me to recount, dear Reader, that this is not what I saw with my own eyes on October 1st.
You’ve no doubt heard that Catalonia held a referendum last Sunday. The question on the ballot paper was whether to stay with Spain or become an independent state. The referendum had been banned by the Spanish government, which had spent the previous days trying to prevent it.
Allow me now to explain what I saw last Sunday.
Armed with my press pass and a smartphone to record and broadcast what I saw, I headed to my local polling station. In addition to covering the events for a local media outlet, I also intended to take the opportunity to vote. Over one hundred people had slept there during the night to ensure it stayed open.
The atmosphere was one of euphoria and optimism. We all knew the police would come at some stage. We thought they would come around lunchtime or in the afternoon in the hope that the ballot boxes would already be full of votes and thereby constitute a “greater prize”. While we expected the situation to be tense, we never imagined they would attack with such violence.
The instructions were clear for all: passive resistance. Sit down on the ground, raise your arms, make it clear there was no threat to the officers, but act like a sack of potatoes to prevent being moved. Chant but under no circumstances insult the officers.
Even before nine o’clock, the time the polling stations were scheduled to open, we began to hear disturbing news that began to dispel the euphoria. The Spanish Civil Guard had targeted Sant Julià de Ramis, a town near Girona where the President of the Catalan Government Carles Puigdemont was supposed to vote. The Spanish National Police started systematically combing all the polling stations in the city centre with a brutality that nobody under 45 had ever seen close up.
They would come to us too. The question was when and what they were prepared to do.
It happened around eleven thirty. Around ten vans from the Spanish National Police pulled up. All the officers were, to my eyes at least, in what appeared to be full riot gear. They formed two lines and moved menacingly towards the people who were sitting on the ground, arms-linked, ready to resist the confiscation of the ballot boxes.
I’ve read many first-hand accounts of soldiers who said that just prior to going into battle their mouths went dry and their hands became sweaty. As a conscientious objector, I avoided military service so I could only imagine what it must have been like. Until last Sunday!
To tell the truth, I must say that initially the officers tried in vain to move the people by simply dragging the ones in the front rows. It is also true that they were insulted by some of those resisting, mainly bringing up the identity of the officers’ parents (you know what I mean), but none of this justified what came after.
Some of the officers took out their truncheons and began to lash out without much consideration for whom they were hitting. According to one of my neighbours, a 70-year old woman was thrown up in the air and dumped a few metres, hitting the ground. You can imagine how dangerous that could be at that age.
I was outside filming these attacks (you can see videos on my Facebook page), but people who were inside told me that, when they did open up a path, it was by repeatedly hitting people with truncheons and throwing people on the ground.
The police confiscated a ballot box. The protestors chanted in return. “We shall vote!” “They shall not pass!” There were inevitably some insults while other people asked not to insult the officers.
We were not, by far, those that were hit the hardest.
The early videos we had received via WhatsApp had already shown savage police raids, with multiple injuries and blood. In the Col·legi Verd (Green School in Catalan) primary school, the attack was particularly savage, with officers clearing everything before them with truncheons including old people and children.
What should, in theory, have been a celebration of democracy, turned into a hellhole in which we continually expected the Spanish national police to return at any time to confiscate further ballot boxes. They had taken one but we had hidden the others and were soon back voting.
The news continued to flow in throughout the morning and early into the afternoon with excessive force used in raids in Gerona, Barcelona and indeed all over Catalonia. In a very worrying development, in Aiguaviva (a town of around 800) the Spanish police used tear gas to enter the polling station. Tear gas against unarmed civilians passively resisting.
The outcome is well-known: 893 Catalan citizens injured, some seriously, compared with fifteen police lightly injured (according to the Spanish police). The Spanish government says the action taken was “proportional”. That is not what I saw. That is not what friends and acquaintances I trust told me. That is not what I saw in the videos sent around on WhatsApp. This is not what was shown on international news outlets (not Spanish or Catalan, but Portuguese, British, Italian…). What I saw was a colonial power protecting the interests of the empire in the conquered land.
When I was filming the raid on my polling station during the morning, I availed of my press pass at a key moment to get myself into the front line just behind one of the officers sent to Catalonia from the other regions of what is now Spain.
I showed them my pass while I simply said “press”. I won’t deny it: I was afraid. Afraid that at any time someone, no matter who, would make a false move and that it would turn into chaos. Afraid that a truncheon might fly in my direction and I’d catch the full force.
The look of hatred the officer gave me left me frozen. Later, one of my neighbours who was in the front line told me that she had seen looks of shame under the helmets. As if asking themselves why they had to be the ones doing this.
Other witnesses spoke of looks of hatred including sarcastic smiles before the most savage raids by the police.
On the morning of Sunday, October 1st, I jumped out of bed full of energy and joy. I knew something would happen but never imagined that, in a civilised country in Europe in the 21st century, I would personally see what I saw. For me, this was something that happened in far-away countries without any real democratic traditions. How wrong I was…
Spain has worked hard to push the Catalans towards independence. In spite of those Spaniards who held demonstrations that same day in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and other places all over the country to protest against what was happening, since Sunday Spain has also really earned our hate and disgust for what happened.
In his TV appearance, Mariano Rajoy spoke of enforcing the law, as all his cabinet has been doing in the last few years. Let’s not forget the laws in the southern US in the 50s, or in South Africa up to the 80s – laws that Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King broke.
And I experienced the same repression I’ve seen in documentaries and read in countless books and articles, against colonised people who therefore have no right to protest.
Ladies and Gentlemen, before you is one of the last Spanish colonies. This one is in European soil and is screaming to be allowed in the international arena of nations.
Guillem Alsina is a freelance tech journalist based in Girona, Catalonia.