We happened to come to Barcelona just in the middle of the historical events. But that didn’t happen by chance. My man is Catalan and born in Barcelona, he wanted to come for voting in the referendum. There has been a long process leading to this moment, both for him and for his country.
On Saturday, a day before referendum, we went to Salou, a tourist town close to Tarragona, for the celebration of the wedding anniversary of his friend. Saturday night was spent in eating, laughing and dancing. Sunday morning the alarming reports started to leek in. The police were closing the stations. The government was closing the systems for registrations. But then it became possible to vote in any place. So we searched for a school in Salou and found a crowd of people outside, but the voting was not possible because the system was down. We got directions for another place, but decided to drive back to Barcelona and do it there.
The skies were dark with rain, as we were driving. The radio was sending sounds of violent shouts and destruction, when the police was breaking the doors of schools. My phone was buzzing: my friends asked me where I was and if I was ok. I was on the highway, between Tarragona and Barcelona, and here happened nothing. But was it ok enough? It was early afternoon, and the world was already filled with images of violence. I searched the Norwegian newspapers to get the idea of what was going on.
Back in Barcelona the streets were empty. They are usually not much fuller on Sunday. But some places they were much fuller than usually. The weather, gray and sad, reflected the day. Carles, my man, met his mother and aunt and they were full of emotions. Though in their station the voting went on without discruption, they were filled with fear, holding each other tight, while waiting two hours in the queue. Isn’t it strange, that terror was produced by the police whose function is to protect the citizens from terror?
When we came to the voting station in the late afternoon, there were crowds of people and a couple of local police (Mossos, not Guardia Civil that was sent by the Spanish government). When we approached the door, there was no queue however. The guy at the entrance cheerfully welcomed us, and we went swiftly into the voting hall. The air was full with nervous agitation, I could feel it with my skin that something important is taking place here. Something that these people have been waiting for a long time. Outside on the streets the people were hanging out in groups, young and old alike. Carles said: “They are here to block the doors in case if police come to take away the urns”. The people didn’t look frightened, nor aggressive or angry. They were just there – to do what they wanted to do: to vote. That feeling was so intense that I got it straight into my heart. And it moved me to tears. Here was the community wanting a change. People standing together for their rights.
It is not often that I get this feeling of community. I come from a former Soviet Union, where people have learnt that nothing they do can change a situation. Even though Ukraine, my home country, has been famous for changes lately, I still remember community where I grew up. The people were complaining so often, to complain was a normal everyday activity, but there was no expression of what they thought to do for a change. It seemed that the state of total helplessness was accepted like a social norm. I remember that once in my university we got the wrong set of questions to cover before our major exams (we were studying the Literature of the World, but we were given questions from the course of Russian literature which was taught in years before us) – and my group was discussing how unfair it was. But no one said: “let’s go and talk to them”. I said it in the end. And then I thought: “if this is the attitude of 20-year olds now, when can the time come for real democracy? When can my people start to believe that they can influence something?”
Here in Barcelona it was almost palpable. The democracy in action. The community on the streets, peacefully, wanting to make a change. People standing together and ready to protect each other. As we walked around the neighborhood, there were sights like this in front of every school: the crowd of people, parents with children, teenagers and elderly people. Cheering and applauding those who just voted.
The Spanish vice-minister called the referendum “the farce of democracy”. But if this is “farce”, what is a democracy then? Can, maybe, the Spanish government show the better case of democracy? Is sending police and letting the violence happen – is it your democracy?
There are people who have expressed that the victims were guilty themselves. Because they were opposing the police. Because they were doing the illegal referendum. It looks like placing guilt on the victim still works, eh? It is like blaming the women who got raped for wearing their short skirts. First, why is the referendum illegal? It is not illegal, it is suspended in the Constitutional Tribunal (which is not apolitical, as the Court should be in democratic model. It is a Court where judges come from different parties of government, thus it is highly political and acting in favor of those with power). It has been suspended for 2 years. Why? What is stopping the Tribunal to take a decision?
But the Spanish media as the Spanish government accepted the rhetoric of calling the referendum “illegal”. But even if this is illegal, why be so aggressive about it? Just let people vote and then say that you don’t accept it. Why send Guardia Civil in cruiser ships so they search for papers and urns before referendum? Why drag women by the hair and push the elderly, why beat the people with batons? So that those who are still at home get afraid and don’t go to vote?
When the images of police violence flooded the world – in the Spanish media they were absent. Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, in his speech on the night of Sunday, didn’t mention that almost 900 people were hurt. He thanked the police for their effort, and said that the situation was handled with care and precision. And the minister of internal affairs said: “We just had to do what we didn’t want to do”. The whole rhetoric reminds of the violent husband: “I beat you, but this is because you make me do it”. Is this the image of Spain’s love for Catalonia? “I love you, but I beat you, but don’t go”.
Yesterday there was a general strike held by the trade unions and organizations – to mark the condemnation for the police violence on Sunday. Thousands of people went out on the streets to march peacefully and show their support for the cause. While the police are sitting in the hotels and singing “Viva Espana”. Catalans were warned that some police in civil can be provoking the peace, so they were encouraged to sit on the floor if someone would start to act violently, throw stones or similar. The Spanish media would be very happy to get those images.
We were on those streets yesterday. We walked Via Laietana, passing the main police office, that has evoked so many feelings these days. Just peaceful people with flags of independence and of the old republic (the one before Franco, as the modern flag comes from the Franco era). A lot of young people, singing Catalan songs. In the evening the king of Spain made speech. Not showing sympathy for the damaged people, but blaming the Catalan leaders.
It seems that the king and Spanish government believe that everything was created by a group of leaders. They should have gone to the neighborhoods and walk around schools on the day of referendum. They should have walked yesterday with the crowds. They should have seen their people. Do they think that if they get rid of the leaders that the people will go back to loving Spain? No just after the events of last days – but after the process of the past years?
My Ukrainian friend asked me on Facebook: “but isn’t it a separatism?” Ukraine has its own trauma of separatism, first Crimea, that Donbass claiming independence. And my answer is that it doesn’t help to stick a label of separatism on people. It doesn’t solve a problem. Yes, call them separatists – and what? Will you punish them? Two million people who wanted to cast their vote? Yes, call it propaganda, but can you ignore the process of the last seven years when the discontent was rising – and the Spanish government was rejecting to have a dialogue about it? It is not about labels, it is about respect. Calling the people victims of propaganda is disrespect. Ignoring the process that has led them here is disrespect. Punishing millions of people for their wish to vote is not acceptable. When the state doesn’t listen to its people, it is a problem of the state. It is not the guilt of the people. It is not their crime. Otherwise, this is a very weird version of democracy we are dealing with. Hiding behind the terms of law is not democracy.
I came here with a neutral position. I am Ukrainian-Norwegian, I have no interest to involve myself in the conflict. But with some days of observations, with some days of comparing Catalan and Spanish TV, I just cannot keep silent. If we don’t speak up when we see injustice, who will speak up for us when injustice happens to us?
And if I had a chance to cast a vote, I am very sure of what I would vote for.