Watch video of Spanish police using extreme force in our report from Catalonia
The fight for Catalan independence confused me when I first arrived in Barcelona. Brexit is enough to put anyone off independence and the partisan press makes finding the truth out about anything near to impossible.
A year and a half later, I am taking part in general strike in support of a referendum the government calls illegal. I am not sure how I would vote if I could but this action is about democracy and free speech, not independence, and people on both sides are taking part.
On Sunday morning, I arrived at my local polling station, a school like all the others, an hour before voting opened. A few hundred people were there in the rain; many had been there for hours. Others had stayed at the school overnight to prevent police closing it. They were cheered as they left the building. People were in good spirits, even though 24 police vans had just driven past. They were neither the first nor the last; Spain had been making its presence felt all week.
I was offered coffee by a man who readily accepted my apology for not speaking Catalan. “We are just happy you are here,” he said. He wanted to be heard, by Spain and by Europe. I visited two more schools. The atmosphere was the same: tense and quietly determined.
The quietness ended when I arrived at Escola de Ramon Llull, a school a few hundred metres from La Sagrada Familia. A helicopter hovered overhead and there was a sense of panic and shock – Spanish police had broken into the school to confiscate the polling booths, dragging people out
I looked for an English speaker for a radio interview and a family went in search of their son. “Es medico [He’s a doctor],” his proud dad told me.
Oriol, 25, asked me not to publish his surname. He arrived at the school at 5am with his father, uncles, grandparents and little sister. He had been among those who had tried to prevent police from entering.
“It was such violence, to see my uncles taken out by force because they just want to vote. It breaks my heart”
“Even when I am explaining this, I want to cry. I am sorry,” he said, his voice cracking. His family urged him on. “It was such violence, to see my uncles taken out by force because they just want to vote. It breaks my heart. We were pacifist, we were calm, we wanted to vote, but they were so angry.”
The smashed door of the little office below the school was one of the few pieces of evidence from the morning’s violent events.
Outside, loud bangs from the street meant that the police had not gone far. A crowd screamed as they were shot at by rubber bullets that looked like oversized bouncy balls you might buy from a vending machine at a bowling alley. We walked towards them with our hands up.
A man fell to the ground in front of me and was dragged into a nearby building’s foyer. Drops of his blood were smeared on the white tiles by my feet and a woman wept as she supported his head.
A heavy quiet fell as riot police left and people made way for an ambulance. Just before the man was wheeled in, he raised his fist and, for a moment, the crowd roared in solidarity. I was among them. Whatever your politics, there is no justification for what we had seen. He was reportedly taken to hospital for surgery, one of the 893 individuals injured, 11 of whom were police officers.
“I saw a grandma they threw into the street. She couldn’t grab her things because they were hitting her”
A teenage boy explained to journalists what had happened: “I saw a grandma they threw into the street. She couldn’t grab her things because they were hitting her.” He was in tears, but his determination was clear. “They have found a state united. We wanted to vote, to say yes or to say no. These people didn’t think it would go crazy like this. It is a shame for us.”
Jan, 17, had just seen one of his friends hit by one of the rubber bullets. “I am pretty upset, I am sorry,” he said, apologetically emotional, motivated by a sense of civic duty, wanting to be heard. He wasn’t even old enough to vote. “I am here supporting my town and my people and everything that I am proud of.” The only words he had against the police were that they were “doing their job really, really bad.”
Later that evening, Spanish president Mariano Rajoy would claim that the referendum did not exist because it went against the Constitution. The deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria praised police “who have complied with the orders of justice. They have acted with professionalism and in a proportionate way. They have always sought to protect rights and liberties.”
Their wilful ignorance in the face of such aggression and their refusal to engage in dialogue are an investment in a bitter future. There are few more effective ways to turn a city against you than opening fire on its youth, and yesterday thousands of Spanish students marched through Barcelona with their mouths taped shut to protest against the government silencing them.
Independentists are no saints. They have played their political games too. Nevertheless, it was the Spanish police who opened fire on their country’s teenagers. The Catalan president Carles Puigdemont is right when he says that this brutality “will forever shame those who are justifying it.”