Catalonia’s “Democratic Tsunami”

The clashes in Barcelona reflect intense popular anger at the jailing of Catalan leaders. Since 2017’s disputed referendum, the conflict has appeared increasingly intractable — and as protests become more militant, the pro-independence parties are losing control of events.

Demonstrators gather following a week of protests over the jail sentences given to separatist politicians by Spain’s Supreme Court, on October 19, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

“They messed up my shoulder. I can barely move my arm”, says Guillem, twenty-eight, who told Jacobin he was protesting nonviolently at Barcelona’s Plaça Urquinaona when the riot police charged. He shows us wounds on one shoulder and the top of his right leg, where he was hit by rubber bullets. Just hours later, the square was littered with many such bullets — and the tear gas canisters which police had used to disperse demonstrators.

Certainly, the state reaction has been violent — and the demonstrations massive. On Friday afternoon, hundreds of thousands of workers, students, and other marchers converged on the Catalan capital as part of a one-day general strike, prompted by last Monday’s conviction of political and civil society leaders for “sedition” — including former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras, handed thirteen years’ jail time.

Friday saw the peak of the mobilizations. Just hours after the ruling was published last Monday, some 10,000 demonstrators occupied Barcelona’s El Prat airport, and mobilizations continued throughout last week as increasingly brutal police repression was employed against protesters. As the strike brought the city to a halt, organizers claimed that 850,000 had turned out for the mass rally.

The demonstration — attended by families and on the whole peaceful — could reasonably have been mistaken for Catalonia’s national Diada holiday at various points, as aerial footage showed a sea of Estelada Catalan flags flooding Barcelona’s main thoroughfares. Yet at the street level, the anger was more noticeable as marchers whistled and booed the police helicopters circling overhead.

As the cooler atmosphere of the day segued into early evening, an increasingly restless energy burst into heated flash-points across parts of the city center. “We have chosen to stage our demonstration outside the national police headquarters [on Via Laietana] because it was a site of police torture and brutality during the Franco years,” forty-eight-year-old Àlex, a longtime independence campaigner, later told Jacobin.

On Friday night, demonstrators of his age were scarce to be seen in the riots — now, the overwhelming majority of protesters were under twenty-five. Chanting pro-independence and anti-fascist slogans, the young protesters — numbering around 6,000 — were joined by a small core of weathered activists. After police attempted to clear the area with force, some threw stones made from smashed pavement slabs and burned bins along with a number of cars and motorcycles.

Authorities responded by firing tear gas, as well as foam and rubber bullets (the UN and the European Parliament have both called for a ban on the latter). Jacobin witnessed a number of police beatings inflicted on protesters who posed no obvious threat to authorities. In some cases, they were simply passers-by who found themselves caught among the stragglers, as police and riot squads began to ramp up their violent retaliation — in many cases using seemingly indiscriminate force. “I was sitting down as police beat me and my friends,” Artur, a twenty-three-year-old waiter standing near one of the police barricades, recounted the following day. “That’s why I’ve come back here to demonstrate this evening.”

Four people lost an eye in last week’s clashes, while hundreds were hospitalized and two were left in a critical condition. As of yet, there have been no fatalities.

In smaller and less violent protests, thousands have continued to take to the streets each night this week — and further mass actions are planned for the weekend. But, without any clear demands — and a clear sense of disillusionment with the nationalist politicians that escalate the conflict on both sides of the independence divide — questions remain as to how long the protests can sustain such intensity, and where they are ultimately leading.

An Anonymous Revolt?

Tsunami Democràtic — the digital platform used to coordinate the occupation of Barcelona’s airport as well as other demonstrations — has been lauded as heralding “a new type of online activism.” “No one knows who runs it,” writes Laurie Clarke in Wired — with the anonymous peer-to-peer platform proving difficult for authorities to infiltrate. Yet to place it within a narrative of digital resistance and horizontalism risks obscuring Tsunami Democràtic’s intimate relationship with the mainstream independence movement and how it, too, has been overtaken by events.

According to El Diario, at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland at the end of the summer pro-independence leaders gave the green light for Tsunami Democràtic’s planned campaign of direct action, which would follow the then-expected verdict in the Catalan trial. The online platform had been set up in July by around half a dozen experienced activists who had probably also been involved in the digital coordination of the outlawed 2017 referendum.

At the Geneva meeting — attended by exiled leader, Carles Puigdemont, his successor as Catalan president, Quim Torra, Esquerra Republicana number two, Marta Rovira, the radical Left CUP’s Anna Gabriel, as well as various civil society leaders — there was a certain recognition that the response to the verdict had to go beyond the one-off mass marches that had until then defined the movement’s protest tactics.

For the pro-independence forces’ political leadership, using this platform to coordinate the response to the verdict had two major advantages. First, as La Vanguardia’s Enric Juliana notes, it allowed Puigdemont’s center-right JuntsXCat and center-left Esquerra Republicana — who are currently in coalition in the regional government — to “outsource” the protests and so better protect themselves from further accusations of sedition, as well as from any further suspension of regional autonomy.

Second, according to journalist Lola García, Tsunami Democràtic was seen as a means to reach beyond the two existing channels for mobilization — the traditional large-scale civil society organizations and the left-wing Committees For the Defence of the Republic (CDRs) that were founded at the moment of the disputed 2017 referendum — so as to “control a massive and extensive” protest wave. Puigdemont in particular, whose background is in journalism, has always been keenly interested in new forms of communication — seeing contemporary politics as better suited to agile, leader-driven platforms like Emmanuel Macron’s La France En Marche rather than unwieldy mass-membership parties.

From the beginning, however, there were also clear differences among the various pro-independence parties and factions over how far such protests should go. Torra and Puigdemont favored of a more assertive and sustained response which, while nonviolent, would disrupt everyday life and so raise tensions around the territorial conflict once again. They saw such heightened tensions as key to reviving their electoral prospects as well as renewing international attention toward the conflict. But the more traditional center-right elements within their JuntsXCat alliance — which includes the old governing party of the Catalan right, Convergencia, as well as Puigdemont’s more populist Crida Nacional per la República — were wary of such a route, as was Esquerra. The latter wanted the planned response to stay within narrower boundaries, in its bid to channel the protest electorally.

In any case, Tsunami Democràtic was never merely an instrument of these parties. After getting the go-ahead, the small group of activists running the platform partly kept the politicians in the dark over their plans for their campaign of civil disobedience. These kicked off on October 14 with the mass occupation of Barcelona’s airport.

Yet in the aftermath of the police crackdown at the airport, the protests and riots spiraled well beyond what Tsunami Democràtic had intended. By last Wednesday, hundreds of youths were fighting pitched battles with police in Barcelona and other major Catalan cities — culminating in the most intense rioting Spain has seen in decades on the night of Friday’s general strike.

Pure Rage

“Do you know what amazes me most about these riots? They are not asking for anything. There are no demands … such as an amnesty or pardon [for the jailed leaders]. It is pure anger.” For the academic Carol Galais this was something new. Previous independentist protests had been primarily “instrumental” in nature, in the sense that they were part of a broader strategy orchestrated by the major parties and civil society organizations, aimed at achieving political advances. The unrest of the last week, however, was predominantly “expressive” — an outpouring of rage and frustration from a younger generation whose first political experience had been the failed 2017 independence push.

In class terms, those involved at the height of the riots last week reflected the transversal nature of the independence movement — a mix of middle-class students and youths from more peripheral working-class neighborhoods, including many from immigrant families. These protesters can be broken into three broad groups: first a layer of radical militants, numbering at most a few hundred, who came organized and ready for trouble; second a broader layer of youths (around 1,500) who became actively involved in the riots largely in response to the police violence; and third, the second line of the protests numbering about 10,000 who confronted the police peacefully while acting as cover for the rioters.

Many of the protestors to whom Jacobin spoke had witnessed police violence on the day of the outlawed 2017 referendum or had stories of family members who had been attacked. Others, who did not favor independence nonetheless got involved after seeing the crackdown of the initial post-verdict protests. As one nineteen-year-old protester told El Diario’s Pol Pareja “We grew up with the [official independentist] procés and October 1 [2017 referendum]. We have hung on for years — accepting the older generation’s lead. But we have seen where it got them. They are all in prison.” This was echoed in nearby graffiti which read: “You have demonstrated to us how being peaceful is good for nothing.”

By late last week, the protestors’ ire had also turned on the pro-independence Catalan government — in particular interior minister Miquel Buch, who is formally in charge of the Mossos, the Catalan police force. While Torra — the right-wing Catalan premier — sought to ratchet up tensions, encouraging protests and backing the airport occupation, his JuntsXCat colleague Buch and the majority of his government closed ranks to block any attempt at reining in the police response. This produced the government’s schizophrenic response to the crisis — with Torra praising activists while his ministers defended police charges against protestors as necessary to avoid fresh accusations of sedition.

This breakdown in governmental authority was worsened by the hostility of the Mossos’ commanding officers towards what they saw as Torra’s inflammatory tactics. They were determined to coordinate with the Spanish police response and avoid further accusations of having become “politicized.” In the ruling in the Catalan leaders’ trial, the Supreme Court reproached what it saw as “the complicity” between the Mossos and those who occupied polling booths during the 2017 referendum, with officers disobeying orders to close down these voting stations and remove ballot boxes.

Political Divisions

This anger directed at the pro-independence leadership also reflected frustration at the movement’s loss of direction after the October 2017 independence push. With a general election due in just over a fortnight and regional elections for the Catalan parliament on the horizon, the pro-independence bloc is more divided than at any point over the past four years.

In an effort to project an impression of unity, JuntsXCat, Esquerra Republicana, and CUP this week signed a joint resolution reaffirming the right to self-determination and calling for a political solution to the constitutional crisis brought on by the independence drive. However, the events of the last ten days are likely to have only intensified the battle for electoral hegemony within the pro-independence bloc.

Esquerra Republicana (ERC), which won the most seats in Catalonia in April’s Spanish general election, is seeking to become the largest force not only in the repeat contest on November 10 but also, for the first time, in the regional ballot expected in coming months. Having received the heaviest sentence out of all the leaders that stood trial, the party sees Junqueras as the most viable, legitimate martyr figure in the independence camp—particularly when contrasted with JuntsXCat and CUP leaders who fled following the independence declaration. Polling indicates that ERC could be on course to achieve this goal, yet the nature and extent of the ongoing protests have posed fresh challenges for its revised road map towards independence.

Turning away from the more directly confrontational, unilateralist line of Puigdemont and Torra, after the failure of the October 2017 push, ERC has sought to “widen its bases” and accumulate greater forces in a longer-term vision of independence. However, the mood on the ground over the last ten days did not exactly chime with its recent strategic shift, which instead demanded that it condemn the most radicalized minority. “In theory, amplifying the party’s base is a sound proposal,” Jordi, a thirty-year-old ERC activist told Jacobin before Saturday’s demonstrations. “But where is the evidence this has actually happened? As far as I can see, this strategy hasn’t materialized one bit over recent months.”

In a clip widely circulated on social media at the weekend, ERC’s main parliamentary spokesperson Gabriel Rufian was booed by a crowd of protesters that gathered near to Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf monument on Saturday evening, with cries of “traitor!” audible in video recordings. Several protesters Jacobin spoke to at the weekend suggested they would still vote for ERC despite their criticisms of the party’s handling of events. Yet, in a volatile scenario, with further mass actions planned in the coming days — as well as the likely arrest of some of the ringleaders in the riots — this sentiment may still change. It is not clear how exactly this energy will be translated electorally.

Indeed, with the radical-left CUP — the party most clearly aligned with grassroots CDR organizations — putting itself forward for national elections for the first time ever, ERC now risks losing support among the more radical and indignant sectors of its target electorate.

The National Stage

Rufián’s party is not the only group facing a tricky juggling act both regionally and nationally as a result of the events of the past ten days. After PSOE (center-left) prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s failure to negotiate a left-wing coalition with Podemos in the summer, his party has pivoted back to the right in an attempt to hold up its vote. Yet it is currently sliding in the polls, while the conservative Popular Party and far-right Vox, which each advance harsh Spanish-nationalist talking points, are benefiting from the renewed focus on the national question.

As Garcia notes, Sánchez’s framing of these elections is to turn the votes into a kind of binary referendum on his provisional and acting government — hence a series of legislative reforms on pensions and other policy areas/pledges he promises to implement before Spaniards go to cast their ballot in November. Much like French president Emmanuel Macron’s strategy in this year’s European elections, Sánchez calculates that amid a turbulent autumn marked internationally by Brexit and nationally by the Catalan trial sentencing, he can successfully pitch himself as the choice for national stability with a veneer of the progressive reformism he advanced in April. Going into October, polling appeared to substantiate his electoral wager, suggesting that Spaniards felt PSOE was the best-placed party to resolve the Catalan conflict, yet also that nationally a majority were against the idea of a pardon for the leaders awaiting the verdict.

However, Sanchez too appears to have miscalculated the impact of the protests and the damaging impression of disorder certain sectors of the media-savvy independence movement are able to project with respect to his government during these vital campaign weeks — particularly given he has continually refused to speak directly with Catalan premier, Quim Torra, since the demonstrations kicked off. The consequence this may have within the region is that the upcoming ballots are liable to be regarded as single-issue protest votes on the back of the verdict — a survey carried out after the ruling was handed down indicated that two-thirds of Catalan society felt the sentences were either “unfair” or “excessive.”

This appears to be the hope for the independence parties which have never won a majority of votes in Catalonia, only a majority of seats — their share of the vote peaking in this year’s European elections, at 49.7 percent. Backed by the furious demonstrations of these weeks, the bloc now has a historic chance to cross this threshold — which, in turn, would signal a new chapter for the movement. Amidst a landscape of division and fragmentation, and likely fresh stalemate at the national level, the pro-independence parties could yet be galvanized.