Catalan Referendum

I Went to Every Protest that Took Place in Madrid this Weekend

The possibility of Catalonia separating from Spain brought the people of Madrid to the streets.
Photos by Ana Iris Simon

This article originally appeared on VICE Spain

If you spent any time in Madrid in the days leading up to the Catalan independence referendum on Sunday the 1st of October, there was no way you escaped the Spanish flags that seemed to take over the city. With the possibility of Catalonia separating from Spain more likely than ever, countless Madrileños felt the sudden need to hang a piece of yellow-red cloth from their windows or balconies and express how attached they were to Spanish unity. Some morons, in fact, took things step further by hanging the national flag from the fascist Franco era on their homes – others steered clear of any flags, and just put up protest signs.

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So the subject of independence referendum doesn't just fire up Catalans – it gets people in the rest of Spain out on the streets, too. This past weekend, six demonstrations took place in Madrid alone – against and in support of Catalonia's right to choose. I decided to attend all of them.

But before I do that, I need to make sure I will blend in with the protesters. First, I need to buy the Estelada – the unofficial Catalan flag with a star on it, often used by the supporters of an independent Catalonia. They aren't easy to come by in Madrid, so I buy the cheapest one off Amazon.

Unsurprisingly, the Spanish flag is a lot easier to find in the nation's capital, and I'll need that one more this weekend – most protests in Madrid are against the referendum. I step into the first souvenir shop I see and buy a Spanish flag. After I've paid, the shop clerk reminds me to take good care of it and proudly hang it from my balcony this weekend. That comment only serves to remind me that I'm buying a deeply nationalistic symbol and will look like a huge dickhead walking around in it.

The author wrapped in a Spanish flag, feeling uncomfortable.

Friday 29th September, 11 AM: Puerta del Sol square

The weekend of protests kicks off on Friday morning with a mock referendum. The ultra-Catholic organisation Hazte Oír (Make Your Voice Heard) believes that all Spaniards deserve a say in the future of Spain and Catalonia, so they've set up a voting booth on the Puerta del Sol square and made fake ballots for passers by. As soon as I arrive, I hear one of the volunteers tell another that they need more young people at the protests, because there are cameras around.

It's true that the majority of the people taking part in this mock referendum are retirees. A guy in a blue sequinned tie eagerly turns to the cameras and tells any journalist who cares to hear it, that if Franco were alive today, all the separatists would have been killed by now. "The Communists too," he adds. He ends his speech by shouting "Viva Franco," while a lady next to him asks how that's supposed to work if he died forty years ago.

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A protester at the first pro-union rally of the weekend.

Finally, the volunteers have more luck – they've convinced a young couple to join the protest. When I ask the couple how they feel about the whole thing, they tell me that they think that all Spanish people should be in on a referendum on independence. They ask me if I want a ballot too – I politely decline and leave.

Saturday, 12 PM: In front of Madrid's City Hall

The second protest I attend is organised by DENAES – a far-right organisation for the "Defence of the Spanish Nation", which called for protests in front of city halls across the country. Before I leave home, my brother tells me to hide my Spanish flag under my coat, because it's too much of a statement to wear out in the open. It's sad, really, that wearing a simple flag is associated with hateful nationalism, but it's the sort of people organising the protest today who make it so awkward for the rest of us to be associated with our national flag.

It was surprising, and sad, to see so many young people at a far-right demonstration.

The streets in the neighbourhood around City Hall are filled with people in red and yellow accessories – flags, caps, sunglasses and scarves. Many people are older – I recognise some from yesterday's mock-referendum – but there are a lot of young people, too. My cousin, who came with me, starts tearing up at the sight of so many young people identifying with something hateful. I reluctantly take out my Spanish flag and drape it around my neck. I was too embarrassed to wear it until I got here.

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Near us, I see a guy wearing a fascist flag as a cape. A lady standing next to him tells him to take it off, but he smiles, looks away and takes another drag of his cigarette. People sing fascist anthems from the Franco era, chant that Catalan president Carles Puigdemont should be sent to prison and shout "Gloria eterna a los de Blanquerna" (translation: Eternal glory to those of the Blanquerna).

This protester refused to remove his fascist flag when another demonstrator asked him to.

When I ask a lady what that last chant is about, she tells me it's for "those poor boys who are in jail just for protesting." With "those poor boys", she means the far-right supporters who attacked the Blanquerna cultural centre in Madrid in 2013 – a centre that promotes Catalan culture in the Spanish capital.

A family at the protest asks me to take a picture of them. I'm happy to do it, until the dad asks me to please keep a "Welcome Refugees" poster out of the frame. While he's cackling over his own joke, protesters start singing the Spanish national anthem. I see a group of kids raising their arms in a fascist salute. It's my cue to leave. Walking away, I hear the crowd singing the first lines to "Cara al Sol" (Facing the Sun), a fascist anthem.

Saturday, 1PM: In Front of the Blanquerna Cultural Centre

The weekend's third and the day's second anti-referendum protest, held in front of the Blanquerna Catalan cultural centre, has been organised by "Unidos, Libres, Iguales y Solidarios" (United, Free, Equal and Solidarity) – a party I have never heard of.

Only eight people showed up for this anti-referendum event.

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And I'm not alone in this – although the group has a rather large banner, only about eight people have turned up for the rally. I ask one of the organisers why the turnout is so low. "Most people have gone to the bigger protest at the City Hall," she tells me.

Saturday, 5PM: The failure to 'Occupy Congress'

Later in the afternoon, I hide my Spanish flag in my bag and head over to an event hosted by the group Rodea el Congreso (Occupy Congress) – a protest movement some Spanish media have referred to as "a meeting of the ultra-left". Organisers on Facebook have asked protesters to surround the Congeso de los Diputados, Spain's parliament building. They're hoping to take advantage of the fact that most police forces have been sent to Catalonia.

The only issue is that the organisers haven't settled on a meeting point – or if they did, they haven't communicated it. The parliament building is massive, so not having a meeting point complicates things. When I arrive, I walk in and around the building for a while, expecting to see anarchy around each corner, but the only people I see are other journalists. Two hours later, there's still no update on the event's Facebook page, so I call it a night and head home.

The author in front of at the Parliament building in Madrid – Saturday, 30/9/2017.

Sunday, 11AM: Plaza Mayor

On Sunday morning, the day of the referendum, I wrap myself in Spanish paraphernalia again and head to the Plaza Mayor for a rally organised by the ironically named Partido Libertad's (Freedom Party). Most protesters on the square are older, but that might be due to the fact that it's technically still morning. I approach a group of protesters – some of them dressed in yellow and red with so much dedication that they look like geriatric members of the national football team. Two ladies in the group tell me that although they are from Extremadura – an autonomous community in the West of Spain – they feel more Spanish than anything else. After a chat with them, I decide to leave and find out where the young people are.

Although they're from Extremadura – an autonomous community in the west of Spain – these women tell me they feel more Spanish than anything else.

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Sunday, 12PM: Back on the Puerta del Sol square

I stop by the Puerta del Sol again, where another fiercely nationalistic protest is taking place. There are lots of elderly people and a few students, all loudly chanting "Yo Soy Español" (I am Spanish) and "No nos engañan, Cataluña es España" (We won't be deceived, Catalonia is Spain). Suddenly a van full of police officers arrives, and the crowd breaks out in applause and pro-police chants. It was a pretty hard to see people applauding the police at a moment when over 200 people in Catalonia have been injured for exercising their right to vote – a number that would reach almost 900 by the end of the day.

Antonio

When I speak to 20-year-old Antonio, he tells me that he has come from his village in southern Spain to show his support for the Civil Guard – the nation's military arm performing police duties. I ask if he's comfortable with the footage of police officers dragging away people trying to vote. "They're just doing their jobs," he replies. As I walk away, he also starts chanting.

Sunday, 7PM: Still on the Puerta del Sol

At the final rally of the weekend with, mainly young, pro-referendum demonstrators.

The weekend's final rally is back on the Puerta del Sol, but organised by the other side – a Madrid-based group supporting the referendum. Having heard the reports of police brutality in Catalonia during the day, I'm much more comfortable wearing the Catalonian colours I get to wear for this protest.

It's a large, loud and mostly younger crowd, singing anti-fascist songs and chanting "The voice of the people is not illegal". At one point, a small group of pro-union protesters arrive clad in yellow and red to counter protest, but police, batons in hand, quickly disperse them, and the relative calm returns to the rally.

I approach a guy carrying a homemade Catalan flag. "It's not easy to get them in Madrid, so I made one this afternoon," he says. "After seeing what was happening in Catalonia, I knew I had no choice but to come here today. Voting should never be illegal, much less repressed by force."

With that, I go home. I've seen enough flags for one weekend.