Catalan Referendum

One Year On: Catalans On Their Referendum and the Violence That Followed

"I will always remember that day for the way I saw my mother being treated."
October 1, 2018, 3:41pm
All photos by the author

This article originally appeared on VICE Spain

A year ago today, on the 1st of October, 2017, more than 2 million Catalans voted in the region's independence referendum – a vote the Spanish government in Madrid considered unconstitutional. Spanish police actively tried to stop votes from being cast at certain polling stations that day, by raiding and sealing some, and by using violence at others. Footage surfaced of riot police using batons on protesters and drop-kicking and dragging voters by their hair. In those incidents and others around Catalonia, 844 people were injured by Spanish police.

Shortly after the referendum, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the violence used by police that day, while Catalan president Carles Puigdemont was charged with rebellion and sedition, and fled to Belgium. Politically, not much has changed since then.

Over the past weekend, the upcoming anniversary of the referendum was celebrated with more protests, while today activists are blocking roads and train lines in the region. VICE Spain spoke to Catalans in Barcelona a year after those post-referendum clashes to find out if anything has changed for them since.

Javier, 38

VICE: Do you remember where you were a year ago today?
Javier: I was in Pineda de Mar, voting. I'm not pro-independence, but I'm in favour of the right to decide. I went to vote because, even though it was unregulated, on that day everyone had to give their opinion – those who wanted independence and those who didn't.

Do you identify as Catalan, Spanish or Spanish and Catalan?
I'm from Cuenca [central Spain] and I've lived in Pineda [Catalonia] for ten years. I have Catalan sympathies. I don't understand why still no decision has been made. They say we live in a democracy right now, but it's just our representatives deciding for us. I believe in a more participative democracy.

What did you think when you saw the images of the violence that day?
I felt ashamed – it was way out of proportion. But I think it’s really difficult to know which officers were following orders when hitting people and which weren't. It’s complicated to understand who was abusing their baton.

Alexandra, 28

VICE: Where were you during the referendum?
Alexandra: I was on top of a tractor, blocking the entrance to the only polling station in the town of San Juan de Mediona, and making picket lines so that police couldn't enter and people could vote. I remember that some of us were carrying walkie-talkies so that we could communicate to each other on which direction the police were coming from. I'm a separatist, but above all I'm in favour of the right to decide.

How has the atmosphere been since that day?
Fearful but indignant. My mother-in-law, for example, didn’t agree with people celebrating the vote, but as soon as she saw those brutal images she realised that a line had been crossed. To me, the simple act of having been able to vote was a step forwards, but I do believe there should have been much more information out in the open on what would happen in the case of independence – to better understand the pros and cons, for a clear and realistic plan for the country.

Has anything changed in a year?
Nothing has changed. The only thing that changed is that there are a lot more angry people now, who look a lot more favourably on the idea of independence. Honestly, the The People's Party [the Spanish party in government during the referendum last year] actually had a great campaign in favour of independence.

Natalia, 67

VICE: What were you doing on the 1st of October, 2017?
Natalia: I was home, in Barcelona. As soon as I saw the brutal images, I went to the nearest polling station and voted, dressed completely in yellow. I wasn't a separatist before, but I am now. If the police had come into my polling station when I was there, I would have given them hell. I’m quick-tempered – I lived through the Franco years, and this kind of behaviour really angers me.

Has anything changed for you since that day?
I decided not to go to any other Spanish town outside Catalonia except my mother's, in the Almería region. I went there not long ago, while there was a police strike for pay rises. I couldn’t contain myself and confronted one of them. In the end, my husband had to take my arm and lead me away – he didn't want me to end up in jail.

And how do you think the process is going politically?
I don't like many things that the independence parties have been doing over the last year. I think sometimes they only think about their own interests, and not those of the people.

Alba, 19

VICE: Where were you during the referendum?
Alba: I’ve been a separatist for many years, and that day, my mum and I went to vote at the polling station in Mas Casanova, which was raided by police. I was really scared and felt powerless. I will always remember that day for the way I saw my mother being treated. They pushed us, they hassled us, they used force when we only had a ballot paper in our hands. We only wanted to vote.

What's the current political situation like, compared to how it was a year ago?
In a way we are worse off. We have political prisoners now. It feel like we're living under repression, there are people who want to bring back article 155 [which places Catalonia under direct rule of the Spanish government], and it's not favourable for Catalonia at all.

What do you think about the role the European Union played?
I'm pretty disappointed with the way Europe responded to the referendum and the violence. Nobody who wants to vote deserves that kind of violence, and nothing was done to stop Spanish authorities.

Joel, 28

VICE: What were you doing on the day of the referendum?
Joel: I was in a polling station in Barcelona, defending the ballot boxes. I remember someone warned us that the police were on their way to raid the station, so everyone who wanted to could leave the building. I did leave – I was a bit scared, which I suppose is normal when considering a group of riot police are about to storm in.

Do you consider yourself a separatist?
In my house we are Castilian speakers, but I support the Catalan people's right to decide through a referendum. And I understand why some people here in Catalonia are separatists.

Has anything changed a year on?
If anything, it's got worse. Putting so many police on the streets for a referendum the government deemed illegal only gave it more importance; in a way, they actually legitimised the vote. But in the end, all of it amounted to nothing.