From dawn to dusk, an intense Sunday in a Catalan School

At 5 in the morning, the doors of the Drassanes School are still shut, but the peole keeping guard utside are already debating the referendum. Not everybody looks forward to a secession. The Mossos and later the ballot boxes arrive giving start to a long day full of harsh events that will change Catalonia and Spain.

People queue to vote in the banned independence referendum at a polling station in Barcelona, Spain, October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera
People queue to vote in the banned independence referendum at a polling station in Barcelona, Spain, October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera

Barcelona. It was still dark at 5 AM on a rainy Sunday, but about forty people were already gathered in front of the Drassanes School. The front doors were closed but inside two people were cleaning up the gym where parents, neighbors, professors, and some students had slept since Friday to prevent police from barring the entry poll officials on Sunday. Under a roof volunteers had set a table with coffee and croissants. Nobody knew if the vote would actually take place because boxes and ballots had been seized by authorities a week earlier. Nor did the people know there if the Civil Guard or the Mossos, the Catalan police, would show up. 

For the government in Madrid things were crystal clear: the constitution adopted after dictator Franco’s death -- in continuity rather than with a real shift, separatist Catalans maintain - does not provide for this type of referendum. Preparations, however, went ahead coordinated by two organizations that include the whole spectrum of the independentista parties, from the left to the right wing. 

People chatted. "If this referendum were binding I would have voted No, but they prevented it, and now I just want to vote," said thirty-year-old Gemma, whose family is not Catalan, and who wants to get rid of the government in Madrid because it is corrupt and pursues only its own interests. Marta, a young illustrator whose family is Valencian, was less vehement, but wanted to vote because the government had not offered solutions in the past 10 years, "putting our backs against the wall. There is lots of confusion. I know of non-Catalan colleagues who are worried and uneasy. I would say that a 20% are against [a Catalan sovereignty], a 30% are indifferent, but 95%, I would say, want a change." Martha did not expect independence but fruitful negotiations -- Gemma the opposite. Curiously enough, neither the family of the woman I speak with right after them is Catalan, but from Extremadura “we emigrated because we were poor”. An elegant 75-year-old, Emiliana told attending only elementary school and working in a factory already at 14. "Only 3 out of seven girls there were Catalan," she said recalling their names. She and her husband got up at 4.30 AM because "it's a matter of feeling and culture. Catalans are different from the rest of Spain, they are great workers, savers. The Popular Party governments with Socialist support feared losing power of years and hence never let us express our will.” 

"It is this intransigence that changed the minds of people who were tepid on independence," journalist Toni Soler told me. “Yes, the PP in Catalonia is not popular, and many would support any cause just to counter it.” 

At 6 AM, four Mossos arrived on a patrol. There was some nervousness among those holding the ground, even if everyone had read the leaflet explaining how to behave peacefully and avoid provocations: "Keep your hands up, do not offer resistance, sit down and grab the person sitting next to you." The Mossos stayed all day about 70 yards away from the school entrance, an obvious strategy to allow their head, Lluis Trapero, to maintain having granted the public order as ordered by the government by not disrupting the hundreds of people standing in line. Volunteer organizers asked later not post any videos portraying the Mossos to prevent central authorities to use them as evidence against them. Catalans know how they feel and that they are on their side. 

At 6.45 everybody turned around: made-in-China ballot boxes were being brought in to the gym through a rear door. People killed time reading posts on Twitter, Telegram, and Firechat. Organizers would later ask, however, not to use Wi-Fi to keep networks in the schools from crushing. "Social media made up for the information imbalance, because in Catalonia mainstream newspapers and televisions have married the Spanish point of view, "says Soler. 

The opening of the poll station triggered a strong applause, and people begun to form a line. Architect Oriol Bohiga arrived in wheelchair, and again everyone applauded. Clapping hands whenever an elderly person arrived or left the ballot station happened all over Catalonia, the eyes of the elder sometimes wet with tears. 

Videos featuring police crushing down school front doors or fences and people exiting with their hands raised, kicking, women pulled by hair and other people unable to walk because hit by rubber bullets (that are banned in Catalonia) went viral. In the end, 319 out of the 2,315 polling station were emptied by police, but in all other schools voting continued peacefully and even merrily. At some point a neighbor pumped up the volume of John Lennon’s Imagine, and people in the thick line going all around two blocks sung along "... living like in peace". 

Madrid could not be farther away, like a parallel reality with a parallel language. It was as if Felipe IV did not exist -- Catalans are die-hard Republicans. In a radio debate from Madrid, "unionist" journalists talked about the leaders of the "insurrection", Carles Puigdemont (PdeCat, right wing) and Oriol Junqueras (Erc, Republican Catalan Left) as having "manipulated children and people" conveying the idea that 1-O was being brought about by a handful of leaders and a bunch of manipulated citizens. 

"The most important aspect in the Catalan case," Soler said, "is how people of all ages and social backgrounds organized in a massive and peaceful manner, as you can see here, whether they are of Catalan or Spanish origin. Catalans strongly feel the community. It is typical to find in every village neighbor, cultural and a thousand other types of groups, like a few months ago when they organized committees in every neighborhood to support refugees," Soler said. 

Many Catalanistas who did not look to an independence but rather greater autonomy or federalism, today had no chance but to for or against independence. Uncompromising Catalans are one cause, but Mr. Rajoy’s government is the other. "He gave a blank check to the police, forecasting a speedy resolution with judiciary and police enforcement tools, not a popular uprising against him," said to me a Basque journalist under the condition of anonymity. "But beware, Rajoy is Teflon-like, this is a strategy. Polarization suits him well, because he does not need to work for an electoral base in Catalonia, while all of this will guarantee him the votes he needs across the rest of Spain." 

Two days earlier, the Interior Minister had said condescendingly, that "the Catalan’s ‘picnic’ would be allowed", badly impressing also foreign observers, including the thirty official former prime ministers and international personalities supervising the poll. Others came on their own, like Martine Quellet, representative of the Québécois Bloc in the Québec parliament. "We are two advanced countries. The fact that people here are still voting despite the violence will be inspirational. The international community will have to say something about these anti-democratic events," Quellet said to me. "The referendum being illegal is a false issue because it owes to the right of self-determination of peoples, which in turn falls within the international law that should prevail over the Spanish constitution." 

Alfonsi François, a course and representative of the alliance of left-wing European parties for self-determination, answered my question about nationalism: "Peoples resisting [invasion in WW2] were nationalists and so were the Nazis. We belong to the first group, we are the peoples who created the history of Europe, and should therefore have the right to be a constituent part of it, and to be able to choose if we want autonomy, independence or other forms of membership that the European Constitution will allow. Europe is an engine of democracy, it would disappear without it. Building Europe took 50 years and could require another 50 or more. Europe cannot want this type of crises." 

Cell phones kept churning news, including that of an old man hit and in severe conditions. "After today's events, we will ask for an international mediation," said Erc Alfred Bosch, a Barcelona Government Councilor who was visiting the stations. 

Fearing that the police would arrive and seized the ballots casted, people young and elder kept guarding the school grounds. Someone reported of a village where to do so Catalan farmers had blocked the main square accesses with tractors and vans. This went on until polls closed at 8 in the evening with a huge applause because the count could begin. With a participation of 42,5% (over 2.2 million), the Yes won by 90,9%, No votes (7.87%) and blank and spoiledballots made up the rest.

If anyone had doubted whether to vote be that Yes or No, people commented, the events had probably pushed them to go cast their vote. Later in the evening in Catalonia Square, the very center of Barcelona, the crowded was not huge -- it had been a tough day for whoever had participated in the referendum. Puigdemont said, "We have earned the right to an independent state in the form of a Republic." In any case, the post-1-O phase looks complex and prolonged. It will begin on Tuesday with a general strike.


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