By 8.30am on Sunday, the situation in Barcelona and in most of Catalonia looked figuratively and literally stormy. Days of Indian summer and of festive protests and demonstrations had given way to an overcast sky, and an atmosphere of tension and excitement in the streets – and particularly in many schools. These, along with some health centres and other public buildings, were supposed to open their doors at 9am for Catalan citizens to start voting.
The independence referendum had been declared unconstitutional by the Spanish authorities, which used the machinery of the state to try to stop it from happening. But neither the arrests of officials nor the seizure of referendum material stopped the Catalan government from ensuring the vote would be held – one way or another. In fact, in a surprise announcement early today, the Catalan government said anyone could vote in any polling place, even by bringing their own ballot papers printed out at home. Not even envelopes would be needed.
The Catalan police, known as the Mossos, were ordered by a Spanish court to evacuate and seal off all the schools and other prospective polling stations by 6am. But having also been ordered by the Catalan authorities not to use force, the agents of the Mossos merely visited schools, saw they were already full of people, and left. Many of these would-be voters had spent the last two nights there to prevent the schools from being sealed off.
And then, just before 9am, it all began. Agents of the Guardia Civil and of the Spanish National Police, some of them in riot gear, arrived and started to intervene at some of the schools on the orders of the Spanish Interior Ministry. And then the reports and images of violence started flooding social as well as traditional media.
Police seize ballot boxes in Barcelona. Photo: Getty
Agents of the Guardia Civil and of the Spanish National Police could be seen dragging people off and sometimes even hitting them, breaking doors to burst into some schools. Those waiting to vote kept chanting, “We will vote!” and “We are a peaceful people!”, even though some were also throwing objects at the police and insulting them.
Tensions escalated. More people took to the streets in the rain. The number of those injured started to grow, and pictures and videos of people bleeding were passing from phone to phone along with a growing rage.
In some places the police ended up shooting rubber bullets to keep people away, even though the Catalan parliament banned the use of this weapon back in April 2014 after a woman lost an eye. (The Spanish authorities say this ban doesn’t apply to the national force, but just to the Mossos.)
All this violence was shocking to many, and in several places agents of the Mossos confronted the Guardia Civil over their violent actions. Later, the office of the Public Prosecutor announced it was considering denouncing the Catalan police for their passivity.
But then the Guardia Civil and the Spanish National Police withdrew, taking with them whatever referendum material they had been able to find.
In the Mediterranean School in the old fishermen’s quarter in Barcelona, where witnesses claimed old people had been beaten by the police, polling agents had managed to hide one ballot box, so the vote did start once the policemen left. A long line formed, running along the seafront promenade. The voting process was slow: you had to show your Spanish ID or your passport, then an online app – which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. This was supposed to say whether you were allowed to vote, then your details would be written down on paper, and you could place your ballot in the box.
“Please be patient!”, said the chair of the polling agents to the crowd.
“I’ve been waiting for this all my life myself, for 62 years, and we are going to vote!”, he added, to the applause and the cheers of those lining up.
Police in Barcelona. Photo: Getty
Later, the Catalan authorities admitted the vote carried on even when the online application wasn’t working, which in theory would allow anyone to vote several times in different locations.
Outside a Jesuit school in the Eixample area, the queue had doubled. “I just voted!”, said those who left the building, giving a V sign while those waiting applauded. A middle-aged man, who declined to give his name, said he expected the Catalan government to declare independence from Spain immediately if “Yes” won.
A young woman was in the verge of tears just before entering the school. “In one sentence: today Spain has lost Catalonia”, said her companion. Before entering the building, both said they had been waiting since 5am and had been to three different schools to try to vote.
“They banned our language, it was even banned for us to have a meeting of more than three or four people in the streets [during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship]. Now we are supposed to be in a democracy, right? Well, then we should be allowed to vote,” said Montserrat, 86, who did not want to give her surname. “Try to imagine how we are feeling right now, we have been humiliated over the past years, Spain never listened to us,” said her friend Carmen, 68. They had both just voted.
As the hours went by, most of the polling stations managed to function, people kept queueing and voting and the referendum was looking more and more like a normal vote – apart from the fact that anyone could vote anywhere with printed papers. After voting himself Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan government, denounced “the absolutely unjustifiable police brutality”, which “anyway hasn’t stopped the Catalan people from coming to vote”.
The Spanish government “has been forced to do what it didn’t want to do”, said Enric Millo, its representative in Catalonia, later at a press conference.
At least 465 people had been injured by 5pm, according to the official figures given by the Catalan authorities. Two were in a serious condition, one after receiving the impact of a rubber bullet in one eye, and another after suffering a heart attack in a polling station. At least nine policemen and three agents of the Guardia Civil had also been injured by that time, according to the Spanish Interior Ministry.
“The complete irresponsibility of the Catalan government has had to be replaced by the responsibility of the security forces,” said the Spanish deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría.
Away from the polling places and city centre hotspots, and aside from the rain, the day seemed like any other normal Sunday in Barcelona. Tourist guides led groups of visitors, and bars served food and drinks to those who dared to sit on the wet terraces. “I think independence wouldn’t be good for Catalans, nor for Spaniards or for anybody in general,” said a 26-year-old woman who told me she was going to vote “No”. “I don’t like the way the referendum has been organised, it has become too simplistic, identifying independence with the solution to all problems”.
She didn’t want to give her name because of how this could affect her professionally. “One can try to be as rational as possible, but at the end this all ends up being a question of emotion,” she added. “It saddens me that we can’t manage to understand each other.”