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Confusion simmers beneath the bizarre normality of Catalonia in limbo

Locals question their future as they are pulled between independence and a Spanish takeover.

Finally the moment did come. At 3.27pm on Friday 27 October 2017, Catalonia was declared independent from Spain. It was at that very moment that the speaker of the Catalan Parliament declared a resolution that included a declaration of independence and asked the Catalan government to begin the constituent process.

In my office, just off Barcelona city centre and not far from the Catalan Parliament – and where everyone was following the event live online – the very first reaction was one of shocked silence. Had it really just happened? And, if so, what exactly had just happened?

“Ok, and now what?” asked one of my colleagues, a pro-independence young woman. Nobody had a clear answer to that. In the meantime, in the Catalan Parliament, the MPs present were hugging each other and singing the Catalan anthem, Els Segadors (“The Reapers”).

Everybody went to the balcony. Everything looked completely normal, even the police helicopter flying above felt normal, as it’s been a common feature of the Barcelona sky ever since just before the independence referendum on the 1 October.

That day, 92 per cent of voters said “Yes” to independence from Spain. However, the turnout was just above 43 per cent and the vote was marred by police violence, as it had been declared not legal by the Spanish authorities, which didn’t recognise its results.

Now, the Catalan Parliament had just approved the resolution that declared independence with 70 votes in favour, 10 against, and two blank. However, another 53 Catalan MPs had abandoned their seats before the vote, and left both Spanish and Catalan flags in their stead to protest what they consider an illegal process.

The ball was again in the Spanish authorities’ court. Just after the declaration of independence, the Spanish Senate in Madrid voted and approved to grant the central government the legal powers described in Article 155 of the Constitution, which allows the Spanish government to take over any of the 17 regional autonomous governments of Spain.

Having finally got the ultimate legal weapon ready to deploy, the PM, Mariano Rajoy, called a government emergency meeting in which everyone expected he would fire the head of the Catalan government, Carles Puigdemont, and probably all his government too.

But until that moment, if you believed in its legitimacy, and at least unilaterally as no other country had recognised it, Catalonia was an independent Republic.

The atmosphere around the Triumphal Arch next to the park where the Catalan Parliament is was one of calm celebration. Thousands of people had been following the declaration of independence there live on giant screens, as the park itself had been sealed off by the police. By chance, along the promenade starting at the Arch there many stands offering Catalan wine and cava as part of as annual fair, and this of course came in handy to drink a toast to the newly independent Republic of Catalonia.

“We were shouting, ‘Independence!’, and when this was declared we said, ‘OK, now it’s not anymore about asking for independence, now it’s about proclaiming the Republic’,” says Marc Grifell, 33. “For us it’s no longer about ‘getting’ but about defending what we just got,” agreed his uncle Miquel Grifell, 46. His brother, Joan Carles Grifell, 49, was next to them holding a huge pro-independence flag along with David Uró, 34, and a friend of theirs. The four are architects.

The group has its hopes up and feels very confident about the newly declared independent Catalonia. They give examples of progressive laws passed by the Catalan authorities that then were suspended by Madrid, they remember how Catalonia had asked to host thousands of refugees but hadn’t been allowed to do so by the Spanish state.

That’s why the four of them have come from nearby towns to witness this historical moment in which Catalonia had become independent. Or had it? “Well, we still lack the international recognition...” conceded Uró.

This recognition isn’t coming for certain. “For (the) EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor. I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force,” tweeted Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, shortly after the declaration. “As you know, Catalans always favour the force of arguments. #peace #democracy #dialogue,” Carles Puigdemont tweeted back in English.

But then the Catalan leader couldn’t keep up with all the official statements coming from European countries. “The UK does not and will not recognise the Unilateral Declaration of Independence made by the Catalan regional parliament,” said Theresa May. Germany, France, Italy and Portugal all issued similar statements, as did the US and other European bodies.

The Griffells and Uró were unfazed by this, though. “We were very pro-European,” says Miquel. “But now we are OK with going ahead with this without the EU, the world doesn’t end in the EU.”

Another country that isn’t recognising its independence is of course Spain. How far were these friends willing to go to defend what they consider their new country? “We’ll defend out institutions peacefully, holding our hands up, and we are ready to be hit by [police] batons; but we really hope there’ll be no shooting,” says Miquel.

“We’ll be cannon fodder,” adds his brother Joan Carles. “We don’t have any weapons ourselves”.

In the evening, Rajoy emerged from the Spanish government’s emergency meeting to say Puigdemont and the whole Catalan government were fired, that there will be elections to the regional Catalan Parliament on the 21 December, and that the so-called Catalan embassies, offices open by the Catalan authorities in other countries, will be suspended.

At the same time, the state prosecutor was building a case to charge Puigdemont, and probably other Catalan officials with rebellion, according to reports – a crime punishable by up to 30 years of jail time.

While many in Catalonia as well as in the rest of Spain were following Rajoy’s announcement, which supposedly meant the end of this short-lived independence, thousands of people had taken to Sant Jaume square in Barcelona wearing and waving pro-independence flags.

This is where the Catalan government building and the Barcelona City Hall face each other, and where many stayed overflowing onto the adjacent streets until late in the night celebrating what they saw as the birth of the Catalan Republic.

Apart from this hotspot, the harshness of the political statements and the fact that for many this was a historic day is in stark contrast with the eerie normality of the rest of Barcelona. Locals, who come from Catalonia, the rest of Spain, and from other countries, as well as tourists, enjoyed a warm late October evening by filling terraces and having dinner and drinks.

The online world is another matter, of course, and the political conflict is being played out on the Spanish-language Wikipedia – the online encyclopaedia anyone can edit, and in which Catalonia was going back and forth from an independent country to a Spanish region by the minute, as pro-independence and pro-unity users tried to impose their version.

Then came the next day, Saturday 28 October, the first full day of Catalan independence or the first full day in which Catalan self-government had been suspended since Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship, depending on your allegiances.

“There are right now two different legitimacies,” says Alberto Marcet, a 25-year-old pro-independence Barcelonian who is now based in London and, taking advantage of being here on a visit, has come to Sant Jaume square to wait for an official statement by Puigdemont.

On top of both the Catalan government building and of the Barcelona City Hall the Spanish flag was waving next to official Catalan one. “I’m having mixed feelings, as independence is not just something you declare but something you exercise, and the fact that there hasn’t been an international recognition complicates matters.”

He adds: “People can’t understand why this can’t be solved by voting, as they did when it came to the Scottish independence and to Brexit.”

Around him, the square is full of media crews and TV cameras, more so than of visible pro-independence supporters, as almost no flags can be seen.

One woman is passionately defending the right of Catalans to decide about their independence in front of quite a few cameras when another woman passing by tells her: “You are Spanish whether you like it or not!” “No, I’m not, I’m Catalan,” the first one shouts back, to the joy of the TV crews.

Then the Catalan public television broadcasts the first official speech by Puigdemont after the Spanish authorities fired him. He doesn’t mention this particular issue and so doesn’t make clear whether he accepts his dismissal.

Instead, in a message recorded and with the European and Catalan flags behind him, he calls for Catalans “to have patience, perseverance and perspective”:

“We are clear that the best way to defend what we have achieved up to today is the democratic opposition to Article 155… And we have to do it without repressing or threatening (others), and without abandoning ever, ever, not in a single moment, a civic and peaceful attitude.”

It’s now up to the Spanish authorities to work out how to enforce their declared takeover of the Catalan institutions.

“We will defend our institutions in the same way we defended our schools and ballot boxes (on the 1 October referendum), we will defend our parliament and our government in a peaceful way and whatever it takes,” says Olga Amargant, a 45-year-old lawyer who is the one person on the square wearing a pro-independence flag. “After seeing what happened on referendum day, now we know we could even risk our lives”, she adds.

Around her, tourists are walking around, taking selfies and chatting in many languages. The TV crews sit down looking bored, and life goes on in a bizarrely normal manner the moment one steps outside the square.

Photo: Getty
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How student survivors of the Florida school shooting are using social media to demand change

“As teenagers, we know how to use social media and we know how to take advantage of it.”

Before 14 February 2018, Delaney Tarr used Twitter to share pictures of dogs, screenshots from her favourite Netflix shows and drawings by artists she admired. After a gunman murdered 14 of her classmates and three of her teachers at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the 17-year-old's online presence changed. Since then, her Twitter profile has been made up of moving tributes to her dead classmates, strongly worded arguments with Fox News presenters, and a hashtag: #NeverAgain.

“When the tragedy happened, we realised that this was how we were going to reach as many people as possible,” Tarr told me when we spoke on the phone.

“Even if you look at the current president of the United States, he uses Twitter in a way that is unprecedented. And as teenagers, we know how to use social media and we know how to take advantage of it.”

Tarr is one of hundreds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School students using Twitter to make their voices heard. As well as #NeverAgain, they have set up crowdfunding pages to pay for marches and memorials and organised a national school walkout day (planned for 20 April).

During the attack, many students tweeted about what was unfolding in real time – with 14-year-old Aidan Minoff posting pictures from underneath the desk where he was hiding. “My school is being shot up and I am locked inside. I’m fucking scared right now,” he wrote in a tweet shared more than 20,000 times. Many more students uploaded videos of the shooting to the messaging app Snapchat.

In a tweet (since deleted) sent on the day of the attack, right-wing pundit Mark Dice criticised the students. “Someone tell Generation Z kids that in the event of a school shooting, they should call 911 instead of posting video of it on Snapchat,” he wrote.

This ridiculous comment was informed by the assumption that social media is inherently frivolous. It isn’t. “I’ve seen all the criticism and I’ve seen some valid points saying that it is too sensitive to see those videos,” Delaney Tarr said, referring to Snapchat clips showing bodies on the floor, pools of blood, and students cowering in fear. “But, ultimately, they’re giving you an experience that nobody has had before.

“You’re hearing the gunshots that we heard, you’re seeing the blood that we had to see. It is something that will haunt you just as it is haunting all of us.”

Nikhita Nookala is a 17-year-old MSD student who tweeted from her hiding place: “im in a closet”. “It was the only thing I could do at the time,” she told me over email. Along with her terrified peers, she received frequent Snapchat updates from her friends elsewhere in the school. “Images were the only thing that we had as proof that our friends were safe,” she told me. “And now those same images can be used as evidence in court against the man that killed our friends.” On the day of the shooting, Nookala also sent a tweet to Donald Trump. “Why was a student able to terrorize my school mr president,” she wrote in reply to Trump’s message offering “condolences” to the victims.

More than 660,000 people have seen her tweet, while five million watched an online video of a SWAT team evacuating a classroom at the school, posted online by a pupil’s sister. In it, one child’s hands can be seen trembling uncontrollably. Will any of this make a difference to America’s gun control debate? “Ultimately, I think people are more willing to change when they can see the damage that has been done,” Delaney Tarr said. Nikhita Nookala agreed: “Having our voices heard is the most important thing we can do right now.”

Snapchat videos will undoubtedly provoke emotions in a way that the traditional media cannot. But some of the posts are hugely affecting not only because they show bloodied bodies, but because they remind us the victims are children, using emojis to illustrate their pain.

“My teacher died,” reads part of a text message exchange between two brothers trapped in the school. One brother screenshotted the texts and gained 150,000 retweets when he later shared them on Twitter. “Don’t do anything,” one brother wrote to the other. Then: “Don’t DO ANYTHING”. After getting no reply, he sent another message: “You understand?”. Then another. “Matthew.” Another: “Please answer me.”

To read these texts is to feel the moment-by-moment agony of the students. This wouldn’t be possible without the mobile phones that allowed them to communicate and, later, to share their fraught exchanges.

It could be argued that these messages were too raw and personal to share widely, manifestations of a society obsessed with personal revelation and putting everything online. I disagree: sharing these texts is an inspirational act that allows the entire world to feel the students’ pain.

On 24 November 2017, thousands of people were caught in a moment of collective panic at Oxford Circus in the West End of London. The Tube station was evacuated and police swarmed the streets in response to what turned out to be a false terror alarm. My boyfriend’s offices are located just off Oxford Circus; we used Facebook Messenger to stay in contact during the chaos. Because I didn’t share our exchanges on social media, they are ours alone. But by taking their most intimate messages and posting them online, the Florida high school students can shock us out of our usual desensitised response to all-too-common American mass shootings.

“We’re not going to be quieted,” Delaney Tarr said, explaining that Twitter will give students such as her a voice after the news cycle has moved on from the latest act of gun violence. “We’re not going to be silent. We’re going to keep fighting for this until there is some change.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia