Catalonia Referendum: Police Accused Of Excessive Force, Injure 760 Protestors

Spain's Guardia Civil police force block demonstrators seeking to vote in the region's banned independence referendum, October 1 2017.

Hundreds of people have been injured in clashes between Spain’s Guardia Civil police force and protestors as residents of Catalonia seek to vote in the region’s independence referendum. Amid a flurry of claim and counter-claim, Barcelona’s mayor has condemned police actions against the mostly peaceful protestors. Police actions Sunday have included storming polling stations in order to prevent voting in the referendum, which has been declared unlawful by the Spanish constitutional court. Latest reports have put the number of injured at more than 760.

The referendum was ordered by the Catalan government, a devolved administration held presently by the pro-independence “Junts pel si” (Together for Yes) party, and was opposed by the majority of opposition parties in Catalonia’s parliament. Although it will not have automatic legal force, the symbolism of the referendum has been enough to make it a highly controversial subject in the region, and Spain at large. Speaking moments ago, Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy stated that “no referendum has taken place in Catalonia today” and that a majority of Catalans had upheld the law by not participating – words which could be taken as an indication that the Spanish government apportions blame for today’s scenes to those who sought to treat it as a legitimate vote.

The court handed down their order on September 7, the day after the referendum was declared by the devolved government and, as such, any result in the referendum will not be held legally binding. In this light, the heavy-handed response of the police force has been seen internationally as an overreaction. Why go to such lengths to prevent voting when the results will have no legal force?

Perhaps more pertinently, why present such an authoritarian face to the people of Catalonia when the most likely outcome will be to convince previously unconvinced Catalan people of the wisdom of independence? As things stand, the most recent polling has suggested that a majority in Catalonia (60 percent) are opposed to separating from Madrid’s centralized government, and most opposition parties were against the decision to hold a referendum (although a recent poll suggests that 70 percent of the populace were actually in favor of a vote). As such, any vote to separate would be unlikely, and potentially impossible to enforce – so why not just let the vote happen?

Police action to prevent the vote began early this morning, with the Guardia Civil, previously ordered to close polling stations, blocking access, raiding stations to confiscate ballot boxes and, as protests against their action grew in number, baton charges against protestors, many of whom were sitting on the ground. In scenes that will play on TV screens worldwide, firefighters seen to stand protectively between the police and the protestors were attacked by baton-wielding officers.

Political reaction to the scenes has been slow to filter out, and mixed when it has. According to the Guardian EU commissioner Guy Verhofstadt has called for a de-escalation. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has vocally condemned the violence too, while a representative from the UK Foreign Office restrained themselves to saying that “Spain is a close ally and a good friend, whose strength and unity matters to us”.

Meanwhile, Spanish government sources backed their police force, with the deputy Prime Minster Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría opining that the Guardia Civil had shown firmness and proportionality in the face of the Catalan government’s “irresponsibility.” Those words may struggle to be taken seriously next to footage of protestors with their hands up being struck with batons and women being dragged from polling stations by their hair.

In a further example of the division developing in the region, a soccer match between Barcelona and Las Palmas was played behind closed doors at the cavernous, 90,000-person Nou Camp stadium in the city. During the warmup, Barcelona players wore red-and-yellow striped shirts (the colors and design of the Catalan flag), while during the match the home and away sides wore Catalan and Spanish flags respectively on their shirts. Barcelona won, 3-0, by the way.

With polling due to close at 8pm CET, it remains to be seen how turnout figures will have been affected by trouble at the polling stations, not least as some places have been barricaded by protestors in order to ensure they stay open beyond the deadline. The most likely scenario is that, as those opposed to the vote have stayed away – and most waverers will have been put off voting by the trouble today – the result will be a landslide “Yes” vote.

Based on the lack of constitutional force, a lowered turnout and the likelihood that some votes will be cast after the deadline, it will hold little credibility. Yet what could emerge in its aftermath is perhaps more of a story. How the Spanish government conducts itself over the weeks, months and even years to come could lay the question of Catalan independence to rest for a generation. On the other hand, it could fuel its flames for decades to come.

[Featured Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]