Rubber bullets? Tear gas? Striking old ladies with batons until they bleed from the head? Ripping little children out of their parents arms? Breaking women's fingers? REALLY?
One of the reasons we chose to move to Barcelona was the wonderful and pervasive feeling of peace and tranquility in this incredible metropolis.
I've spent time in lot of big cities during my life... Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, New York, Boston, Vancouver, Tijuana, London, Paris, Rome, Madrid... just to name a few.
Yet none of them have ever felt quite as safe, clean and beautiful as we have always found Barcelona to be. From my first weekend journey to Barcelona in 1995 to our official move here in 2016, I'd traveled to Barcelona at least six times before we moved here. Every single time I left with the same feeling about the city.
To me, Barcelona has been a vibrant, living symbol of the very best a human life has to offer: Peace. Energy. Joy. Beauty. Excitement. Culture. Cuisine. Music. Creativity. History. Fútbol. Passion!
So if you'd told me back in June 2016 as I packed up a house full of cardboard boxes in California to move to Spain with my husband and kids that I would soon be experiencing a major terrorist attack AND living in a country flirting with civil war where local voting was met with police brutality, I would have found that very hard to believe.
Yet somehow, this is where we're at today.
"Mom, why can't we go to my fútbol game this afternoon?" The Scientist asked me. "It may be the last match I get to play this year, if FIFA doesn't approve me for international play. I really want to go!"
"Honey, I know. I want you to be able to play. Nobody's going to play today though... it isn't just you. The Catalan Federation has suspended all games after 2pm though because of the violence. They say they want to protect the safety of their teams, the referees and the fans."
My twelve year old son's face fell. "Oh." He looked longingly out of the window toward the rainy afternoon, as we listened to police sirens blaring in the distance. "That makes sense. This is a hard day... for everybody."
"Yes, it really is." We sat in silence, glumly, thinking about the images we'd just seen on the news of an old lady getting dragged away by Spanish federal policemen in black riot gear. She looked about seventy years old and was wearing a sweater and leggings. She looked like she could be somebody's grandma.
To be clear, the federal police and civil guard committing these actions were NOT Catalan police. The Catalan police force ('Mossos d'Esquadra') mainly sat this one out. They were present at the polls but ignored most orders from Madrid and did not try to stop their fellow citizens from voting. Some Mossos wept openly as they watched peaceful citizens attempting to vote for independence; later harmed by Spanish cops.
This violence was Spain vs. Catalunya.
What the heck was going on?
For readers who have never had the pleasure of traveling here, Barcelona is the capital city of Catalunya... an important and prosperous region of Spain.
Yesterday, over two million Catalan people from cities all over the region headed to the polls at local schools to vote in a referendum about whether or not Catalunya should become its own independent nation.
As in, get a divorce. Leave Spain and strike out alone! Try to join the European Union as its own country.
In the end, 90% of those voters chose independence.
The Catalans who voted yesterday are operating on the principle of self-determination... a concept based on the ideals of equal rights and equal opportunity. According to self-determination, people have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status without any interference.
"Why do the Catalans want to divorce Spain?" my friends at home have asked in confusion. "Why aren't they happy?"
First off, not all Catalans actually feel this way. Until yesterday, the opinions here were sharply divided... about 50/50. Just as many Catalan people wanted to stay in Spain, as wanted to go.
Among the Catalans that are pro-independence, there are a variety of reasons to leave. For some of my Catalan friends the issue is simple and economic. Madrid takes a lot of Catalan tax money and doesn't give it back proportionately. People look around and see public roads that need fixing, public works that need completing, and they feel that isn't fair. They want their money back.
For others it is the story of a 300 year struggle going back to the 1700s, when the Bourbon monarchy ended the autonomy of the Crown of Aragon (and therefore, the autonomy of Catalonia which had been a territory of the Crown of Aragon). For hundreds of years Catalonia had operated independently. Now it had to answer to the Bourbons.
The people who feel most passionately about independence, though, are the ones who care the most about language. They want their kids raised speaking Catalan, and they want classes in school taught in Catalan. For them, language is the heart of a nation.
In the mid-1800s there was a resurgence of interest and pride in the Catalan language and cultural traditions. Out of this 'Catalan Renaissance' came a nationalist movement, with people eager to once again have their own nation. This feeling persisted and Catalan nationalists came closest in the 1920s and early 1930s under the leadership of Francesc Macià. He was the leader of a pro-independence political party and ultimately became the head of the Catalan Republic until he died in 1933. The Catalan Republic lasted for less than 6 years from 1932 until it was crushed by General Francisco Franco in 1938.
Under Franco both the autonomy of Catalunya and the Generalitat were abolished. During Franco's nearly 40 year rule as a dictator, the Catalan people had no voice or independence and were not allowed to teach their own language to their children or pass down their cultural traditions.
When Franco died in 1975 Spain moved to restore democracy. Autonomy was restored and Catalunya has benefited greatly from autonomy ever since... but there has been this ongoing issue over language, culture and Catalan identity. It has remained a very tricky and important issue for most Catalan people.
HOWEVER. Approximately three million Catalans did not vote yesterday. Mainly they stayed home from the referendum because the Spanish government stated that this was not a legitimate democratic election.
They felt that their votes would be invalid or even illegal, so why bother? No European countries had supported the referendum, or agreed to honor its results. Many other Catalans felt (at least until yesterday) some loyalty and connection to Madrid and the rest of Spain.
"I didn't vote yesterday because I felt it was not a legal election that would be internationally recognized," explained our friend Eduard* this morning at the school bus stop. "That said, I do believe that Catalans deserve to vote what is in our hearts for our future. I estimate that 90% of Catalan people felt very strongly yesterday that they should have the right to vote - yes or no. Based on the violence of the Spanish Civil Guard toward the voters, I will tell you that 99.9% of the Catalan people are very angry and upset about how the Spanish police have treated our citizens."
Eduard was referring to the violent actions taken by the Spanish Police and Civil Guard yesterday toward peaceful Catalan citizens trying to vote. Some Catalans were shot in the face and head with rubber bullets; thrown down the stairs; had bones broken; and were even clubbed in the head.
"This is NOT Spain," agreed our other friend Francesc*, who DID vote for independence yesterday. "This is not how we act here. We are a civilized people."
Eduard frowned and shook his head. "My friend from Chile called me yesterday and said to me, 'What, is Spain becoming Venezuela now?' My friend from Finland called too. It is very concerning. For the first time, I am worried."
The independence referendum of 1 October was called many months ago by the leader of the Catalan people Carles Puigdemont, a former journalist and mayor of Girona who in 2016 was named 130th president of the Generalitat of Catalunya. He is the first-ever president of Catalunya to refuse to take an oath of loyalty to the Spanish Constitution and Spanish King Felipe VI.
Puigdemont has not been working alone toward the goal of Catalan independence... he was placed in his role by two pro-independence groups called "Together for YES" and "CUP" (Popular Unity Candidacy). He has a large and somewhat cohesive government that has been working very hard toward the goal of Catalan independence for a long time.
If this were a romantic story of good and evil, Puigdemont's nemesis or arch-rival would easily be characterized as Mariano Rajoy. A regional president vs. the prime minister of the country! Rajoy is leader of the conservative People's Party and currently the Prime Minister of Spain.
Before becoming prime minister, Rajoy was a longtime head of the Opposition party in Spain, with a strong focus on economics. He discredited socialist leaders as not understanding how to manage money and blamed them for Spain's terrible crisis during the global economic downturn. Although he campaigned on financial integrity and security, since his election Rajoy has been accused multiple times of financial corruption. He has currently been the Prime Minister since 2011.
Rajoy says that it is his duty and the duty of his government to uphold the law and 'preserve the integrity of the Spanish state'. In other words, he says he is defending democracy itself. He himself is currently the head of a minority government and it could topple if the fallout from this referendum gets bad enough.
Rajoy authorized the Spanish Civil Guard to enter Catalunya and use proportionate measures to try and nullify the Catalan referendum.
"Proportionate?" scoffs Eduard. "Proportionate is when I hit you and you hit me back. Proportionate is not hitting defenseless old women who are sitting peacefully on the ground in the head with police batons... or throwing people down the stairs!"
Catalans would not agree then, that Rajoy's actions and the actions of the police, were reasonable and peaceful.
Despite their best efforts though, the Spanish police and civil guard were not able to stop the Catalan referendum from taking place.
Not that they didn't try!!! Really hard!!! Here are some of the things the government of Spain did in the past two weeks to try to stop yesterday's vote. It's like a laundry list of oppression:
What a terrible mistake.
From the perspective of an outsider... an American... someone from a country where violence has too often been used to solve problems, there must be a better way than this! Oppression and brutality can only lead to more anger. It will surely fan the flames of the independence movement, not snuff them out.
Yesterday I read an article in The Atlantic about how the Spanish Government misunderstood the independence movement. I highly, highly recommend this piece and think everyone should read it. Especially Mariano Rajoy!
Abraham Maslow once said, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." Apparently the Spanish government felt its best tool was a military force at its disposal, and they have hammered this delicate Catalan problem with brute force rather than intelligent finesse.
This is not only terrible for Rajoy's PR (and that of Spain as a democracy) but it was so unnecessary. Six months ago I didn't know more than one or two Catalan people that truly wanted independence. They just wanted the politicians to talk and hammer out a financial compromise.
Today, Catalunya is united on the issue of independence more than perhaps ever before. That's what happens when you hurt old women and little children in front of a thousand cell phones taking video. By acting from a place of fear rather than faith in democracy, Rajoy himself has lit the match for the explosion that may ultimately shake all of Spain.
Our family has no skin in this game, or at least, very little of it. As Americans living abroad on a temporary basis for an exciting life adventure, it is easy to see the perspective of both sides. I truly understand why Spain wants to continue embracing Catalunya as an essential part of itself, and I also understand why much of Catalunya wants to be its own nation.
The heartbreaking thing (as I see it from an outside perspective) is the loss of the beautiful Catalan sense of security and innocence in one single day.
We've gone from Catalan students singing, proudly waving flags and banners, handing out flowers and taking classes from civil rights leaders about non-violent protest... to shocked and angry citizens of all ages rubbing their eyes in disbelief, after witnessing soldiers from their own country attack their neighbors and friends over a peaceful vote.
After disbelief comes anger.
I feel their loss keenly, this loss of innocence.
Living in Barcelona had been a breath of fresh air for our family during this past year, like a heavy mantle was lifted that we didn't even know we were sitting under. We loved living in a place where people genuinely trust the Mossos (local police), children are truly safe on the street, people of all ages felt incredibly free to protest without fear of repercussion, and two people with strongly differing political opinions could still live harmoniously in apartments side by side, proudly displaying their different flags, and yet share a coffee in the morning.
I come from a country where we have not really had such innocence for a long time... at the very least, since the attacks on September 11, 2001. (African American friends in my country might argue that we have actually never in our history had that kind of innocence... as our country was built in large part with the blood, sweat and tears of forced labor.)
Just a few hours ago in my own country the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history took place. My sister and her husband actually happened to be in the audience when a man in his 60s opened fire from a hotel room above the large crowd listening to country music at a open-air festival in Las Vegas. At time of writing nearly 60 people are now reported dead and more than 500 injured.
My family members were badly shaken and incredibly lucky to get out alive!
Although this is the worst mass murder in modern American history it is also the kind of headline we have become hardened to. Sadly, this kind of random, tragic violence happens in the USA all too frequently. It's almost too much to process mentally and emotionally so, often, people ignore it and go on with their day.
Yesterday I watched that same yoke descend upon the shoulders of the Catalan people I now know and love. This morning I saw the same sorrow, fear and uncertainty in their eyes that we know too well in other parts of the world.
"I don't understand it," our Catalan friends are saying. "I did not believe it could be like this. Not here." They look dazed, crushed... and angry.
President Puigdemont is on the cusp of declaring Catalan independence... perhaps within 72 hours. Madrid will surely not accept (or even acknowledge) this decision.
I fear that instead of independence we are entering a time of Catalan instability... and possibly, greater tragedy to come.
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