What’s Behind the Barcelona Protests?

Barcelona erupted in protests yesterday, after courts handed out sentences of up to 13 years in prison to nine Catalan separatist leaders arrested for their role in staging a 2017 referendum on Catalan independence.

Protesters filled the streets across the Catalan capital, with an estimated 25,000 massing in the city center and an unconfirmed but substantial number at the airport. Employing a strategy most recently used by demonstrators in Hong Kong, they blocked train and metro access to the airport for several hours, causing over 100 flight cancellations.

The police response to the protesters was aggressive: After assaults with batons and foam bullets, 131 people required medical assistance, including one man who lost an eye.

The spark for the demonstrations was the sentencing of the Catalan leaders—among them, former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras—who were responsible for organizing the region’s independence referendum in October 2017. The trial’s defendants maintained that the referendum was legal thanks to a law hustled quickly through Catalonia’s regional assembly, then overturned the following day by the country’s Constitutional Court. Judges rejected their argument and gave Junqueras and three other ministers 13 years apiece in prison for sedition and misuse of public funds. Former parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell was given 11½ years, two other leaders nine years, and three further politicians were handed fines.

Notably absent from the trial: former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who is still evading trial by living in exile in Belgium. In a fiery op-ed published yesterday, Puigdemont insisted that the verdict yesterday will in the end “inevitably backfire on Spain.”

Things could have been worse for the defendants: They were also accused of the crime of rebellion—which carries a potential sentence of 25 years—but that charge was overturned because their moves came with no campaign of violence. As it stands, the long sentences they received are still intensely divisive. While many Spanish citizens support cracking down on the Catalan independence movement, doling out prison time to the region’s former administration can only compound the impression given to many in Catalonia that Spain seeks to maintain control of the semi-autonomous region by authoritarian means—in part to curry favor with voters elsewhere in the country who are happy to see the central government taking a firm, uncompromising hand in Catalonia.

Tension boiled over on the streets of Barcelona soon after the sentences were announced. Activist group Tsunami Democràtic put out calls on social media for protesters to congregate at the airport. Demonstrators started arriving (often by metro and train) in large numbers until by later afternoon, they filled terminal buildings and car parks. Meanwhile, beyond Barcelona itself, a further 25,000 protesters congregated in the nearby city of Girona, where they briefly blocked several highways to France before apparently removing the blockades themselves. The police response was equally swift, and again social media was flooded with images of street clashes. Coming two years after police beat Barcelonans trying to participate in the attempted independence referendum, images of this crackdown have only inflamed tensions more.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the clashes represent an uncomplicated publicity coup for pro-independence forces. While regional leaders have applauded the protests, they’re also responsible for directing some of the police conducting the crackdown.

As I explained earlier this year in this CityLab article, Barcelona has a complex—and some would say quasi-dysfunctional—policing situation in which responsibilities are divided between separate national, regional, and urban forces. The officers beating back protesters were thus not just from the Guardia Civil, which is under the control of Spain’s national government, but also from the Mossos D’Esquadra, the main force controlled by the pro-independence regional government. This might seem odd, but while the regional government might be in favor of independence, they are also responsible for public order. Placed in the perverse position of being obliged to police civil unrest fed by a cause they profess approval of, the authorities have tacitly put order first. So when Mossos officers fired foam projectiles at protesters, some opponents of the current regional administration—including figures from the city’s municipal government—have been quick to damn this as hypocritical cynicism.

This doesn’t look good. The regional government is in a very difficult position—they may ostensibly support the aims of the demonstrators, but, on a day when their erstwhile colleagues are behind bars, must nevertheless resist giving the impression that they are a chaotic anti-state force. This has led to a bizarre situation: Regional leaders have been applauding the protests on social media while simultaneously giving orders to break them up.

As of Tuesday, the unrest has died down (at least at time of publication), but with national elections coming up in early November—and no party with an unequivocal lead in the polls—this could all potentially just be chapter one.

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