I think that unless the decent people of the western democracies put real pressure on their governments, their governments will do absolutely nothing to stop the escalation of state violence in Spain. Spain has learnt that it can get away with a lot in order to “defend law and order”. They will use again the same strategies, or worse, against Catalunya but also against any political opposition that they can label as a “threat to our Constitution”.
October 2nd, 1017
As I am sure you know, terrible things happened yesterday in the place I call home. There were almost 1000 people injured by the police, and one person lost an eye due to a rubber bullet, even though their use is illegal in Catalunya. Some of you have already written to express your worries, and I expect others are planning it, so let me first tell you that I and my family and friends are well.
My family and many others are among the many thousands throughout the country that spent Saturday night inside our schools (voting stations) to protect our ballot boxes and, with them, our right to vote in a peaceful referendum. We knew, because we were officially told, that at 6am the Catalan police would come to try to seize the boxes, and that at 9am the Spanish police might come as well. Knowing this, many Catalan voters started queuing outside the schools at 5am. When I woke up and opened the door of our school I saw nearly 100 people already gathered. Families with children, grandparents, workers… normal people, queuing up in the dark to vote and to help us protect the ballot boxes. Sure enough, at 6 am, the Catalan police came and, seeing the crowd, did the only decent thing a decent police force can do: take notice of the impossibility of seizing the boxes without hurting anyone, give us an official notice that our referendum was considered illegal, and left the school. At 9 am the vote started.
First there was excitement: celebration of the fact that we had managed to get that far. All the ballot boxes had been smuggled during the previous weeks under the vigilance of a reinforced police contingent. Several of our politicians had been arrested. There were attempts to enter the premises of legal political parties without a court warrant. All the websites related to the referendum, including many that belonged to NGO’s and thus were not bound by the judicial restrictions on the Catalan government, were closed down. Most had URL’s outside Spain, but the Spanish government forced the internet providers to set up a country-wide firewall against them. This is a first for a western democracy: other countries that block access to outside websites include China and North Korea.
Ten million ballots had been also seized by the Spanish government, but on the day of the referendum sure enough there were fresh ballots on the tables. The referendum was a victory in itself.
After the initial excitement, the news started to arrive into our mobile phones. Spanish police had charged with unspeakable brutality against this or that polling station. Horrific videos (if you have only seen the newspapers, you ain’t seen nothing yet) started to fly across our Whatsapp groups. Real panic, together with a reinforced sense of resolve, followed. We were no longer fighting to have a referendum. We were now fighting for survival. We were fighting against fascism.
Not all schools were attacked by the Spanish police. I have seen the pattern, and it is interesting: they hit hardest either at the polling stations of significant political leaders, or at the polling stations of working class neighbourhoods. Make of that what you will. I happen to live in the kind of gentlel neighbourhood that professors tend to favour, and we did not get attacked. But we did not know that we were not going to be attacked. Misinformation and false rumours were used as a weapon to induce panic, discourage people from going to vote, and keep us disoriented. We were running up and down and making constant calls to check out the situation everywhere. We got exhausted, stressed, sad and angry. In the places that were attacked, sometimes the police won, and sometimes they did not. Sometimes the ballot boxes were smuggled out to a safe haven until the police had left, and then the polling station reopened. The social network quickly informed of this, and voting queues quickly resumed. And this is the amazing thing: the people stubbornly queued to vote despite all. All kinds of people, young people, old people, disabled people, balding professors … people like me, or you.
At 8pm we closed the voting stations. Inside, the officials were counting. Outside, we were gathered expecting the Spanish police to arrive and seize the full boxes, as had been rumoured they would do so as to seize and lay to waste the maximum number of votes. We were exhausted and fearful, but also determined. In my school, the fire-fighters appeared to remind us that they were on our side. Indeed, we had all seen the videos of the fire-fighters making human barriers against the charges of the police –the police with batons, the firemen with just their hands. We all started to clap, and sing. And then we all started to cry. We cried and we clapped at the same time. At 43 years of age, I cried like I haven’t done since I was a child. My eyes are swelling as I type this, remembering the moment; I will never forget it as long as I live. There is nothing like the feeling of realising that you are not alone, that you belong to a group. I feel now closer to humankind than ever before.
But my tears also contain anger and sadness at what is happening to us humans. Everywhere I see the rise of things that look very much like fascism. Xenophobia in the UK, the ascent of Le Pen in France or the neo-nazis in Germany, Erdogan in Turkey, even the political discourse of Trump, they all point at the same direction. And now it is in Spain. This being a country of extremes, where we do not do things by half-measures, our fascism has manifested itself most virulently. Spain had a Civil War between 1936 and 1939. Hitler and Mussolini helped Franco, the western democracies did not help our democracy. In 1939 our civil war ended, and WWII followed immediately; many regard our war as the first battle of WWII.
We are not there yet, but we are getting there. I think that unless the decent people of the western democracies put real pressure on their governments, their governments will do absolutely nothing to stop the escalation of state violence in Spain. Spain has learnt that it can get away with a lot in order to “defend law and order”. They will use again the same strategies, or worse, against Catalunya but also against any political opposition that they can label as a “threat to our Constitution”. The only thing that can stop the Spanish government now is serious and public condemnations and sanctions from foreign countries. If we do not do it now, I fear for the future of democracy here and everywhere.
So, this is my story, but it is also a very long preamble to ask you a favour. Please, PLEASE, start campaigning for us, actively. Write to your MP’s and political representatives. Write letters to the newspapers and magazines. Use your social networks. Write petitions. Or at least, sign petitions. Below is one that was started by my partner; feel free to sign it and pass it on, or write your own. Do whatever, but do something.
ICREA Research Professor,
Institut Català de Nanociència i Nanotecnologia
PS. Here the petition:
Gustau Catalan és un professor d’investigació ICREA a l’Institut Català de Nanociència i Nanotecnologia, on lidera el grup de Nanofísica d’Òxids. Quan no treballa en la física dels nanomaterials, li agrada jugar al ping pong (mediocrement), escalar (acceptablement), i tocar l’ukelele (terriblement).