Barcelona, Catalonia

Frontline Barcelona: Huge Protests Engulf City

A fresh wave of protests rippled through Barcelona over the weekend, bringing spats, skirmishes and flying balls — but not the violence which has plagued the Catalan capital over the past couple of weeks.

The scheduling of back-to-back demonstrations, first by independence supporters and then by their loyalist rivals, had stoked fears of a fresh paroxysm of turmoil in a city which has been on edge ever since nine separatist leaders were jailed on October 14. Many had fretted about a repeat of the riots which engulfed central Barcelona in the days after the sentencing, when pro-independence protests veered out of control.

This time, however, the police were able to maintain control. Two people remain hospitalized after Saturday’s independence demonstration, which culminated in a tense protest outside the Spanish police headquarters, but the demonstrators stopped well short of launching rockets and Molotov cocktails at the Mossos d’Esquadra officers. Instead, they settled for lobbing plastic balls, many of them emblazoned with pro-independence messages. 

Of course, the relative tranquillity of the weekend’s activities hasn’t stopped the two sides from squabbling. Both loyalists and separatists have been at pains to insist they ‘won’ the weekend and that their event attracted superior numbers, as their endless tit-for-tat squabble continues.

The official police figures point to a clear victory for the separatists, whose event attracted 350,000 demonstrators on Saturday afternoon — as opposed to 80,000 for the loyalist event on Sunday morning. The organizers of the pro-Madrid rally claim their attendance numbers have been grossly underestimated as part of the separatist propaganda claim, and in fact 400,000 people turned up to cheer them on. Of course, those behind the independence rally make a similar claim, suggesting their numbers could have been as high as 750,000.

‘A very clear message’

Saturday’s demonstration was essentially a two-part event. First came the main protest, backed by Omnium and the Catalan National Assembly and held on Carrer Marina, a stone’s throw from the Barceloneta beach. Then a more radical demonstration, pushed by the hard-line Democratic Tsunami and Republican Defense Committees, held on Via Laetana, where the Spanish police force is located.

As the sun dipped behind the beachside skyscrapers on Saturday afternoon, a vast crowd gathered in a square dedicated to those who volunteered in the 1992 Olympics, many draping Catalonia’s Estelada flag behind them like a superhero’s cape. They chanted the words “justicia” and “independencia” and sang the Catalan national anthem, Els Segadors (The Reapers), a revolutionary paean which celebrates the Catalan peasants’ revolt of 1640.

After a mass march from central Barcelona had culminated in front of the main stage, speeches were given by a string of Catalan leaders including Marcel Mauri, a spokesman for Omnium — whose president Jordi Cuixart was among those jailed two weeks ago.

Mauri told the crowd that “we believe in a country where fundamental rights can’t be trampled on, where no-one can be convicted of sedition for organizing peaceful protests or putting out ballot boxes, where no-one is arrested or is the victim of police brutality for defending their ideas.” He said he carried a “very clear message to the state institutions: prison, repression and incarceration can’t stop the will of an immense majority of the Catalan people.”

The event carried a clear message: that despite the recent violence, the Catalan independence movement is overwhelmingly peaceful, with no truck for the chaos that has been inflicted on Barcelona by hard-line demonstrators.

One demonstrator, who didn’t want to be named, told InsideOver: “We’ve seen all the violence from the Spanish police — both in the way they handled the 2017 referendum and in the way they’ve responded to the demonstrations over the past couple of weeks. Our way is one of peace. We want to demonstrate, but in a peaceful way.

“Don’t believe what the Spanish media say. They love manipulating the facts. We are here because we want to stand up for democracy and human rights, in a way that is peaceful and constructive.”

However, despite the message of peace, the atmosphere changed markedly when the protest switched to Via Laetana, the street which became a Dantesque dystopia of burning cars and bloodied bodies in the initial post-sentencing backlash.

The event may have been designed to mark a continuation of the afternoon’s rally, but its crowd and atmosphere were now markedly different. The initial protest, thronged with families and elderly people, had been a benign affair by the sea; the evening event, dominated by young protesters wearing scarves to cover their faces, was altogether more fractious. 

Reporters, wary of the simmering tension, wore helmets as they listened to the massed crowd chant about the lying Spanish press — reflecting a widespread belief that the reportage of the recent violence has been nothing more than a smear campaign. 

Eventually, the Mossos d’Esquadra vans arrived, prompting a brief flashpoint as protesters were sent scurrying backwards. Eventually, however, the police were able to create their own no-man’s land around the headquarters and disperse the crowd — something they have singularly failed to do during recent demonstrations.

Carnival atmosphere

In everything but its core message, Sunday’s loyalist gathering bore close resemblance to the initial independence rally. Families packed the iconic Passeig de Gracia boulevard in central Barcelona, waving Spanish flags as well as the banner of the European Union. The streets played host to a red-and-yellow carnival, a celebration of life in a country famed the world over for its exuberance. 

Just like their counterparts on Saturday afternoon, the loyalists who came together on Sunday strived to paint a picture of enlightened moderacy. They sang the national anthem as well as Viva España, and demanded prison for Carles Puigdemont (who, unlike many other separatist leaders, managed to flee before he could be jailed back in 2017). But their message was clear: if you want to blame anyone for the recent bloodshed, it’s not us.

One participant, a butcher from Sabadell, told InsideOver:  “Firstly we don’t want independence and apart from that, [we’re here] for the violence that’s being seen these past few weeks in Barcelona. People can protest, as we’re doing now, but peacefully — not in the violent way that we’ve witnessed.

“A lot of those who don’t want independence stay quiet out of fear. They are scared to say what they think. Really in Catalonia, I’d say 80% of people don’t want independence. 

“Catalonia is a beautiful place, we have good food, good weather, beaches, good hotels, and this is destroying everything.”

To support the local population a significant number of people had come from elsewhere in Spain, carrying messages of support. One of them, a lawyer from Madrid, had taken his entire family on a six-hour trip to Barcelona to, as he told us, “support the Catalan people and tell them that we’re with them.

“We want to show that here there’s not only independence supporters. There’s also a section of the population, a significant majority, who — although you can’t protest in the way we’ve seen the radicals do — want to stay part of Spain.”

More to come

Already, thoughts are turning to the next event. Hardline separatist groups have planned a number of further actions in Barcelona over the next few days, including a strike which is set to bring further disruption to the city. 

Both sides will continue to argue that theirs is the path of reason and moderacy, and that any other interpretation is a complete fabrication by the other side. The sniping will continue in the press and the two factions will keep claiming propaganda victories as they try to outflank one another.

For now, though, Barcelona is approaching something resembling calm. The weekend’s huge protests may have turned into a propaganda battle, but thankfully they didn’t create a real one.