It is convenient to reflect on the insurrectionary nature of the Catalan independence push in order to examine the question of violence in the broadest sense of the word. This is important because a large section of the public, especially in Catalonia but also in the rest of Spain, views what has happened thus far in a benevolent way and insists it has all been peaceful – “exemplary” even. It’s continually argued that “nothing has ever been broken” at a pro-independence rally, as if the festive image of the protests, successfully sold overseas, summed up everything. Before debating whether or not there was violence in the final stages of the secessionist challenge, known as the procés, let’s stop to consider the other, more subtle and less obvious forms of violence that took place during the independence push – even though they are not currently under public debate or going to be judged.
Opponents of independence were publicly singled out, denied their Catalan identity and called fascists
The procés kicked off with the invasion of pro-independence symbols in public spaces and buildings, which by definition belong to everyone. From 2012, esteladas, the Catalan independence flag, began to appear everywhere, from public squares to parks and even at sporting, cultural and educational events. In response to criticism, the secessionists defended the symbols as freedom of expression, ignoring the fact that public administrations don’t enjoy that same right.
We now know that it was a propaganda and intimidation campaign masterminded by the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI) in an effort to “mark their territory,” pressure those with doubts, create a sense of unanimity and declare that everything had already been decided.
As pro-independence symbols took over, official symbols disappeared, including the Spanish national flag which was taken down from the buildings of many City Halls, while street names that referenced the Constitution or Spain were quickly changed using spurious excuses. On the issue of the estelada, the Supreme Court came to an obvious ruling in 2016: that the pro-independence flag was a partisan symbol that could not be allowed in official buildings or permanently in public spaces. Was this invasion of symbols not perhaps another form of violence, a way to guarantee cultural hegemony and attack the everyday harmony Catalans enjoyed?
As pro-independence symbols took over, official symbols disappeared, including the Spanish national flag
This symbolic intimidation on the streets went hand-in-hand with institutional violence. Public authorities (both local and regional), as well as universities, unions, professional colleges and even organizations such as the Barça soccer team, rallied for the right for a referendum on Catalan independence and even directly supported the secessionist cause – completely disregarding the principal of institutional neutrality and the multiple identities of their social, cultural and sporting bodies, which are a reflection of Catalan society. These decisions were made from the top, by leaders who wanted to appear in the photo of the “historic, exceptional moment,” receiving the support of the political elite and not be labeled as indifferent, or worse still, as a dissident. But in the case of professional associations with compulsory membership these moves were blatantly illegal – which is exactly what the Spanish Supreme Court ruled in 2016 when it warned the lawyers association that its members could not belong to platforms that would politically divide them.
Meanwhile, public media organizations militantly took up the secessionist cause with journalists and talk show hosts spouting independence propaganda morning, noon and night – a factor that helped radicalize a large part of Catalan society. This climate of unanimity bred violent criticism of those who were against the cause with opponents publicly singled out, denied their Catalan identity and called “fachas” (fascists), “falangistas” (supporters of fascist Spanish organization Falange Española) or other abuses. And let’s not underestimate the continual attacks against the headquarters of unionist political parties, or the bullying from the most radical pro-independence university groups. Those who think this was just small-scale aggression fail to see how much the harmony of Catalan society and the state of democracy in the region had been degraded.
Lastly, we have to consider direct, physical violence like that mentioned by Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena in his ruling on the actions that took place September 6 and 8 in the push to declare Catalan independence. It is better not to judge preemptively whether these actions should be considered as rebellion. However, it’s important to make a few observations. It’s often argued that there can’t be a revolt against the constitutional order unless there is an obvious, visible show of physical force. The Catalan independence push is not an armed rebellion because, among other things, it is a civilian not military movement. Indeed the novelty of the movement’s modus operandi makes it difficult to categorize what happened. The leaders of the procés, most of whom were public officials, from deputies to members of government, violated the Constitution in the regional parliament and, in order to legitimize their cause, organized with secessionist groups to mobilize the masses so the Spanish state was unable to react. It’s true that most people protested peacefully but in other cases, the demonstrators used intimidation and violence against authorities.
Symbolic intimidation on the streets went hand-in-hand with institutional violence
And we cannot forget the role played by the Catalan police Mossos d'Esquadra, an armed body whose leaders obviously ignored court orders to stop the illegal referendum on October 1. What’s more, concerning statements, like that from former minister Joaquim Forn on October 11 (“If there is goodwill and the new state of things is accepted, there will not be clashes among police”), which indicate that they were willing to use the regional police force to ensure the independence of Catalonia. We will have to wait for the ruling but beyond questioning how these actions could be legally punished, we must recognize that Catalonia has witnessed an insurrection, a coup attempt, carried out with new forms of political rebellion.
There is no doubt the Catalan independence push has been violent not just because people were attacked or things were broken, which also occurred, but rather because when one section of society tries to impose their political project by coercing the other half they are exercising violence. That’s why there have been so many falling outs among families and friends and so much social tension last September and October when we were almost at the point of civil war. The procés has not been the “revolution of smiles” they want to sell you but rather a catalogue of violence (symbolic, institutional, verbal, psychological and also physical) that we cannot ignore.
Joaquim Coll is a historian.
English version by Melissa Kitson.