CATALANS IN THE STREET

by Joe Rutter

Even the pigeons know what’s going on now. They twig whenever they hear the roaring chants for llibertat!, the beating tambores, the whistles at fever pitch. Then they see the big flags streaming towards them, the mass of shuffling human walls, the yellow ribbons clinging to every urban limb. They move on when they sense a protest coming.

 

I spoke to a woman involved in the most recent one, a huge occupation of Plaça Espanya against the trial of political prisoners (jailed for organising the 2017 referendum). She says it started with a whatsapp message, as it usually does, reminding her of the need for action against this unfair trial of falsely imprisoned leaders.

…these mass demonstrations are viewed by Catalan separatists as the only way of expressing their general will.

When I ask about the turnout she tells me the police reports are wrong – there were well over 200,000. This skew, she says, is also typical. The woman, from just outside Barcelona, has been going to demos since 2011, and seems fairly well versed. You can’t help but see the routine of it all.

But these mass demonstrations are viewed by Catalan separatists as the only way of expressing their general will. Its a visual, physical movement, turning away from the digital sphere. In a recreation of Barcelona’s civil war times, the public space has become a political space, in which squares, roads, roundabouts, bridges, playgrounds and balconies carry the flags and motifs of both sides.

An estimated one million turned out for the ‘National Day’ protests last September, about two-thirds of Barcelona’s population. Three weeks later, roads and railways were blocked all over Catalonia as protesters marked a year since the ill-fated referendum. Nor is activism contained to the issue of independence. We’ve recently seen protests against tourism, gentrification, and Uber. I even got caught up in one on the issue of sea rescue the other day (though I couldn’t tell you what the injustice we were fighting was).

We chat about Catalan traditions, a number of which take place en plain air. The Castells or human towers are known for their superhuman balance and disregard for health and safety. The Correfoc (fire-run!) is even more haphazard; a pyromaniac’s dream where people in devil costume dart about the streets with sparklers. Showing more restraint, there’s the Sardana, a slow dance practiced in wide, inclusive circles to merry rhythms. There’s also the Dia del Reyes, the Ball de Bastons, Calcotadas (spring onion parties) and one where children hunt down a man with a nose (no idea).

Then we ponder why it all happens outside, the activism, the festivities.

‘Maybe it’s the weather’ I suggest, showing my Englishness.

But they go out in the rain, the cold, she says.

‘Could be the urban landscape?’ I said, and it certainly helps that Barcelona, like many Mediterranean cities, is designed in favour of public spaces; squares in which to coalesce and boulevards to parade down.

Another protester tells me, half joking, that ‘the Catalan people are very cabezudo‘, meaning pigheaded. It’s a stubbornness that successive Spanish governments have failed to reckon with. The independentistas are not going away. As I write, another demonstration has materialised in Barcelona. And there’ll be another one on the 16th of this month, this time in Madrid, the seat of Spanish power itself.

Suppose there is more to politics than politics. Consider, for a second, feeling.

But maybe we’re all missing something. Finally, the woman tells me of the curious phenomenon she gets whenever she goes to these demos, something she calls piel de gallina or ‘chicken’s skin’, a spanish version of our ‘goose pimples’ (both ugly phrases for a beautiful thing).

Suppose there is more to politics than politics. Consider, for a second, feeling. Separatists don’t feel Spanish, they feel Catalan. But more importantly, they feel mistreated, and when they get together, they rekindle, reaffirm, and reassert this feeling. The French call it an esprit de corps. What the Spanish government must work out, and it looks like there’ll be a new one come Easter, is how to address the bruised feelings, as well as political ambitions, of the separatist movement.   

Featured image credit: Ivan McClellan (Flickr)


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