State of Independence XVI

Members of the Mossos d’ Esquadra after being attacked with projectiles and yellow paint.

A set of photographs from an attempt by protesters to attack the building of the official Spanish Government delegation in Catalunya. This was triggered by the arrest of ex-president Puigdemont in Germany, and the Catalan Police (the Mossos d’Esquadra) were deployed to protect public buildings.One of the propaganda myths of the Catalan independence movement is that violence comes only from the Spanish state. It is a necessary story because it justifies the narrative that the Catalan people are oppressed by a violent, fascist Spanish regime. It is a story that plays to both local and wider international communities to generate support for the independence movement. It is also a story that is false.

Violent conflict has fortunately been very rare. This was the third such encounter that I have witnessed, and by far the worst in terms of aggression. All the incidents that I have personally seen were initiated by secessionists, an observation which mainly reflects the remarkably low levels of violence together with the reality that there are rather more independence supporters in Barcelona than rogue security forces or members of the Falange (photographed in this series). It is clear that there were also serious cases of police violence during the 1st October referendum (“excessive force” as it is euphemistically described in the Amnesty report), but the scale of this has been greatly exaggerated by the secessionists and also downplayed by the Spanish government. Several articles have attempted to disentangle the propaganda from reality, but amplification by social media means that people on the street will give radically different stories of what has happened based largely on their own political or ethnic alignment.

To be clear, the violence so far seen is the not the result of an authoritarian regime or rebellious dictates. It arises because of individuals acting out of the distinctly human weaknesses of fear or hatred. It afflicts all sides.

Attempts to portray one side as entirely peaceful and the other as entirely violent are a form of racism, a generalisation based on ethnicity designed to dehumanise the “other side”. The politicisation of violence in this way distorts justice when genuine abuses have occurred. It serves only to intensify the problems and divisions.

Catalan Independence Protesters

Flag and Police

The conflict shown here is notable because it set Catalan Nationalists against the Catalan police force.

The impartiality of the Mossos d’Esquadra has been badly impacted by the politics of independence. There were attempts by the Catalan government to arm the force with military grade weapons in an what appears to be a bid to create a Catalan army, and there are claims that the Catalan government used the Mossos to spy on political rivals. Shortly before the 1st October referendum a new pro-independence head of the Mossos was appointed, Josep Trapero, with the result that the Mossos took no action against the organisation of the illegal referendum.

The imposition of Article 155 has reversed much of this politicisation. A new head was appointed to restore trust that the Mossos would uphold Spanish law, and the force is now routinely being used to police Catalan nationalist events such as that depicted in these photographs. This is a deliberate strategy, in the hope that confronting Catalan protesters with the Catalan police will lead to fewer problems than confronting them with the Spanish Policía Nacional or Guardia Civil.

During this protest the Mossos were attacked with smoke bombs, sprayed with yellow acrylic paint, bombarded with projectiles and charged by groups using large wheeled bins as battering rams. Yet they simply held their ground to stop the protesters passing, reacting only when physically threatened. Given the huge imbalance in numbers – about 1000 protesters vs 30 police at this intersection – and the at times frighteningly violent actions of the crowd, the police response was notably measured. Their professionalism is all the more admirable given that the political divisions in Catalan society are inevitably replicated in the rank and file members of the police.

A member of the Catalan Police dealing with a smoke bomb.

Purple smoke enshrouds the Catalan Police after the protesters thrown smoke bombs.

It is important to understand that everyone you see in this series of photographs, both protesters and police, are victims. They are casualties of those politicians that exploit nationalism and populism to boost their own power.

The election of the right-wing nationalist Joaquim Torra as president of Catalunya was made to deliberately destabilise the relative calm in Barcelona that has existed since the failed unilateral declaration of independence and the subsequent dissolution of Carles Puigdemont’s government.

Torra is widely regarded as Puigdemont’s puppet and is already acting to resume the dangerous path that was taken last year. The strategy is to deliberately provoke conflict with the rest of Spain and generate propaganda that places the blame for everything at the feet of the Spanish government. This is partly to reinforce support for independence in Catalunya, but mainly to rectify the complete absence of international legitimisation for the previous secession attempt.

Torra’s position is sufficiently extreme that this strategy is likely to backfire. He has described the situation in Catalunya as a humanitarian disaster, which is so far beyond reality that it deserves no response. He describes Spaniards as beasts in human form with defective DNA, and Spanish speakers in Catalunya as “carrion feeders, vipers and hyenas”. This extremist and racist nationalism has not been lost on either the international press nor politicians in Europe.

This strategy must be changed to prevent violent conflict from becoming an everyday event in Catalunya.

Violent clash between protesters and the police.

Violent clash between protesters and the police.

Violent clash between independence protesters and the Catalan police.

Photographic notes: these images were all shot on Ilford Delta 400 using the Leica M7 and 35mm Summilux. I am not good with crowds and noise, but the concentration on trying to get a usable image helps blot out the overall chaos. The most worrying part of all of this was the risk of being crushed in the crowd – something which seems to happen reliably whenever the film needed to be changed.

6 Comments »

  1. Mark, marvellous shots of the sad fights between police and the people they are supposed to protect. Hope all this violence recedes soon and we all live happily every after in peace.

    • Fortunately, the violence is very localised and also very rare. Personally I have only seen violence on the street three times in nine months (coincidentally all initiated by the Catalan nationalist side, although that is due to sample bias and the extremely low incidence of violence more than any characteristics of the various groups).

      Perhaps the most astonishing thing is that you only need to go a few blocks away, and you will find tourists completely oblivious to what is happening in scenes such as these.

  2. How long do these clashes span? And how do they escalate so rapidly? Is it when police force show up? I notice that in the USA, protesting can be rather peaceful (most of the time up until recently). Now everything is fueled by violence and aggression, so police almost always show up now. Plus the mass public shootings… Also, how are children/youth handling the political turmoil in Catalan where there is regularly happening?

    • I do not think that there is an easy generalisation. With the 1st October referendum, there violence between police and protesters that was very specific to the circumstances. In the example shown in this post, the clash ran for about five hours in total. Most people leave after a while, but there is usually a tiny number of extremists that will end up setting fire to things (usually bins, rarely cars) and who carry on until either they are arrested or worn out. If have seen several cases where the protesters left after the police simply threatened arrest – they are happy to throw things but stop as soon as there is any real risk of consequences.

      Children are a very specific issue in the independence movement. There have been claims of indoctrination in the school system, although if this is due to the teaching or the parents. On one occasion a friends pre-school child came home shouting “Visca Catalunya” which she had picked up somewhere in the kindergarten.

  3. Outstanding article, with a top class images and a clear explanation of the situation. My only complain is that there is not such weighting and contextualisation of images and individual facts in the local press.

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