A ferry decorated with Looney Tunes characters sleeping hundreds of national police officers in the port of Barcelona. Parents throwing weekend-long pyjama parties in their children’s schools. Groups of people cheering as police cars draped in Spanish flags head for Catalonia. A train station transformed into polling station. A chaotic scavenger hunt for transparent boxes. Elderly women getting thrown around like sacks of potatoes. Thousands of residents standing on their balconies and banging saucepans at the same time every night.
Walking around Barcelona, you’d be forgiven for thinking that someone spiked the Estrella Damm. The runup to today’s Catalan independence referendum has been a surrealist dream Salvador Dalí would be proud of. Here are just some of the absurdities—and disturbing scenes—we’ve witnessed over the last few weeks and today.
The Spanish Interior Ministry have deployed over 5,000 Guardias Civiles (national police officers of the Civil Guard) to Catalonia. With most of the region’s Airbnbs fully booked, the authorities turned to other accommodation solutions—a couple of massive ferries to be stationed in the port of Barcelona.
The 15-knots-per-hour charge into Catalonian waters has historical significance. The encroachment by the Civil Guard stirs up memories of Franco’s troops taking control of the region following their victory in the civil war, leading to severe restrictions to the Catalan government's power and a fierce campaign against the Catalan language.
Many—including author of The New Spaniards John Hooper— argue that Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy following Franco’s death never included a clean break with the past. Transition, Hooper says, was achieved by an unwritten and unspoken pact—the functions of a democratic society on the conditions that reprisals would never be taken against the Francoist establishment.
This is often referred to as the “pact of forgetting”. The pact is felt even in Barcelona, a key resistance battleground during the civil war as documented by George Orwell. To my surprise when I first came to the city, there is no “civil war museum”, equivalents of which you might find in Berlin or the USA.
“Since no one in Spain was ever judged, no one was ever deemed guilty. And since no one was ever deemed guilty, forgiveness never entered into it. It was just a matter of forgetting.”
-John Hooper, The New Spaniards
What are the consequences of avoiding forgiveness? Wounds that, instead of receiving treatment, are left to fester. And the willingness to create new ones.
Applying all this to the Catalan referendum may seem like an exaggeration. But when 5,000 members of the national police descend on the region under “Operation Anubis” (the Greek god of lost souls), some of them flying the Spanish flag out of car windows, some of them draped in the flag and leaving to chants of “go get ‘em” from groups in other parts of Spain—you can’t help but remember the pact of forgetting.
And “get ‘em” they have, despite the fact that today the people of Catalonia have peacefully been exercising their democratic right to vote. Images of police brutally tossing elderly women to the ground, whacking protesters on the head with batons, and firing rubber bullets into protesters have shown the world just what was bubbling under the surface of a seemingly liberal state.
Franco reincarnated as Tweety Bird
The ferries? Empty now, as the civil guards staying there smash their way into polling stations. One of the boats—the Moby Dada—is decorated with Looney Tunes characters. A massive Tweety Bird overlooks Barcelona as the streets echo with the cries of the people.
Warner Brothers were upset with the association, and asked the Civil Guard to do something about it. The next day, Tweety, Daffy, and Wile E. Coyote had been covered up with large pieces of black canvas.
Pyjama parties for parents
Last week, word got out that the police would attempt to access and close polling stations ahead of today’s referendum, sealing them off before people even had a chance to turn up and vote. As most of the polling stations are schools, this potentially meant that instead of being picked up by Mummy, you’d be swatted aside by a line of police officers in riot gear when school let out on Friday.
Parents responded by organising pyjama parties—for themselves. Many went to schools early on Friday afternoon, set up camp inside, and invited members of the public to join. On Saturday night, local police said that around 163 of schools they inspected were occupied.
Because I say so
While on the subject of little children, the government, led by Mariano Rajoy, have been working hard to avoid resolving the situation. After years refusing to sit down and talk to the Catalan government about a referendum on independence, they’re now being asked why they won’t back a referendum seeing as there’s such an obvious need for it. Their answer? “Because we say so”.
If you want one of the worst examples of how to deal with highly important national questions, look no further than Rajoy’s government. A guidebook to bad parenting, Rajoy has totally failed in his responsibility to nurture, protect, and guide the country. Here’s a typical government response to the question: “Why shouldn’t Catalonia be able to vote?”
“There are no voting places, no ballot papers, no authorities to check the authenticity of results.”
-Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis
Imagine a son tells his father he wants to be vegetarian. This is the equivalent of the father responding: “There are no vegetables in the house, no vegetarian cookbooks, and neither parent is willing to cook anything other than meat for you.”
The root cause of the disagreement is not being addressed.
Ballot box scavenger hunt
Take away their boxes—stop them from voting. How did we vote before ballot boxes? Doesn’t matter, because in Spain you need a transparent box for votes to be legit.
This has led to an absurd game of cat and mouse between the police, the Catalan government, and the citizens of Catalonia. The police started by raiding warehouses to seize hundreds of ballot boxes. But boxes were moved around and stashed all over town; in private homes, up trees, chopped up and embedded into Guadí’s various mosaics.
Today, the Civil Guard’s tactic has simply been to force their way into polling stations and take the ballot boxes along with everyone’s votes. Obviously citizens have resisted by sitting or standing in the way to the elusive containers, resulting in bloody cuts and broken bones. Some rebels voted you say? We don’t see any votes.
The national police’s other, less violent but just as sinister tactic, has been to take down websites related to the referendum. Today, they blocked networks so that polling stations weren’t able to communicate with each other. Why do they need to do this? Because when the police close polling stations, people are sent to vote at another. Those polling stations need to verify that the person hasn’t already voted, thus rely on a network connection to the referendum management system. No internet, no way to check.
Other regimes that restrict, censor, or control the internet include North Korea, Iran, and China.
Police Vs police Vs firefighters
Like some twisted version of a DC Comics superhero spinoff, police and firefighters have clashed in the streets. Videos of the Civil Guard officers attacking Catalan firefighters were published online, including one video showing civil guards hitting firefighters who were protecting voters from the violence.
Another video shows civil guards arguing with and pushing regional police officers (Mossos d’esquadra) as they too tried to protect voters from disproportionate use of force.
Every police officer, no matter which body they fall under, is obligated to follow orders to close polling stations and seize referendum material. Divisions, however, stem from the perceived purpose of those different bodies. Catalonia’s regional police force say they exist to protect the citizens of Catalonia (a totally weird, farfetched concept). The Civil Guard say that they’re in town to stop the referendum. Egged on by minority groups of people all over Spain to “go get ‘em” (ironic, seeing “us” and “them” shouldn’t exist in the unified Spain they’re calling for), the Civil Guard have entered Catalonia with a fierceness and drive to do whatever it takes to stop people voting.
Tension, then, comes from this clash of identities.
It’s absurd that we’re here. It’s absurd that a so-called democratic European state in 2017 refuses to even talk about citizens’ rights to decide their destiny. It’s absurd that the same state thinks the best way to change people’s minds is by cracking them on the head with batons.
It’s absurd that Franco’s shadow looms over Barcelona in the form of a giant yellow cartoon bird.