It is by sheer chance that I find myself in Girona, on an unusually warm October evening, in the centre of a crowd of Catalans noisily demanding independence. Jaume responded to my advert on Couchsurfing for a place to stay. To his surprise, I asked to join him on tonight’s protest. The previous day the Spanish state imprisoned two of the leaders of the independence movement, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, on charges of sedition. They face a maximum sentence of 14 years.
As we enter the square I am immediately struck by the wide age range present. There are Catalans of every generation, from those who must have lived the better part of their lives under Franco, to young children on their parents’ shoulders. In front of us, variations of the Senyera, the Catalan flag of four red stripes across a golden field, wave back and forth.
There is an energy that I would describe as passionate patience. Many in the audience have waited their entire lives for independence. They have tried to have their voices heard through their writings and culture. They have tried to be heard as Spanish citizens. They tried, through the ballot box, on October 1st to express their desire for self-governance. When these attempts are ignored, they fall back on the one universal way in which we all have a voice – as numbers of bodies, physically congregating in conspicuous places, interrupting normality and threatening order.
On a podium, flanked by a banner reading “Democracia” and two larger than life gegants i capgrossos (giants and big-heads – cultural figures that are brought out at times of importance for the community), local politicians and union leaders make short speeches.
The local head of the teachers’ union informs us that the Spanish minister of education went on French TV and said “they don’t even teach Spanish in Catalan schools”. Jaume says that if the minister checked the timetables he’d see four hours a week Spanish – just as much time as for Catalan. This triggers numerous chants to end the Spanish occupation and seize independence.
After about half an hour the oratory finishes and a band begins to play Els Segadors, the Catalan national anthem. Unlike the Spanish Marcha Real, this has lyrics, recounting the time in 1640 when Catalan peasants took up arms and drove off Castilian troops stationed there to enforce the full payment of taxes required for the upkeep of the Spanish Empire. The crowd raise their left arms high, some in fists, but most with four separated fingers, representing the Senyera.
The square begins to empty. Jaume says they’re going to march down the road past Spanish government buildings to the post office. As we prepare to leave, from behind me a woman asks where I’m from. She asks me to share my photos and videos widely, to show that they’re just ordinary people: peacefully meeting, asking for their rights.
We skirt around the opposite side of the square to catch the front of the procession. Jaume grew up in Girona and has lived here his whole life. He keeps bumping into acquaintances and good friends. He embraces them and introduces me. Some ask what the outside world know about the referendum, is it on TV? What are we told on the news, what do people think? Protesters file past us, chatting, chanting, some waving flags. There must be 10,000 here, out of a city of just under 100,000.
At the post office the crowd bunches up again, but the gegants i capgrossos and their marching band continue to the town square. The night is as much a positive expression of Catalan culture as it is a protest. We follow and the national anthem is sung again, followed by a couple of traditional Catalan nursery rhymes. “This is the song we sing on our last day of primary school”, Jaume explains, “everyone remembers it”.
We head to Jaume’s favourite bar, at one corner of the square, and order a beer. The sign reads Aqui lluitem per la independència – “here we fight for independence”. Later, there’s a Cacerolada protest planned outside the offices of La Guardia Civil. These are the more than 4000 extra military police the Spanish government sent to Catalonia before the referendum and has kept there since. The parallels to the occupying Castilian troops that Catalan farmers rose up and overthrew almost 400 years ago are too stark to ignore. In addition, La Guardia Civil were intimately linked to the end of Spain’s brief period of democratic republicanism in the 1930s, the rise of the Franco regime and the brutal repression of Catalan culture and political rights that followed.
But Jaume is at pains to remind me that all through the Basque region’s attempts at winning independence through violent means, Catalans peacefully, patiently waited to be heard. He has no intention of harming anyone or damaging anything and strongly believes that everyone else out on the streets with us tonight feels the same.
Outside the offices of La Guardia Civil there are about forty protesters, conspicuously young after the main rally. The sound of ladles hitting thick metal pans rings out, but the few police officers stationed outside look on dispassionately. After half an hour we return to Jaume’s for dinner.
We sit around the balcony table, joined by two of Jaume’s housemates, Enric and Josep. All of them are studying agricultural science at Girona University and have family links to the land. Enric spent his summer helping with the harvest on the family farm. Jaume travelled Europe for a month. “I want to be outside, using my hands, doing something that matters”, he tells me. The rest nod in agreement.
Unlike the other two, Enric voted no in the referendum, but isn’t against independence per se. He just doesn’t trust the current centre-right government to deliver what Catalonia needs; investment in public services, jobs and cheaper living costs. All of them have stories from their parents of how cheap it used to be to buy dinner out, a round of beers and a cinema ticket. Jaume tells me that before the Euro, a coffee and croissant was a third of the price it is today. Spain has a relatively high minimum wage, “but who earns that?” Josep asks, “If I do some evening work in a bar, they pay me in cash, it’s less than the minimum.”
“Look at farming”, Enric says, “Catalans won’t do it, whatever the wage. All the farm labourers are from Eastern Europe.” The European Union’s response to side unequivocally with the Spanish state worries Enric, whose parents own a farm he intends to one day inherit and manage himself.
It seems clear from our conversations that in addition to long held cultural differences, economic problems are motivating calls for independence. Youth unemployment remains stubbornly high, German policy to keep the Euro strong neuters any export-led route to recovery and Catalonia is the most economically advanced region of Spain and a net contributor to the treasury. Why keep giving money away to a government you don’t think is acting in your best interests? Why remain in an economic union that’s holding you down? Limited autonomy has worked well, why not now independence?
Jaume is planning to become a tour guide to earn while he studies, and as he practices his route and script on me the following morning he tells me how recent events have affected his identity. “I never used to have any national identity”, he confesses, “I never felt Spanish. I’m just a person on earth. I thought I was European, but then the response of the EU, to abandon us, that made me think, then I am Catalan.
“On the morning of October 1st I just thought, wow, I’m finally going to vote. It’s an important day, I hope everyone will vote. But then I saw the police brutality, against old people just trying to cast their ballot. I saw the police beating a dog, I saw them break a man’s leg. Right outside the primary school. I felt, this is wrong. This is wrong and we have to be free of them. Now I go on every demonstration. There’s one planned on Saturday in Barcelona at 5PM. I’ll be there.”
Names have been changed.
I am deeply indebted to Ria for helping to edit this post, and an 800 word edition that I have submitted to other publications.