In Spain, the day before a vote is generally reserved for reflection: no campaign ads, speeches, or rallies. But on Saturday, September 30, the night before the Catalan independence referendum, thousands of people in Barcelona not only reflected but made a political decision: They descended on elementary schools, civic centers, and other polling stations to ensure that they’d be open on the morning of the referendum. Four days earlier, Catalonia’s High Court—whose members are appointed in Madrid—had ordered police to prevent the stations from opening and to confiscate voting materials. Spain’s Constitution doesn’t allow for secession, and so the Constitutional Court had suspended the referendum on September 7.
On the morning of Sunday, October 1, the Interior Ministry deployed over 10,000 police officers brought in from the rest of Spain. Social media soon delivered an unending stream of videos and images showing police attacking voters and violently removing ballot boxes. At the Ramon Llull school in Barcelona, for example, riot police used rubber bullets and a human blockade to prevent people from entering the building. Inside, masked officers ripped ballot boxes away from citizens, who chanted: “Votarem! Votarem!” (“We will vote! We will vote!”) By day’s end, the Catalan Department of Health reported that nearly 900 people had been injured, with four hospitalizations.
The intense violence from police, who shut down only 313 of the 2,200 polling stations, didn’t dissuade the public. According to the Catalan government, more than 2.2 million of 5.3 million registered voters cast ballots, with 90.9 percent voting Sí and 8 percent No for an independent Catalan republic. The Catalan Parliament had adopted a law on September 6 calling for a declaration of independence within 48 hours of the official results if the Sí vote won. Yet Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has been sending mixed signals. On Monday he said that he would seek negotiations with Madrid: “The Catalan government has not decided to declare independence but has rather understood that it’s the moment to appeal to [international] mediation and, if it happens, to discuss everything,” he said. His statement came right after the European Union refused to get involved, maintaining that “this is an internal matter for Spain.” But on Tuesday, Puigdemont said in an interview on BBC that independence would be declared within days.
Even as police were beating voters, the country’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, declared victory. “There has not been a referendum or the appearance of one,” she said on Sunday. “It never made sense to go down this path of irrationality.” That evening, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy offered his “special thanks…to the security forces, the National Police, and the Civil Guard,” with no mention of the violence. When King Philip VI addressed the country on October 3, calling Barcelona’s actions “an inadmissible disloyalty” and making “an appeal for understanding and harmony,” he too ignored the elephant in the room.