Looking Back on Referendum Day: A Personal View of October 1st 2017
On the morning of the referendum, I decided that I would try and film some of the events from a personal point of view. Here’s a short account of what happened.
By the way, the reason why I’m doing this is to start collating material for a book I’m planning to write on the events that have taken place in Catalonia over the past few months. Obviously, what you’ll read below will require a lot of editing but it’s a reasonably accurate account of my day and includes comments and snippets that will come in very useful as I try to make sense of what happened here in October 2017.
Video 1: Why I’m up at this ungodly hour
On the morning of the referendum, I got up at the ungodly hour of 4.15 am and immediately recorded a video. There’s dedication for you.
My wife was still in bed but we had planned to get to our local polling station, just 5 minutes away at L’Escola de la Concepció, some time around 5 o’clock because we had heard that police would be coming to try and close them down from any time between 5 and 6 in the morning. We had arranged to meet friends at the school around 5 am to stop this happening.
We had heard that the police had been told that if there are more than twenty people blocking their entrance to the polling station then they shouldn’t do anything that could cause any violence or a disturbance of the peace. I was expecting lots of people to be there but as this was the first report of the day, I couldn’t possibly predict what was going to happen. So my plan was to make short videos throughout the day without very much editing in order to give a true account of what was about to happen.
The atmosphere felt quite tense due to the obvious Spanish crackdown. This wasn’t just a question of police presence but the Spanish authorities had also closed down the air space over Barcelona to unauthorised planes. This basically meant the media, who would be able to capture scenes that might compromise the authorities from above, or potentially any planes hired by activist groups that would be able to publicise their message to the world by flying over Barcelona.
All the websites relating to the referendum had been shut down by Spanish authorities and the previous day the Spanish government had told Google to remove the 1-O Referendum app from its Play Store because they didn’t want it to be used for counting votes.
I close this video by talking about the American journalist and vlogger, Tim Poole, who was in Barcelona and had been in touch. However, he’d come across as a little arrogant in his attitude and I felt as he thought he was doing me a favour rather than vice versa. He would contact me on a couple of occasions throughout the day and we finally met and did an interview the following day.
Anyway, after recording this video, I uploaded it to YouTube and then went to wake up my wife, who isn’t at all used to getting up so early.
Video 2: Crowds outside the Escola de la Concepció at 5 am
We arrived at our local polling station, L’Escola de la Concepció on Carrer Bruc in La Dreta de l’Eixample, which is a relatively middle-class part of central Barcelona, at a little after 5 am and the alleyway it’s located on was absolutely packed with perhaps three or four hundred people.
Apparently, the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, had already been there and as they had received orders not to do anything that might disturb the peace, the fact that so many people were there meant that they had asked who was in charge, everyone had said they were and they had turned round and gone away.
I had expected to find people at the polling station but not this many. The extent of the commitment and popular support for the referendum was undeniable. The turnout at l’Escola de la Concepció was representative of middle-class professionals but, as other videos were to show, this was replicated in working-class neighbourhoods in Barcelona and other major cities as well as in towns and villages throughout Catalonia.
At the time, I didn’t know what the tactics of the Spanish National Police and Civil Guard would be so I wondered how it would possible for them to close down all the polling stations and stop people from voting. The general sensation was that voting would be able to go ahead.
Video 3: Catalans stay firm and festive despite the pouring rain
Around half past six, the rain started pouring down but nobody moved. Umbrellas came out and a massive tarpaulin came from somewhere. The more soaked the people got, the more resilient the mood became. The crowd started shouting “Votarem! Votarem!” (We will vote! We will vote!).
I was amazed by the people’s stoicism, which according to Wikipedia is “According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.”
I joked with my friends that perhaps the Catalans aren’t God’s chosen people because he has allowed it rain on us. Furthermore, assuming the vote goes well, when the Republic is declared tomorrow everyone will have a stinking cold.
As I walked through the crowd I saw people of all different ages. Suddenly for apparently no reason they broke out into cheering and applause. I wondered if the police had arrived. It was obvious that if they did arrive they wouldn’t stand much of a chance against this massive crowd.
The reason why the police would come if they did was because they wanted to close the polling stations so the people wouldn’t be able to vote but it was clear that even if it continued raining all day, people weren’t planning on going anywhere. There would be people at the polling station all day so it would be impossible for the Mossos at least to come later on and take the ballot boxes away.
As the rain poured on the resilient Catalans, I felt extremely confident that the vote would take place and the Republic would be declared the following day.
Video 4: Voting tables constituted as police cordon off street access
At around 7.30 am, it was already light and the rain had stopped. The people who had occupied the polling station over the weekend began calling out the names of the people who would man each table. These are known as Meses Electorals, literally voting tables, and are made up of a president and two members, who control the ballot box and check the names and documentation of the voters.
As each member entered the polling station, a cheer went up from the crowd. My optimistic comment was “The dawn is breaking on the advent of the Catalan Republic.” The applause was continuous and it was clear that everyone believed that the vote would go ahead.
It’s important to remember that the Generalitat had done everything it could to run the referendum as normally as possible despite the obstruction from the Spanish Government. This meant that the official census was used and the voting tables were constituted just as they would be in normal referendums and elections.
The Generalitat also had a Plan B for voters who found their polling station closed by police. They were using a computer system that had access to the global census. One of the jobs of the people on the voting tables would be to mark off on the computer system when someone had voted. This meant that, if the worst came to the worst, anyone would be able to vote at any polling station so it would be extremely difficult to stop the vote from going ahead.
News came through that some polling stations had been shut down in L’Hospitalet but given the existence of the global census, the people would be able to vote somewhere else.
After I left the polling station to go home and upload the video to YouTube, I walked up Carrer Bruc and came across the local traffic police, the Guardia Urbana, putting roadblocks to stop access to the polling station. I don’t think there was anything suspect about this but the street was beginning to fill up with people.
When we had arrived in the early morning there had been a couple of hundred people in the alleyway outside L’Escola de la Concepció. By 8 o’clock people were spilling out onto Carrer Bruc and the crowd must have numbered 500 or so. If you stop and think about it, it’s incredible that so many people are prepared to be out on the street in a quiet residential neighbourhood.
I walked back up Carrer Bruc and the Guardia Urbana were cordoning off the street completely.
Video 5: Polling station about to open
In the next video, I accidentally left a section of the previous one in the editing programme so the new footage starts at around 2 minutes.
I arrived back at L’Escola de la Concepció about a quarter of an hour before the polling station opened at 9 am. I had read in the newspaper that around 60% of the population were expected to turn out with 80% of those voting in favour of independence.
The crowds were incredible and the queue stretched all along Carrer Mallorca well past the Mercat de la Concepció almost to the corner of Carrer Girona. People of all ages, left-leaning, right-leaning.
One of the things that struck me was that I much prefer reporting from right next to where I live, not just for convenience but because not only is it a great place to live but because I know these people and so can report honestly. It means you really get a feeling for what’s happening on the ground because I know the area well.
Even the passage way that runs down from Carrer Mallorca to Carrer Aragó between the school and the market was full of people. I did a whole circuit of the block and there must have been at least a couple of thousand people in the queue waiting for the polling station to open.
The majority of the people queuing to vote were pro-independence so the idea that support for the referendum was minority was completely ridiculous. Crowds like this on polling days before the polls are even open are completely unknown in the United Kingdom or the United States so the desire, need even, that the Catalan people have to vote came across very clearly.
L’Escola de la Concepció is just one tiny polling station. I got back to the alley outside the school doors. The lights were on inside and it appeared an announcement was about to be made. They were still trying to find the people cited to man the polling station. The atmosphere was very confident and relaxed.
Video 6: Voting setbacks as peaceful Catalans await violent attack from Spanish police
I filmed the next video at around 11 o’clock and quite a lot had happened since the previous update. By that time, various schools had been, for want of a better word, attacked by the Spanish National Police and Civil Guard. I’d been following what was happening on Twitter and had already seen lots of pictures of bloodied people who had been beaten by the police.
The Institut Balmes just a few hundred metres away on Carrer Pau Claris had been one of the first polling stations to come under attack. People had arrived at L’Escola de la Concepció with rumours that the police were on their way.
Young people, who definitely looked like left-wing activists, had been going round giving advice to the mild-mannered locals about how best to resist an attempt to close down the polling station by the Spanish police. The idea was passive resistance with older and weaker people standing behind lines of younger fitter community members.
By this time, there were even more people at the polling station and every now and again the crowd would burst into applause when voters came out obviously having been able to cast their ballot. This was because there had been a lot of problems at the polling station because there had been cyber attacks on various polling stations and Internet had been taken down, which meant that the voting table members hadn’t had access to the global census and weren’t able to mark off the people who’d voted.
There had been some lovely scenes earlier on because the first people who had been given the chance to vote were the elderly and the crowd had made a passageway and clapped as they left. One of the reasons I love the Catalans is that they have a great deal of respect for their elders. In the independence movement, the young feel a great deal of respect for those who lived through the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s Dictatorship and the fact that these people, who had lived through so much, had finally been able to vote was a motive for celebration.
My wife had gone home to sit down because we had been both been at the polling station since 5 am. She said she’d be back at 2 pm and I promised to hold the fort in case the police arrived.
It felt as if L’Escola de la Concepció would be difficult to take out. With the main entrance set back on the alley that could easily be packed with people, the police would have to approach either via the passageway, which ran between the school and the market, or down Carrer Bruc, which was full of people. I imagine most of the people there had made similar calculations in their heads and had a good idea of how they would position themselves should the police attack ever come.
A chant went up of “Els carrers seràn sempre nostres”, which translates as “The streets will always be ours” and is a reference to Franco’s minister and founder of the Partido Popular, Manuel Fraga, who once claimed “The streets are mine!”
I wandered around looking at the wide-range of people who were standing in the street. Students, young professionals, couples with children, middle-aged men and women on the point of retirement, even some of the very elderly had stayed around to make sure their vote was safe. These people weren’t revolutionaries. They were just Catalans. They were tired of being ruled by Spain, a Spain that felt no particular love for them. They just wanted to be allowed to vote and to take control of their future.
Being allowed to have a referendum didn’t seem a lot to ask. Just being allowed to vote without having websites closed down, apps blocked on GooglePlay, the airspace over Barcelona restricted and to add insult to injury, without being attack by the Spanish National Police and Civil Guard.
Voting was taking place but due to the cyber attacks, much more slowly than had been expected. It was clear that we would have to be at the polling station all day. The orders that the police had received were to stop the referendum going ahead by hook or by crook.
First thing in the morning, this meant stopping the voting from beginning. At L’Escola de la Concepció it had started albeit slowly. The next thing they would do would be to come and taking the ballot boxes away at some point during the day. Then late at night there would have to be people at the polling station because while the count was going on, the ballot boxes would also have to be protected.
A little after 11, I went for breakfast at a bar just across Carrer Aragó from where I was on Carrer Bruc so I could keep my eye on what was happening should the police arrive. It had not only been a nice way of disconnecting from the vigil but it also gave me a chance to watch the television coverage and see what had gone on throughout the day.
The images of violence perpetrated by the Spanish National Police and the Guardia Civil were utterly and completely incredible. The photos of bloodied faces I’d seen on Twitter paled in comparison to video footage of masked helmeted armoured Spanish police attacking peaceful civilian voters with batons. The voters held their open palms in the air and the police just charged. They didn’t just use truncheons, boots and fists but even shot at voters with rubber bullets.
These people didn’t deserve this level of violence. They weren’t protesters or demonstrators. They were voters. They were exactly the same kind of people as the gentle civil people who stood around me at L’Escola de la Concepció. A part of me was tempted to go to one of the nearby polling stations that had been attacked to see the results of the violence with my own eyes but I was stopped by a much stronger sensation that it was my duty to stay at La Concepció.
After all, I lived here and these people were my friends and neighbours. Abandoning them in search of voyeuristic cheap thrills seemed like a woeful way of letting them down. I hoped L’Escola de la Concepció wasn’t attacked attacked but it was my duty to stay in case it was.
The computer systems and Internet at La Concepció were being attacked regularly and there were problems with the app so voting was going ahead in fits and starts. The important thing was that it was going ahead, though.
In the light of the police violence, the importance of the app and access to the global census was clear. Wherever you were in Catalonia, if your polling station got closed down, you would be able to vote somewhere else, anywhere else.
The people at La Concepció were still queuing, still waiting, fully aware that the polling station could be attacked at any time. The important thing was to cast the vote and have it registered on the global census. Patience was needed. Patience was required. After so many centuries of Spanish domination, one thing the Catalans have plenty of is patience.
I didn’t fully understand the tactics of the Spanish National Police and Civil Guard. There were only 8,000 of them or so. Surely, they didn’t have enough manpower to close down all of the more than 2,000 polling stations across Catalonia. As the day progressed, they would eventually get tired.
There was wave after wave of Catalan people willing to vote and prepared to wait however long it took. The fact that you could vote at any polling station even though your assigned one had been taken out seemed unbeatable. This was blockchain democracy using technology to beat repression.
We were confident that the vote would take place and be successful and that the images of violence would be shown around the world. The Catalans were going to morally win and at the very worst I believed Spain would be under massive political pressure from the international community to allow a binding referendum.
I was underestimating the Spanish authorities. Their tactics would become clear in the days following the referendum. I was also putting too much faith in the international response. Catalans had too many precedents that the world would turn a blind eye to Spanish repression.
Video 7: Finally inside polling station and 3,000 people have voted so far
I finally got inside the Escola de la Concepció polling station when my wife went to vote a little after 4 pm. A roar went up when it was announced that 3,000 votes had already been successfully cast. I was filming inside the polling station and the atmosphere was buoyant and euphoric. The police still hadn’t been to close the voting down but people were defiantly expecting them.
The two rooms were packed with people. The voting tables were efficiently manned with the president in the middle standing behind the large plastic ballot box. On either side of him, one member of the table checked the voters’ names and ID documents off on a printed list while on the other side the other member entered the information into the referendum app using a mobile phone.
On each of the voting tables, I noticed a tray of food, which I later learnt had been provided free by Poll Bó, the roast chicken, salads and tapas shop just round the corner on Carrer València. This was good business. The whole community was involved in and backing the referendum so Poll Bó was very sensibly supporting its client base.
The inside of L’Escola de la Concepció was very familiar to me because it is where I vote in municipal elections, as a registered resident of Barcelona, and European elections, as an EU citizen. As I’m not a Spanish citizen, I’m not allowed to vote in Spanish General Elections or autonomous elections to the Parliament of Catalonia nor in the referendum because it is based on the census for national and regional elections.
An extra reason for supporting Catalan independence is that with Brexit on the horizon quite soon I won’t be entitled to vote in any elections except Barcelona city council ones. As I’ve been out of the UK for more than 14 years, I wasn’t even allowed to vote in the Brexit referendum so I’m pretty disenfranchised. Obviously, this would all change if Catalonia became independent and I became a Catalan citizen.
Back at the polling station, the only concern was that the police would come later and take the ballot boxes. Despite the technological advances implied by the app, this was a referendum just like any other and the voting slips had to be counted manually in order for the results to be valid. This meant that everyone needed to stay outside until well after the polling station had closed. People would finally be going home in the early hours of the morning.
These were just nice people trying to exercise their democratic rights.
Video 8: It’s 6.30 pm and people have been here since 5 am. That’s commitment!
My last video report of the day was at 6.30 pm. I’d been at the Escola de la Concepció since 5 o’clock in the morning and Carrer Bruc was still full of people. The police still hadn’t turned up but local residents were there protecting the democratic process and the right to vote. The simple fact of the people being there in actual fact meant that the police were less likely to come. Instead of being able to walk in and take the ballot boxes away.
I didn’t really know what the police’s tactic was. Having watched all the videos on Twitter and Facebook, it was clear that there weren’t that many Spanish National Police and Civil Guard and the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, were prepared to do their job but wouldn’t be violent against people in order to enforce the law.
The violence was definitely coming from the Spanish police. Every now and again a fleet of police wagons would drive past the bottom of Carrer Bruc along Carrer Aragó and we’d all shout at them but they always seemed to be going somewhere else.
It was 6.30 and they could come out any time either before or after the polling station closed. I was certain that enough people would stay around for as long as necessary. We really hoped nothing unpleasant happened.
The people of La Concepció behaviour throughout the day had been a testament to democracy. It might sound corny but these people wanted to vote. You tell them it was illegal as often as you liked. You could tell them it was unconstitutional as often as you liked. That’s all irrelevant because everyone was there, everyone was staying put insisting that the vote take place.
I doubted whether the result of the vote would be conclusive basically because the referendum was taking place under abnormal circumstances, which that it was very unlikely that anyone would treat the result definitively. However, the following day, results would come in and political decisions would be taken. I believed there would be a democratic mandate for a unilateral declaration of independence. For it to be effective, it would require the support of the international community.
The behaviour of the Spanish government and Spanish police had been a violation perhaps not human rights but certainly democratic rights as well as UN and international laws. The Catalans had a case to take to international and without doubt the behaviour of the police meant they were winning the media battle.
The people of La Concepció were an inspiring example of force and resilience. I left the school hoping that the police didn’t and that the votes could be counted.