The state vs people power in Catalonia
Spain mobilized the whole of its criminal justice system to stop the Catalan referendum on 1 October, but the vote still went ahead.
Crucial to this outcome were the neighbourhood residents that occupied polling stations across the territory and prevented thousands of police from closing the buildings. The occupations had been organized in people’s assemblies, which initially were called ‘Committees for the Defence of the Referendum’ (CDRs) but were renamed – after a declaration of independence was made later that month – to replace ‘Referendum’ with ‘Republic’. Ever since, the committees have led the resistance to the state crackdown in Catalonia.
The liberal political leaders of the movement have admitted not expecting such an authoritarian response – or that the EU would allow it. They were overtaken by events when impromptu general strikes were held and large firms moved their headquarters outside Catalonia. Since then, the two big pro-independence parties, Together for Catalonia and the Catalan Republican Left have backtracked from implementing the declared republic – for instance halting the creation of laws to form state structures such as a treasury. This is the case despite Puigdemont having continued arm-wrestling the courts over their veto of him continuing as president.
The retreats by the two parties have had a knock-on effect on the willingness to fight of the two main pro-independence civil organizations: the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), and Òmnium Cultural.
Meanwhile the CDRs led a second ‘general strike’ – on 8th November – in which they, peacefully, paralysed road and public-transport systems. This active disobedience contrasted with the more defensive rallies – outside town halls – held by the ‘official’ national movement that day. The grassroots committees also perform decentralized actions – including raising the toll barriers on Catalonia’s private motorways to make them free of charge. These are protests for social rights – access to the roads for poorer drivers – as well as for national rights: the Spanish government has for years under-invested in local transport infrastructure.
CDR assemblies and their communications via the secure Telegram messaging app regularly inform supporters of a range of social-movement activities. All of these interventions put into practice the committees’ goal of moving towards ‘a democratic Republic that is socially just and built from the bottom’. In other words the CDRs are about people power rather than nation. And despite the committees being politically broad, including supporters of the centre-right former president Puigdemont, they have a strong left-wing dynamic.
Direct action by the CDRs has outraged media and economic elites – including the Catalan employers’ association that unsuccessfully challenged the legality of the November strike.
This spring, after they stopped the Easter traffic to demand the freeing of Catalan prisoners, the state unleashed a counter-offensive. The Civil Guard, a paramilitary police force, produced a list of twenty CDR ‘ring-leaders’ requiring investigation.
Those named included members of almost the whole range of pro-Catalan parties and movements – allowing the state to attack the whole movement through its persecution of the committees. Leading members of the three largest Spanish parties began demonizing the CDRs, describing them as ‘violent commandos’ and the ‘worst of what we experienced in Basque politics’, in an attempt to link the CDRs to the ETA terror campaign.
After several arrests, Tamara Carrasco, a left-wing CDR activist from Viladecans, was taken to court accused of ‘terrorism’ and ‘rebellion’ – the same charge made against the imprisoned Catalan leaders. There is a twisted logic to this campaign: the state is linking both pro-Catalan moderates and radicals to violence – to prove its claim that the Catalan movement tried to hold an anti-democratic ‘coup’ in October.
Such an idea can then be used to justify – internationally and domestically – further repression. The goal is warning off future attempts at secession, or even justifying the permanent loss of Catalan self-government – the obsession of the hard Spanish right.
The fatal flaw in the whole argument is that the Catalan movement – including the CDRs – has only ever practiced peaceful disobedience. This was noted by the German court that recently refused to extradite Puigdement for ‘rebellion’ – a decision that has weakened the Spanish legal strategy.
By arresting mainstream leaders the state managed to – in the words of the Deputy Prime Minister – ‘decapitate’ the moderate movement. Yet replicating this process with the CDRs is made harder by the committees having no formal leaders or spokespeople, and operating through collective working groups.
The CDRs also have other strengths that are worth describing. They are a decentralized network of around 350 local and sectoral committees. They genuinely feel like ‘people’s’ committees – as they include people of mixed age and occupation. Although the committees tend to be mainly Catalan-speaking they have a strong presence in Spanish-speaking working-class areas where local people have been socially marginalized by the pro-Catalan right in government. Lastly, probably because of the coercive conditions the CDRs have always operated under, CDR participants display admirable seriousness, self-discipline and courage. All in all, an impressive movement.
The CDRs have their weaknesses too. Participation has fallen since October. The radical movement has yet to develop a clear alternative roadmap to the stalled official independence ‘process’. Moreover the legal persecution and fears of substantial police infiltration are encouraging a more secretive way of operating – including wearing hoods at protests and distrusting new participants. Such a response is very understandable but could lead to the movement to become more exclusive and inward-looking.
The Spanish state also may hope that attacks on the CDRs help turn moderates against radicals. When the Supreme Court prevented jailed ANC leader Jordi Sànchez from becoming an alternative president to Puigdemont, the court argued he could not be released into an environment in which CDRs carry out ‘violent altercations’. The new strategic priority of many pro-Catalan moderates is to free their leaders from prison and regain Catalan autonomy and the Spanish judges and government may be trying to turn that desire against the continuation of civil disobedience.
The movement has so far refused to be divided, with Puigdemont and ANC leaders explicitly opposing the siege against the CDRs. And many leftists – including those uninterested in independence – sympathize with the movement that defended the referendum on 1 October. Equally important, the CDRs have not been intimidated: after the arrests of members, attendance at meetings grew and the active disobedience has continued.
But the counter-offensive against them will continue. Hard-line Spanish judges have been playing a central role in running Spanish politics ever since Rajoy decided to ‘judicialize’ the conflict – and they are cheered on by the Spanish-nationalist Ciudadanos party, that is growing in popularity. The Committees for the Defence of the Republic deserve our full solidarity.