This story was updated at 03:30 EDT, 2 October 2017
BARCELONA—Few imagined that the day would turn as violent as it did.
By the end of the day, Catalan health ministry officials said the number of people who required hospital treatment during the referendum on independence had climbed to 844. Of those, some 355 were treated in Barcelona and another 249 in the independentista stronghold of Girona. The rest of the injured were treated in rural areas. Spain's Ministry of Interior said that 19 national police and 14 members of the country's Guardia Civil had been injured.
Meanwhile, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared the police operations to prevent the voting a success. "Today there has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia. The rule of law remains in force with all its strength."
Rajoy had ordered thousands of Policia National and Guardia Civil to the Catalan capital to stop voting. Stand-offs were expected. Sit-ins. Shouting. Flag waving. But in the early hours, that was all that seemed likely.
It was pouring rain and still the voting lines stretched around the block at those polling places Madrid’s forces had failed to shut down. In the trendy Sant Antoni neighborhood, the voters included the elderly, middle-aged women with with their dogs, mothers with their children. And there were more people lined up than anyone remembered seeing for a long time.
Never mind that the vote had been declared illegal by Spain’s supreme court. No one even cared that Catalonia is deeply divided over the matter of independence. Rajoy’s ploy had turned this into a question of basic democratic freedom.
“Nice day,” I quipped to an old lady with a walker as we stood in the rain.
“Sí,” she told me. “Nobody is going to take away our right to vote,” she said.
A few hours later, at least a dozen police vans pulled up to the polling station on the boulevard Carrer de Sant Pau. The police got out with their truncheons at the ready. Some held guns loaded with rubber bullets. All through the neighborhood you could hear people banging on pots and pans from their balconies in disapproval. The chant went out in Catalan: “We will vote. We will vote.”
The police pushed and shoved their way into the local polling center, a Catholic school, and even though workers there had closed an iron gate, the police managed to pry it open. They came in, grabbed all the ballot boxes they could find, and carted them off. A few undercover cops covered their faces.
As they left, the anger on the street became visceral, the crowed called them sons of whores and some even spit at them.
“Is this your democracy?” one man in the street shouted to the national cops. “Is this shit your democracy?”
And while the resistance to the police was remarkably peaceful, there were those muttering to themselves in the crowd. “If this were the Basque Country, they would be too afraid not to let us vote,” said one man to another, alluding to the years of war between the Basque separatist terrorists of ETA and the central government. Another woman told me that the police presence and the violence felt more like Venezuela than Spain.
On the other side of town at the Instituto de Pau Claris near Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf, the police went wild. Video posted on Twitter showed what took place inside the school. A policeman jumped from the stairs to kick someone while they were down. Women were grabbed by the hair and shaken the way a dog would shake a sock.
Across Catalonia the scene repeated itself over and again: Police manhandling old ladies and beating the hell out of ordinary citizens. In some places they fired their rubber bullets. In all, by late afternoon more than 460 people were injured during Sunday’s voting, according to Barcelona mayor Ada Colau. Several were wounded seriously.
“A cowardly president of the government has inundated our city with police,” tweeted Colau. “Barcelona a city of peace, is not afraid of you.”
In contrast the Spanish Interior Ministry announced that 92 voting centers were shut down on its orders. It said that three people had been arrested for civil disobedience and attacking a police officer and nine police officers and three members of the Guardia Civil were injured.
What had been a simmering hatred between Catalonia and Rajoy’s government has broken out into open state-sponsored violence. Rajoy’s government showed no signs of willingness to negotiate with its independentista rivals before the vote and now their actions have only served to galvanize the region against the central government.
“The image of the Spanish state has reached levels of shame that will stay with them forever,” said Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s regional president. told a crowd in the town of Sant Julia de Ramis. “Today the Spanish state has lost a lot more than it had already lost, and Catalan citizens have won a lot more than they had won until now,” he said.
It’s hard to know what the prime minister could possibly be thinking. Perhaps Rajoy had gambled that he could teach Catalans a lesson before starting any negotiations over the region’s future. But his inflexibility now looks reckless, and not only in Catalonia.
While the European Union has largely been silent on the Catalan issue, the images of national police beating up people have not gone unnoticed.
“While Spain’s top court has ruled the Catalonia referendum should not go ahead, the state has a duty to protect the rights to peaceful assembly and free expression,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
When the national police left Sant Antoni, poll workers were shocked but undeterred. The hundreds of people who were standing in line to vote simply walked to another polling station a block away. Lookouts from different streets kept a watchful eye, while neighbors locked arms in preparation for another police assault.
But the police had moved on to other parts of Catalonia. And so the lines to vote began again to stretch around the block.
“Viva independencia,” a few people began to shout. But they were quickly hushed. A new shout went out in Catalan. “We will vote,” they chanted. “We will vote.”