It was still pitch black when would-be voters lined up in Barcelona early Sunday, braving rain as they hoped to cast ballots in a referendum on independence for Catalonia despite a ban by Spain’s government.
As dawn broke, though, hopes faded as news spread that riot police were on the way.
And then they arrived.
At one polling station, armed and helmeted police broke in to seize ballot boxes prepared for the vote, firing rubber bullets on their way out.
“We were inside singing the Catalan hymn when we heard very violent knocks at the door,” said Marc Carrasco, in charge of the voting station at the Ramon Llull school.
“They took the ballot boxes by force… and they literally yanked them from us as we continued to sing ‘Els Segadors’, the Catalan hymn, and shouting “long live democracy’.”
When they left, police found themselves in front of several hundred activists who had sat down to block them, and they charged, witnesses said.
They first tried to disperse the crowds by firing warning shots, “but when they saw it wasn’t working, they used this,” said Jon Marauri, a 22-year-old emergency worker, holding rubber bullets.
Catalan television broadcast footage of similar scenes in polling stations across the region, as tensions reached a boiling point after weeks of standoff between separatist regional authorities and Madrid over plans to hold the referendum.
The footage showed police throwing people down, one man falling to the ground, his little dog nearby, and another holding his arm in agony.
– ‘We will vote’ –
Madrid had warned Catalan separatist leaders they could not hold the vote in a region deeply divided over independence, stating it was illegal and courts had ruled it unconstitutional.
But they had retorted that Catalans had a right to decide on their future and vowed to press ahead.
So it was that Catalonia’s government organised the vote in secret over weeks, under the threat of reprisals and criminal charges from the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Teachers, parents and activists joined in over the weekend, occupying polling stations to stop police from shutting them down.
At around 5:00 am Sunday, hundreds of locals joined those who had camped out overnight to “defend” the voting centres, crossing paths with young revellers ending their night, some with cans of beer in hand.
From Barcelona to Girona to Figueras, thousands stood in unprecedented defiance of the central authorities, crying “Votarem” — “We will vote”.
At one voting centre on a university campus, activists used bags of sand, wooden pallets and metal bars from road works nearby to put up barricades to keep police out.
Hundreds stood patiently under a sea of umbrellas, cheering those who walked out of an imposing building after casting their ballot.
AFP / JORGE GUERRERO
Andalusian and Catalan pro-independence supporters hold flags in Granada on Sunday during a demonstration in support of the referendum in Catalonia
“I’ve voted, I’ve voted,” one man shouted.
Suddenly, people queuing on the pavement outside the campus shouted: “Police!”
A crowd rushed to the main entrance to the campus as one mother grabbed her crying little boy, closing the gate shut and shouting “the streets will always be ours”.
The police vans moved on, and the vote continued.
Gema Martinez, a 49-year-old laboratory worker, had initially been against voting. “But now, I’m going to vote yes to independence,” she said angrily.
Maria Enrich Prats was more serene. Sitting on a wooden bench inside, impeccably dressed in black trousers, a green coat and sparkling earrings, the 101-year-old retiree clutched her ballot paper, the “yes” box clearly marked with a cross.
Partially deaf and speaking very little Spanish, her daughter spoke on her behalf, saying her mother had lived through the Spanish Republic in the 1930s, followed by the civil war and Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.
Now, she was determined to vote for independence and for another republic — a Catalan one.
“My brother said ‘don’t bring her’, but I said, if she wants to, I’ll take her,” she said.
In Girona, meanwhile, police surrounded the sports centre where regional president Carles Puigdemont was expected to vote, before cutting a chain to force their way in and confiscate ballot boxes.
– ‘It’s not legal’ –
AFP / Raymond ROIG
Spanish Guardia Civil officers drag a man outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis, where Catalan president Carles Puigdemont was expected to vote Sunday
The Catalan government said 465 people were attended by medical services, with at least 92 deemed injured.
The interior ministry, meanwhile, said a dozen police officers were hurt.
Yet in other parts of Barcelona, the streets were more tranquil.
In Nou Barris, Jose Luis Hernandez Guilleu, a 54-year-old dental assistant, said he had not voted.
“It’s not legal,” he said, sipping his beer at a bar with his wife.
“I’m not against independence but I didn’t vote because there is a constitution — This can be done differently.”