Walking through a park in Barcelona, Spain, junior Andrew Booker saw thousands of people celebrating and chanting “Via Cataluña!” just hours after Catalonia, a region located in northeastern Spain, declared its independence.
Booker is studying abroad with Knox’s program in Barcelona this Fall Term.
“Everyone is sort of feeling like they’re a part of it together. I’m not even from here, but being there tonight … You really get swept up in this communal feeling of what’s going on,” Booker said.
Spain has been facing political turmoil after Catalonia held a referendum on independence on Oct. 1. President of the Government of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont declared Catalonia’s independence from Spain on Oct. 10 before immediately suspending the decision in favor of dialogue with Spain.
According to Booker, reactions from the Spanish government were less than peaceful during the referendum, which was declared unconstitutional.
“Pretty much all the violence that happened on referendum day was on the Spanish government; the police forces, they confiscated a lot of the voting boxes and pulled or dragged a lot of people [from voting],” Booker said. “It’s kind of like civil rights in the 1960s when there were images of police forces blasting fire hoses when people were just protesting.”
Barcelona, the capital of the Catalonia region of Spain, is one of the three locations of Knox’s study abroad programs commonly referred to as the “3Bs”: Buenos Aires, Besanon and Barcelona.
Because of the concerns that protests pushing for Cata independence could turn violent, Booker mentioned that Knox and the study abroad program director were staying in contact with students located in Barcelona, urging them to avoid the protests. However, despite the violence stemming from Spanish police brutality, the Catalan Independence protests have managed to stay democratic and peaceful.
“It’s very peaceful. The traditions of protesting here – you’re not in any danger. There’s no rioting,” Booker said. “If there was violence, it would be more on the Spanish government in terms of police brutality.”
However, Associate Professor of Spanish Antonio Prado is not concerned about what the consequences of the Spanish government enforcing Article 155 or Catalonia gaining independence might have on Knox’s program. The program will continue to stay in Barcelona and the political tensions students may experience while living in an area where there are two nations in one only strengthens the program.
“Our theme is bilingual cultures, languages and politics. What we’re living through right now is historical. What students are living through is a political juncture that is very important to Spain, Catalonia and Europe,” Prado said. “They’re exposed to the contradictions, tensions and dialogue of what does it mean to have two nationalities in one – to live in two nations, two cultures, two languages, two political identities.”
This is not the first time Catalonia has pushed for more autonomy. According to Prado, a push for Catalonia’s autonomy was one of the causes of
the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. The war, which ended with a Franco dictatorship, resulted in the suppression of the Catalan language and the disappearance of thousands of Catalans.
“When Franco wins this war, he starts a very nasty persecution of everyone who supported the war against him, including Catalonia – especially Catalonia, because they are triply guilty,” Prado said. “One, for supporting autonomy, second supporting the republic and third headquartering the anarchists. Catalonia was especially repressed.”
More recently, Prado explained how Catalonia defined itself as a nation within a nation in 2006. In 2010, the Spanish government responded by declaring the definition of Catalonia as a nation illegal, resulting in 1 million people flooding the streets of Barcelona and starting today’s movement pushing for Catalan independence.
Both the Spanish government and the Government of Catalonia are declaring ultimatums. After Puigdemont suspended Catalan independence in favor of dialogue, Spain demanded an explanation of whether or not Catalonia truly declared independence by Monday, Oct. 16 and threatened to enforce Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution and “take all measures necessary,” to force Catalonia to meet its obligations to Spain.
According to Prado, some are interpreting this statement as meaning that Spain might suspend Catalonia’s autonomy. In response, the Catalan president asked the Spanish government for dialogue, and gave them an ultimatum for when they should hold the dialogue.
“It is unfortunate that there isn’t a dialogue between the Spanish government and the Catalan government. I feel that the Catalan government has offered a hand for a dialogue, and Spain responded by imposing this law,” Prado said. “Right now, it is unfortunate that this is black and white. I think the imposition of this law is wrong. You solve political conflicts through politics, not through isolation.”
Spain also detained two leaders of the social political organizations pushing for independence. In response, there were more demonstrations and many Catalans view this as the first political prisoners.
Prado, who is from Catalonia, believes that there is a third option that the Spanish government is not taking into account. Reformation of the existing Constitution into one that acknowledges the many nations within Spain should be discussed. What Spain is doing now with Article 155, he says, is wrong.
“I think they’re applying the law, and the law is in the Spanish constitution, but I don’t think it was very democratic because you don’t hit people who want to vote,” Prado said.
Prado also wanted to stress the democratic nature of the protests happening in Catalonia. The history of the movement has been centered on peace.
“There’s a difference between riots and what these people are doing,” Prado said.
Booker also mentioned that, even though there was police brutality during the referendum, he didn’t feel unsafe.
“I still, out of curiosity, walked around a bit on referendum day and went down to see what was happening, but it was actually kind of empty. It was kind of like the feeling after the Trump election when there was a very eerie feeling in the air,” Booker said. “[But] it really is a safe city. My dad said, ‘You’re honestly probably safer in Barcelona than in Washington, D.C.’”