A report on the grassroot organising of the referendum for Catalan independence

The latest update of the results of Catalonia’s referendum for independence indicates a number of 2.262.424 total votes, with 90.09% of people voting in favour of independence and 7.87% voting against it. Evidently, the turnout would have been higher had it not been for Spain’s attempts at stopping the referendum, which include the confiscation of letters providing information on the voting procedures and other material related to the referendum, censorship, threats to pro-referendum media outlets, arrests of politicians for sedition, the banning of meetings and shutting down of more than 140 websites. In the past three weeks, the Spanish state has been revealing more of its true colours to the rest of the world. The government’s brutal response to the referendum and the repression of the Spanish police are now widely covered and denounced internationally. While it is fundamental to report on these gross violations of rights to freedom of expression, assembly and self-determination, more emphasis should be placed on other aspects of the referendum, which can perhaps be of use to other social movements. As such, this article seeks to emphasise how the organisation and defence of the referendum was successfully achieved through local, autonomous, horizontal initiatives of the Catalan people as an expression of the truest form of democracy: self-organisation.

A historical moment

October 1st, 2017. It was midnight when the assembly officially started in the gymnasium of the Institut of Mollet del Vallès (IES Mollet), a municipality located 25km north of Barcelona. IES Mollet, one of the polling places for the Catalan independence referendum, was occupied since Friday night by people of all ages to prevent police forces from impeding the referendum through numerous peaceful, family-friendly activities during the week-end (such as magic tricks, paellas, acrobatics, human tower and movie nights). Most people participating in the occupation did not know where the urns and the ballots were and how they would be brought in and out of the school. However, they knew and accepted the fact that this information had to be kept secret until the last moment to ensure the safety of the voting process.

The first part of the meeting was dedicated to outlining the schedule of the day: any political material was to be removed from the school at 6am and the occupiers were to leave at 7am to stand in front of the gates while the functionarios set up the premises for the referendum. It was uncertain whether the police would come or not to confiscate the urns. During the day, people were meant to keep watch for police presence, film and report any violence, direct people to the right voting centres (as the government had prevented this information from reaching the voting population), ensure enough people would be present in front of the gates to peacefully resist a potential raid and act according to a protocol designed to gain time for the urns to be hidden. Leaflets on pacific resistance were distributed, people formed into groups of volunteers and most of the night was dedicated to planning.

The following morning, the feeling of apprehension was nothing compared to that of determination. Emotions filled the gymnasium as the urns were brought inside under a thunder of applause. People took pictures and posed in front of them. Some cried. Many were saying: “we are making history”. While the voting officially began at 9am, the people of Mollet del Vallès had been gathering outside the gates since 5am. Elderly people were let in first in what was perhaps one the most poignant scenes of the day. These 75 to 90 year old people whom had fought fascism during and after the Franco regime were now casting their vote for independence in an ultimate act of civil disobedience. The crowd cheered ecstatically as they walked through the gates or were wheeled inside, with determined smiles on their faces. Throughout the day, people came to vote and continuously offered their help despite the pouring rain.

As the time drew closer to 8pm, the closing time of the voting poll, people became increasingly vigilant. At 6:55pm, those in charge of keeping watch signalled the arrival of a national police armoured bus. Acting almost as a single, unified body, the entire crowd spontaneously gathered in front of the gates and were soon after joined by he fire-fighters of Mollet del Vallès. Fortunately, the police did not stop in Mollet and instead acted in the city of Granollers, perhaps because of their bigger voting population. After a couple of hours of long anticipated wait, the announcement was finally made at 9pm: all the votes had been successfully accounted for. “Hem votat! Hem votat! Hem votat! [We voted! We voted! We voted!]” chanted the crowd in euphoria. “Els carrers seran sempre nostres! [The streets will always be ours!]”. To quote the statement released by Oriol López Mayolas, the spokesperson of the party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Catalan Republican Left) of Mollet del Vallès: “And finally the miracle. The history of a town that allowed more than 12,000 people to vote despite the fear and the repression. The self-organisational capacity and transversality of hundreds of coordinated, empowered people is an invaluable capital that gives us great pride and that we, as a people, will never lose. We were one when we shared the tensions, when we hugged, when we cried, when we knew we had won because we had voted”.

A successful struggle for democracy

The organisation and unfolding of the referendum in Catalonia was this successful because the kind of local, grassroot, autonomous initiative that happened in Mollet del Vallès happened everywhere. Furthermore, what also made these achievements possible were the collective efforts of civil society in the months prior to the referendum. The Catalan National Assembly (or ANC by its Catalan acronym), a plural, democratic organisation with a transversal base of more than 500 assemblies across Catalonia and more than 10,000 members was at the forefront of organising the logistics of the referendum, spreading information and mobilising people. Another important player was the association Òmnium Cultural, created during the Francoist regime to promote Catalan language and culture.

The past few weeks have seen unprecedented levels of solidarity and unity that transcended class differences. On September 20th, thousands of people mobilised on the Rambla Catalunya street after the raid of the Spanish police to arrested 14 politicians organising the referendum. The protests lasted until each and every politician was released. Students also occupied their universities as a response to the Spain’s repressive actions and the fire-fighters collectively vowed to protect the people against any police violence. A couple of days before the referendum, peasants from all over Catalonia made a spectacular entry in Barcelona with 400 tractors and occupied the city centre in support of democracy. Portuaris Barcelona CNT (a trade union of moorers) regularly provided valuable information regarding the 4,000 riot police officers stationed in cargo-ships in the port of Barcelona while port workers intended to keep them awake by relentlessly honking at night. On October 1st, Barcelona’s football team decided to play behind closed doors in solidarity with the Catalans. The general strike against police repression of October 3rd was also widely supported and encouraged by employers.

Social media played a crucial role in facilitating these actions. Indeed, Catalans have been extremely efficient at using Twitter, Whatsapp, Facebook and Telegram to gather support, rapidly spread valuable information censored by the government, inform people on where to mobilize against raids and circulate images of police violence. The effective use of social media can be explained, amongst other things, by years of experience in using Web 2.0 technologies to strenghtenthe independence movement, especially in organising mass demonstrations, countering mainstream anti-Catalan propaganda and raising awareness on the Catalan question abroad. The use of social media facilitated the type of grassroot organising and self-organisation necessary for the successful unfolding of the referendum. Against the backdrop of Spain’s relentless efforts to censor official referendum-related websites, the Generalitat (Catalan autonomous government) unexpectedly announced the existence of a censo universal– a mobile phone application allowing people to vote in any voting centre regardless of their address – the day before the referendum. While internet connection was shut down in some voting polls, the censo universal proved an effective measure against police occupation of voting centres and the confiscation of urns. Thus, for many Catalans, this referendum embodied a true “digital revolution”.

However, beyond technology, the glue that held everything together and allowed for such unprecedented levels of unity and solidarity was the sense of Catalan identity embedding the collective memory of decades – arguably even centuries – of repression. This is why Spain’s brutal response to the referendum could not have been more inappropriate and counter-productive. As the Generalitat is expected to announce the independence unilaterally, the question dominating many debates concerns the kind of republic that Catalans envision. Proclaiming independence and forming a new state could provide the opportunity for new, more progressive political and socio-economic arrangements to be built from the bottom up by tapping into the historical legacies of assembly style, rank and file practices of Catalan social movements from below in the hopes of ultimately moving towards a system of democratic confederalism. And while there is still some uncertainty as to what will happen in the near future, it cannot be denied that the relentless struggle for democracy of the Catalan people against the authoritarian practices of the Spanish government represents nothing less than a true source of inspiration and should serve as a model for other movements to follow.

I would like to thank the people of Mollet del Vallès for their invaluable insights and more importantly for their generosity. 

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