Barcelona burning

In Spain, violence again rears its ugly head.
Xander Snyder

Protests in Barcelona continue into their eighth day. These are large crowds - some reports claim that half a million people have flooded the streets. They began following the sentencing of 9 Catalan independence leaders, who collectively received about 100 years in prison for their role in the October 2017 independence referendum. Amnesty International, an NGO that focuses on human rights, claims that police are firing rubber bullets into crowds, and there are videos online of police beating people with batons. Some current estimates indicate nearly 600 people have been injured, but there are no reports of deaths yet.


Large protests in Barcelona are not new. Many Catalans desire greater autonomy from Spanish rule, and its pro-independence parties have for years organized large-scale protests numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

What is new this time around is the scale of violence. No one’s shooting each other yet, at least not with real bullets, but leaders in Catalan’s independence movement have traditionally advocated non-violence. Despite their large sizes, protests have usually remained that way. Even when Madrid sent police to shut down the October 2017 referendum (92% of Catalonian voters in favor of Catalan becoming an independent state), violence was fairly limited. Police confiscated ballots, as Madrid had previously declared the referendum illegal, and a handful of people were roughed up in the process.

This time, though, protestors are lighting the city on fire and police are responding with far more violence than in past protests. Independence movement leaders are still advocating a return to calm, but they must walk a fine line. While they prefer non-violence, if they are seen to be repudiating protestors’ righteous indignation, they may lose control of their movement, or at least part of it.

Herein lies the significance of these protests. The greater use of violence will force leaders of the Catalonian independence movement to more seriously consider embracing it as a form of opposition, or else risk the independence movement itself splitting into two camps: one that supports violence and one that opposes it.

Violent opposition to Madrid’s rule would not be new to Spain. In Catalonia there was Terra Lliure, an armed group that carried out a number of attacks from the late 1970s to early 1990s. Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, more commonly known simply as ETA (in English, pronounched “eh-tah”), was a Basque separatist group that was also internationally recognized as a terrorist group. They were responsible for far more deaths than Terra Lliure - at least 800, most of which were Spanish Civil Guardsmen. ETA disbanded in May 2018, it claimed, to break the cycle of violence.

It’s too early to tell if an armed opposition, or at least a movement that considers embracing the use of violence, will develop in Catalonia. It is now, however, more likely. Madrid has shown that it is unwilling to yield on independence, and will seriously punish those who push the issue. Catalans do not feel that Madrid’s response is proportional, which only adds to the uneasy sense of injustice that could at some point become public skepticism of its legitimacy.

Such old questions, again made relevant, are dangerous. They can quickly lead the public to focus less on the state of affairs and more on which rights people have to defend themselves. Violence begets violence, and this cycle which, in Spain, had finally appeared broken, again appears to be rearing its ugly head.