Yellow crosses put social harmony (and local laws) to the test in Catalonia

Mayors differ on how to deal with symbols that have triggered confrontations between residents

A video of the scuffle (Spanish audio).Photo: atlas

In Catalonia, yellow ribbons expressing support for jailed separatist politicians awaiting trial over the unilateral independence push have been on display for months in streets and public squares. These have produced a few minor confrontations between supporters and detractors of independence.

But it wasn’t until yellow crosses began appearing on beaches that these encounters started to escalate in tone and scope. This past weekend, the beaches of Canet de Mar, Llafranc and Calella de Palafrugell were witness to an exchange of insults and scuffles that led to minor injuries.

Those are common-use spaces, and local regime legislation says that everyone has the right to use it

Simeo Miquel, lawyer

The Spanish government’s delegate to Catalonia, Enric Millo, has sent a letter to all Catalan mayors asking them for “neutrality” in the use of public spaces. But not all mayors agree.

“If no criminal activity is going on in public spaces, and if no third parties are being disturbed, then we don’t get involved,” said Canet de Mar Mayor Blanca Arbell, of the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC).

Arbell is filing a complaint against “the aggression by far-right groups” perpetrated on Sunday, when around 20 individuals began pulling out crosses left on the beach by activists from the pro-independence grassroots group Committees to Defend the Republic (CDR). A local man was hit in the neck with a cross, a woman received a blow to the head, and a councilor for the far-left CUP party said he was pinned down and kicked.

The group that removed the crosses says it is preparing a complaint of its own over the events of Sunday. “When we got to the beach they were already waiting for us there,” says José Casado, a member of a group that calls itself Els Segadors del Maresme, whose goal is to “clean up” towns of pro-independence symbols. Video footage of the incident shows an exchange of insults and screams on both sides.

Local residents in Llafranc and Calella de Palafrugell ended up screaming over the crosses as well.

“If you want to carry out an act in a public space, you need to request authorization first,” explains a spokesman for the city of Palafrugell, which is also governed by ERC. “We didn’t know anything about the crosses. It’s been a one-time thing. If someone asks us for permission, we will consider it.”

Beach maintenance is a duty that falls to local authorities. The central government only has a say over permanent elements.

“Temporary crosses should be treated the same way as any other provisional elements that beachgoers place on the sand – towels, recliners, umbrellas – and which poses no risk to other bathers,” said a spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry, which oversees the coastal affairs department.

“Those are common-use spaces, and local regime legislation says that everyone has the right to use them to walk, demonstrate, exhibit symbols and so on,” says Simeo Miquel, a lawyer specializing in administrative law.

Temporary crosses should be treated the same way as any other provisional element that beachgoers place on the sand

Agriculture Ministry

Miquel notes that local governments may limit this right through ordinances, and underscores that “removing” is not exactly the same as “placing.” “The former is a manifestation of a liberty, and the second is an expression contrary to it,” he says.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Castellbell i el Vilar has been the first local leader to regulate this use of public spaces: prior authorization will be a requirement.

“It is my obligation to watch over social harmony,” says Montserrat Badia, of the Catalan Socialists (PSC). Badia says she is concerned about the increasingly “strained” mood, and laments the criticism she is getting from some sectors over her initiative.

Miquel, the lawyer, is skeptical about her arguments. “It would be better to regulate in order to know who is putting what items in public spaces, then forcing them to either remove them or else pay for the cost of the city doing so.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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