October 1: The day that saw a breakdown in police relations

One year on from the illegal referendum on Catalan independence, and the split between the National Police and the regional Mossos d’Esquadra is still yet to be healed

National Police officers seize ballot boxes on October 1.
National Police officers seize ballot boxes on October 1.Albert Garcia

Marcos has trouble remembering what polling stations he was sent to on October 1, 2017, the day that the Catalan government held an unauthorized referendum on independence for the northeastern Spanish region. “I suppose those are the things that your brain deletes,” he says. Since that day, Marcos has been on leave from the Spanish National Police force because of damage he suffered to the ligaments in his foot.

Meanwhile, Carlos, a member of the Catalan regional police force Mossos d’Esquadra, says that in hindsight, he would have tried to avoid being on duty that day.

Carlos, a member of the Mossos d’Esquadra, says that in hindsight, he would have tried to avoid being on duty that day

The events of October 1, 2017 made world headlines when police officers forcibly removed voters from polling stations, while other colleagues stood by and let the vote take place. It also triggered a split between law-enforcement agencies in Catalonia, which responded differently to court orders to stop the vote.

The National Police and the Civil Guard were questioned for their violent actions at some polling stations. And the Mossos, who are under the direction of the Catalan government, were accused of deliberate passivity, and, in some cases, of obstructing the actions of their colleagues from national forces.

The resulting wounds have yet to heal.

“Our premise was to prevent the referendum and avoid confrontation,” says Carlos, who spent 12 hours standing guard with a colleague at a polling station. But they were two Mossos against 50 people determined to vote. “They were not going to move on, and they were not going to yield,” he recalls.

Carlos asked for reinforcements, and two riot officers showed up, but there was nothing to be done to stop the crowd. “What we did was precisely the same as doing nothing. I did not feel proud of the Mossos that day,” he confesses.

Meanwhile, Marcos, a riot-police officer with the National Police, was shoving his way into the four polling stations where he had been ordered to remove the ballot boxes. “Those were the court orders and we could not question them,” he says. “The elderly folks and the children moved out of the way.”

Marcos did not feel any pain or injury during the day, but at around 4pm, when he removed his boots, he realized that he could not move one of his feet

Others were forcibly removed but without using batons, Marcos claims. He could see two kinds of people in front of him: “Those who had come in the hopes of voting, and those who were waiting for us to make our job difficult, with chairs, barriers, stones and anything they could throw at us.”

Marcos did not feel any pain or injury during the day, but at around 4pm, when he removed his boots, he realized that he could not move one of his feet.

Both the Mossos and the National Police officers accuse their own bosses for the outcome of October 1. “The problem we face today, with many officers under investigation, is the result of the operation that was designed back then,” says David Miquel, spokesman for the police union Sindicat de Policies de Catalunya (SPC). “Completely contradictory orders were received by various forces, proving there was no police coordination of any kind,” adds Toni Castejón, of the union Sindicat dels Mossos d’Esquadra (SME). “Many of them felt abandoned, forgotten by their superiors,” adds Josep Miquel Milagros, of the Unió Sindical de la Policia Autonómica de Catalunya (USPAC).

Carlos (not his real name) thinks that the polling stations could have been cleared earlier to avoid scenes of officers clearly outnumbered by the crowd. Still, he believes that the police charges against voters were “not justified.”

“We felt fear and stress too, we are not machines,” says Marcos (also an assumed name), although he admits that some colleagues “went too far.” Yet Marcos underscores that there were a lot of fake news stories around the events of that day, including reports of an injured child (who was involved in an incident on a different day), and a young woman who claimed her fingers had been broken by officers and her breasts groped. Marcos shares out the blame evenly: “Half for the Catalan administration and half for the state administration.”

Sebastián Hernández, of the Spanish Police Confederation (CEP)

Ever since that day, the relationship between the Mossos and the other law enforcement agencies operating in Catalonia has not been the same – especially after some Mossos attempted to stop National Police and Civil Guard officers from carrying out their orders. “There is a situation of complete mistrust toward the Mossos,” says Isabel Rodríguez, secretary general of the Federal Police Union (UFP). Sebastián Hernández, of the Spanish Police Confederation (CEP), talks about a “broken relationship” and says that “it was a huge misstep by the government to use us at the last minute. If things had been done in time, the walls would not have been up already.”

Marcos lives in a city where the majority of residents support independence, and his life has not been the same since that day. “I can no longer say that I am a police officer. I’ve had to switch gyms and I’ve stopped going to certain lunch and dinner events.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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