Since October 14, when the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to prison for sedition, Catalonia – especially Barcelona – has seen an escalating wave of protests, with demonstrators torching more than 1,000 trash containers, destroying street furniture and throwing rocks at police. The five-day long disturbances left 600 people injured, with protesters and officers equally affected by the violence. Four people lost eyes from the impact of rubber bullets fired by riot police, and one officer is still recovering in the intensive care unit.
An estimated 500 anti-establishment protesters were on the frontline of the disturbances, facing off against the officers. Police say the group was made up of pro-independence revolutionaries and anarchists. Another 200 young people joined the protests to demonstrate both peacefully or with rocks in their hands. They were brought to the street by the court sentence, but their reasons for being there go far beyond the independence drive.
“There are a series of circumstances that have fed the flame: precarious jobs, mini-jobs, university fees and a sense of injustice,” says Carles Feiza, a researcher in student movements at the Pompeu Fabra University in Catalonia. “This is the first time since the Transition [to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975] that young people are seeing that they are going to live worse than their parents. An independent Catalonia is the only concrete utopia they have.”
EL PAÍS spoke to five young people who took part in several protests in Barcelona last week. This is an extract of the conversations.
Estel Carbó, pedagogy student, 20
They don’t listen to us, they don’t give us a voice, things cannot be worse than they are
They have always sold me the idea that we would live better in an independent Catalonia. I am not convinced, but some things would certainly work. We wouldn’t have to pay what doesn’t correspond to us. I take care of a six-year-old girl to earn a bit of money. And on the weekends, I am a volunteer at a center for adults with disabilities. Because I live far from the university, I spend five hours a day on public transport and pay €200 every quarter. I pay €1,500 to study a degree in pedagogy at university, and if I wanted to do a master’s it would cost me €3,000. At home – there are four of us, counting my brother – we live just off my father’s salary, which is around €2,000.
My mother has been out of work for more than a year. She is a hard-core supporter of the independence movement. My father isn’t, but he believes that young people have to take action. I see that they don’t listen to us, they don’t give us a voice, things cannot be worse than they are. And this – the protest – transcends the separatist drive. I don’t want anything bad to happen, but I want the fires to be seen. The peaceful route has only led us to be shut down. And I am a person who is easily scared: I am not going to put myself on the frontline.
Jordi, fictitious name, 21, unemployed student
You have to defend the street
I like rap, I write lyrics and poetry. I write about myself and what I see every day. I am not an anarchist but I consider myself anti-establishment. I think capitalism is a curse that only enriches a few. I am not a separatist, I think the idea of borders is crazy and it seems absurd to me to create more. But on October 1 , I voted in favor of Catalan independence as a protest against the state. I have never torched a trash container or anything like it, but during the recent protests I did set up barricades and people there with me began to break up the ground with poles to take out rocks and throw them at police.
I didn’t think it was right to break up the ground because it’s a space we all share, but what are you going to do. [The police] charged at us and they didn’t fire [their rubber bullets] at the ground, which is what they the regulations say they should do. Why didn’t I leave? Because the police should not go too far. You have to defend the streets, the police are a symbol of fascism to us. I am involved in this for a better future. The end doesn't justify the means, but if black people had not risen up they would still be slaves and if women had not stood up they wouldn’t be able to vote. I am not inventing the wheel. I think we can hold dialogue and gain more privileges as a region, but remaining part of Spain. I don’t want Catalonia to secede because I think it would create more conflict.
Julia Termens, 22, unemployed
We either burn a trash container or we go unseen
They have just fired me from the makeup shop where I was working. I was earning €600 for 25 hours a week. I live with my father and his wife. They pay for my food and expenses. I wasn’t able to go to university, I have been working since I finished secondary school. I am protesting because I need change. I need to look toward the future and see a way out, and an independent Catalonia could improve the situation. Of course, I am not saying that it is going to be that easy. But when I look at the horizon I see nothing. Do you understand? The sentence was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I do not support violence but I feel like the only way of making them listen to us is to cause chaos. Nor am I happy that there is a police officer in the intensive care unit, but they have blinded us [with foam bullets]. How is that person, of my age, going to explain to their kids that they lost an eye defending their freedom of expression? I am not going to take part even in verbal violence, but I understand perfectly those who do, because we either burn a trash container or we go unseen.
Pau, fictitious name, 18, unemployed
I am not a Catalan nationalist, I am not protesting for Catalonia
I have set up barricades to block the streets and paralyze the city. I have also thrown rocks at the police, but only when they were coming for us. We are not burning things just for the sake of it. It is civil disobedience with an objective: to denounce Spain and the repression by its police. If we were a democratic country, a peaceful protest would have been enough. But these years of peaceful protests have done nothing. We needed people to see us. I understand that it is a disturbance, but this is the rage that has been stoked up in us. People are fed up.
In my home, my mother and I struggle to make ends meet. I have finished high school and have taken a year to work so I can pay to go to university. I would do any kind of work, but nobody calls me. I want to study biology, but I don’t know if I will be able to afford the tuition. I believe an independent Catalonia would be better economically. The protests bring together all the frustration about our living conditions. I am not a Catalan nationalist, I am not protesting for Catalonia itself. I consider myself more Catalan than Spanish, but I am taking to the streets for the blows we have been dealt, for the sentence and because they are not paying us any attention. They won’t let us vote, and that would solve everything.
Arnau, 17, high school student
I am fed up with being looked down on for being Catalan
I study at a [part private, part public] school and in my home money is not a problem. I would like to be a commercial pilot. I could train in the army but I don’t see myself signing up. My father, who is also a separatist, does not want me to be a pilot, part of the military, or even Spanish. I wanted to protest not so much for the independence movement, but rather for justice, to protest against the unreasonable sentence that was given to the separatist leaders. I protested the day of the general strike [Friday, October 18] and my mother banned me from going out when she saw my bruises. “You are not going out again. If you’re a masochist, I’ll give you a beating.” There are young people who believe in the cause and protest peacefully, and there are others who like setting fires and use it as an excuse to come out and cause unrest.
I think Catalonia could manage by itself and that things would be much better for us. [The state] gives back less money than we give, when it should be proportional. Beyond the issue of economics, we feel like people hate us. I have friends in Zaragoza [a city in Spain’s northeastern Aragón region] who post things on Instagram saying: “Fuck Catalans, if you come here we are going to beat you up.” I am fed up with going to places in Spain and being looked down on for being Catalan. There is also the matter of language, I think it’s wrong for them to impose Spanish. The central government should hand over [more regional powers] and give us more autonomy. We are fighting for something that will affect the rest of our lives. If we don’t take to the street, who will? I will die without seeing it, but knowing that I fought for something I believed in.
English version by Melissa Kitson.