Trial begins for American who got caught up in 2019 Catalan street protests

Charles A. Pittman faces six years in prison and possible deportation for unsuccessfully attempting to burn a trash container during demonstrations to support the leaders of the 2017 secession attempt

Street protests in Barcelona in 2019.
Street protests in Barcelona in 2019.BENJAMIN GUILLOT-MOUEIX (Hans Lucas via AFP)

Charles A. Pittman is the most perculiar of those arrested during the 2019 protests against the Spanish Supreme Court ruling which sentenced nine pro-Catalan independence leaders to years behind bars for their role in the unilateral breakaway attempt of October 2017.

Shortly before noon on October 18, 2019, the 30-year-old American approached Plaça de Catalunya square, where a large and hitherto peaceful demonstration was being held in support of the sentenced individuals. Pittman plunged into a trash container in the vicinity and is accused by the prosecution of setting some toilet rolls alight with the intention of “burning it [the container] completely.” At his trial, which began on Tuesday, Pittman claimed that he was only looking for things to recycle, that being one of his daily routines, and had no idea what the protest was about.

Pittman left a stable life in the United States and joined his brother in Barcelona four years ago. He has no job and no known address. He sleeps where he can. He is a nomad with striking blond dreadlocks who rolled up at court with a lost look before taking a seat and waiting for the hearing to begin.

There were a lot of people and I was passing by, but I didn’t even know why they were protesting
Defendant Charles A. Pittman

“I wasn’t doing anything but recycling,” he told the judge with the help of an English interpreter. “I didn’t burn anything. There were a lot of people and I was passing by, but I didn’t even know why they were protesting.”

The police officers reported that, although they did not see Pittman with the lighter in his hand, they did see smoke, or flames as one officer observed, coming from the trash container. The fire was quickly extinguished and the dumpster suffered what the prosecution considers €489 worth of damage. The defense insists that Pittman did not set fire to anything and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The officers claimed they identified Pittman from his clothes and appearance, and that they stopped him when he already had half his body inside the trash container.

The prosecution’s implacable stance with Pittman is an indication of the hard line it is taking towards cases related to the week of protests against the Supreme Court ruling which sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to between nine and 13 years in prison for sedition and misuse of funds. The longest sentence was given to Oriol Junqueras, who was deputy premier of Catalonia during the secession attempt. In June, the Spanish government pardoned all nine individuals in a bid to promote dialogue and resolve the ongoing political crisis in Catalonia.

The 2019 demonstrations that took place in Catalonia’s main cities resulted in some 600 people injured, more than 100 arrested, 28 of whom were held in pre-trial detention, including Pittman, plus damages exceeding €2.5 million.

Pittman is looking at a possible six years in prison for the crimes of public disorder and damage to public property. The evidence laid out by the prosecution includes the fact that the American was carrying seven lighters in his pockets and fanny pack, a can of orange paint, a “paint-stained stencil with the figure of a fox” and some sheets of paper with notes.

If convicted, Pittman may have to return to the US. The prosecution has asked that he serve two-thirds of his sentence in Spain and then be deported, with an eight-year re-entry ban. The improbable protagonist of the Catalan independence movement has already had a taste of prison as he has been kept in custody for five months. He was released at the end of March 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when Spain was under a state of alarm.

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