MADRID (AP) — Catalonia’s separatist leader vowed Thursday to hold a new vote to secede from Spain in less than two years as the embattled northeastern region grapples with a wave of violence that has tarnished a movement proud of its peaceful activism.
“We can’t remain in this cage that keeps adding bars,” Quim Torra told Catalan lawmakers. “If we have been condemned to 100 years in prison for putting out the ballot boxes, the response is clear: We’ll have to put the ballot boxes out again for self-determination.”
Lengthy prison sentences and fines for a dozen political and social leaders that Spain’s Supreme Court blames for orchestrating the wealthy region’s latest drive for independence led this week to some of the darkest episodes in a decade of swelling separatist sentiment.
Riots this week have made central areas of Barcelona, a leading European tourist destination, a no-go zone at night. For three successive nights, protests have spiraled into violence, with demonstrators burning half a dozen cars and hundreds of trash cans, causing 1.1-million-euros-worth of damage ($1.2 million) and eventually clashing with police. Fires also raged in other Catalan towns.
Authorities said that nearly 100 people were injured, almost half of them police officers. A total of 97 protesters have been arrested since Monday, including four sent to jail while authorities investigate them for public disorder.
Police said the protesters hurled gasoline bombs, stones, firecrackers and bottles at them. Fireworks hit a police helicopter, although no major damage was caused. Regional and national police responded with foam bullets and batons. A 17-year-old was recovering from a head injury, and online footage showed how he had been run over by a trash container when a speeding police van charged it in the city of Tarragona.
“No criminal activity will go unpunished,” said interim Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska after attending a special meeting with the prime minister, intelligence and security experts. He added that Catalonia had experienced widespread “material and reputational damage” caused by “minority groups who are perfectly organized.”
The rioting put the spotlight again on the self-appointed Committees for the Defense of the Republic, or CDRs, and a new shadowy online platform, Tsunami Democratic, that uses encrypted messaging apps to advocate for “peaceful civil disobedience.” Tsunami Democratic, whose leaders are not publicly known, was behind the call to storm Barcelona’s airport on Monday, causing cancellations of some 150 flights and leading to clashes with police late into the night.
The groups, often following the blueprints of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and elsewhere, have become popular among technology-savvy young Catalans since the October 2017 banned referendum that eventually led to the separatist leaders’ convictions. During that vote, police used batons and dragged away voters who refused to move from polling stations.
Most messages spread quickly through the encrypted messaging app Telegram via groups such as “Aturem Catalunya,” ”Anonymous Catalonia,” or Tsunami Democratic’s own channel, which has more than 315,000 followers. They share photos and videos of the protests and spread warnings about police movements.
Spain has cracked down on the committees, jailing some members as it investigates them for possible terrorism offenses, while Spain’s Interior Minister said Wednesday that its probe is close to determining who is behind the Tsunami Democratic.
On Wednesday, a few hundred attended a Barcelona gathering to mark the two years behind bars of Jordi Sánchez, a popular Catalan activist-turned-politician who headed the grassroots pro-independence ANC group. Meanwhile, only blocks away at the city’s port, the committees attracted thousands responding to social media fliers and posts on Telegram. The protesters threw toilet paper into the air, a metaphor for the fact that there is “a lot that needs cleaning up.”
Support for the groups seems fueled by frustration among many in Catalonia who feel abandoned even by their separatist political leaders who failed to make effective the short-lived independence declaration that followed the 2017 referendum.
“If foreigners see us protesting peacefully all the time, they might think that nothing is going on or they might not even notice us,” said Feliu, a 68-year-old retiree who was joining one of five marches that are peacefully making their way from inland towns to Barcelona.
The ANC has advocated for “Freedom marches,” inspired by those led by Mohandas Gandhi in 1930 and by the 1963 March on Washington organized by African-American civil rights leaders. Walking started on Wednesday and the five columns are due to converge in the regional capital on Friday. Students who are on a 3-day strike and trade unions plan to join them.
Under fire for not sufficiently condemning the street violence, Torra, the separatist leader, appeared on television late on Wednesday, blaming the rioting on provocateurs. “There is no justification to burn cars or for any act of vandalism,” he said. “This needs to stop.”
Speaking at the regional parliament on Thursday, he used stronger words to reject the riots, specifying that he was against violence coming from “everywhere,” including police.
Torra also called the conviction of a dozen fellow separatists “the biggest blow to democracy” since the end of the dictatorship led by Gen. Francisco Franco, and said the sentence was a reason to hold a new vote on independence before his term ends in 2021.
Spain’s 1978 Constitution states that the country’s territorial unity is indivisible, and courts have banned previous attempts to hold referendums.
Interim Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who is facing a Nov. 10 election, has ruled out taking drastic measures despite calls by rival parties to do so.
New road and railway blockades were in place on Thursday, including on a main highway leading to France.
Catalan business groups, including Barcelona’s Chamber of Commerce, had complained about the economic impact of the protests, and the Volkswagen-run plant of carmaker Seat in Martorell, a major employer near Barcelona, announced Thursday that it was halting production until Saturday fearing disruptions for its workers.