A sea of glittering torches lined a central avenue from the Sagrada Familia down to the Catalan parliament in Barcelona on Saturday, in a demonstration attended by up to a million, calling for the release of the political prisoners – eight Catalan government ministers and two civil independence leaders – and proclaiming “We are Republic”.
The spectacular image of nearly 3km of LED-illuminated roadway, captured in full panorama from the skyscraper buildings nearby in the port, was one carefully planned by the organisers for media effect and which succeeded in getting across international online news platforms and of course hugely across social media. Attendees were encouraged in advance to have their mobile phone torches out; they obliged. The best of the images and a round-up of media coverage are available on my live blog here.
It was also the largest demonstration in the post-referendum period and since the similar-sized annual La Diada national day of Catalonia on 11th September, which is built over many months. Saturday’s protest had only ten days notice.
This astounding feat of mobilisation, including near to 1000 coaches from the region, surprised even the organisers, civil pro-independence organisations Assemblea Nacional Catalana and Omnium Cultural.
There was also a confident, proud and enraged mood on the demonstration, as shown in videos of the loud echoing chants, the human towers made by traditional casteller acrobats, giant props, and in images of stark bannerscondemning the Spanish state and a complicit EU. Placards bore witty caricatures of both imprisoned Catalan government ministers and rightly villainised Spanish government leaders.
The numbers were so great at the metro station closest to the demo that it had to be shut down.
The main driver of the huge volume and of the mood of the demonstration can only have been the movement activities of the past week, which saw mass popular mobilisation coordinated very much from below across the grassroots Republic Defence Committee (CDR), local assemblies and the student movement.
For instance, very similarly pitched demonstrations were called for Friday 3rd November, albeit with only one day’s notice, but in the absolute heat of anger at the imprisonment of Catalan government ministers by the Spanish state, saw turnouts only totalling the tens of thousands. Remembering that the general strike of October 3rd was called with only one day’s notice and brought two million to the streets, this can’t be put down to a limit in responsiveness from people in Catalonia.
Instead, the disorientation and demobilisation in the days following the flight of the Catalan President and four ministers to Belgium, immediately in the wake of the unilateral declaration of independence on 17th October, has only been turned around by militant mobilisations in the period in between. I laid out the beginnings of these developments in detail up to the beginning of last week in my last article.
Since the 3rd November demonstrations, we saw most notably a captivating day of mass blockades against the imprisonments on Wednesday 8th November, which was surely the catalyst for Saturday’s massive turnout. Indeed at a mass rally in Barcelona that evening the organisers of Saturday’s demo said that day had given them confidence, and used images from it in one of their main promotional videos.
This day of action, which is well documented in my live blog, was launched as a ‘general strike’ by the radical and smaller Intersindical-CSC union with a few days notice, but was mobilised principally by the local Republic Defence Committees and student and youth groups, including Universitats per la Republica and Arran.
Whilst there was limited workforce participation in the strike (45% of teachers took part according to the main education union, though manufacturing and commerce operated largely normally), there were 50 motorway points blocked throughout the day, starting from 5am, with many lasting to nightfall, and one in Puigcerdà near the French border lasted 24 hours despite freezing temperatures. Masses of tractors from Farmers’ Union members who also participated joined some lunchtime demonstrations.
Motorway blockades and those of city centre roads attracted crowd into the hundreds, as did the two blockades of high speed rail stations at Barcelona Sants and Girona, in spite of some intervention (though without signficiant violent incidents) from the Catalan and Spanish police. In effect, regional transport was brought to a standstill.
Hundreds of thousands across Catalonia flooded the streets in very vibrant demonstrations in the evening. Scenes of demonstrators marching or dancing on the motorway also went viral, and a sense of jubilant defiance to state authority and people-power characterised the day.
With the Catalan President and his ministers stranded either in Belgium or Spanish jails, with only words to offer in condemnations of the Spanish state and challenges to the EU institutions, last Wednesday made clear on a massive scale that the power of action to defy the Spanish state and drive forward the instatement of the republic can only come from ordinary people collectively taking matters into their own hands.
Fast forward to Saturday’s major demonstration, which was also joined at its head and on the stage of the rally, by the relatives of the imprisoned ministers and two civil independence leaders. A collective message of gratitude and defiance from them was read out, along with a video message from Catalan president, Puigdemont.
The sense of this scene is that, imprisoned or exiled, Catalonia’s political leaders are pitched into the centre of a colossal protest movement, whether they like it or not. And it increasingly looks like a movement – given the blockades of last Wednesday – which has more control over their futures than they have over it.
As anti-capitalist independence party CUP’s national spokesperson Nuria Gisbert remarked on Sunday, “in recent months we have found that the orders no longer come from any office or any palace away from the whole of the citizenship… The orders arise from the Republic Defence Committees, from the assemblies.”
At their Special Assembly on Sunday the CUP, which has been at the heart of driving forward the grassroots CDRs, made an important decision that strengthens this current of affairs. Its delegates decided in a block of 64% to run on a “clearly leftist and independentist” platform, “as broad as possible” on these terms, for the December 21st regional elections, which it rightly called out as “illegitimate” and “imposed” by the Spanish state.
The Catalan president and many others on the right and centre of the independence movement had been calling for a unitary, and even ‘politically-neutral’, pro-independence ticket for the elections, and have now given up on this option.
Immersing itself into such operations – which were two options on the list for the members’ vote at the assembly on Sunday – would have risked liquidating the real radical influence of the CUP on the government (it has supported in a confidence and supply style arrangement) by virtue of its ten regional parliamentary seats and sabotaging its position of prominent and coherent radical leadership in the movement, which propelled the enactment of the referendum, forced the UDI and has directed the ideas of the grassroots since (as above).
The CUP can still participate in a kind of a maximally-broad agreed off-ballot front amongst pro-independence parties that will oppose repression, call for the release of political prisoners and look to instate a constituent process for the republic.
However, running as an independent radical left force in the elections will enable and give a platform to CUP to put across, in arguably a more receptive political climate in Catalonia than ever, the need for the making of a republic that radically breaks with the anti-democratic, socially conservative and economically neoliberal political status quo of government within Spain.
It will also enable it to reaffirm major distinctions between itself and the centrist governing parties in Catalonia, with which it has become heavily identified because of its conditional support for the government – perhaps the cause of its recent dip in the polls. Furthermore, it can stongly push for a recalibration of the forces of the left.
The “as broad as possible” leftist strategy means the electoral formation will include the same radical left partners with which the CUP formed the current CUP-CC electoral grouping.
However, there is already a promising offer from the highly significant ‘Constituent Process’ social movement, which has previously joined leftist coalitions, to join in the CUP-CC electoral formation alongside the new organisation of acrimoniously-resigned Podemos Catalonia leader Albano Dante Fachin – ‘Som Alternativa’. This latter has taken a number of important members and dozens of other activists from Podemos (which attacked the Catalan government for the UDI and supported the Spanish PM in his imposition of the elections) and does not oppose independence per se, but primarily looks to build ‘rupturist’ left forces against the 1978 post-Franco state regime of Spain that has sought to subordinate Catalonia’s autonomy.
Approaching the elections, the aim for the CUP, and any potential coalition of radical left forces, must surely be to launch an insurgent mass campaign that is a beacon for fulfilling the hope of a new progressive republic sparked by the mass community actions and assemblies of recent months. It could speak of supporting the education workers who have been so well organised and supportive, of major investment in regional infrastructure and the raising of minimum wages that have been underfunded and repressed by the Spanish state in recent years, and of a democratic ‘constituent process’ that goes well beyond representative and electoral concerns to deal with the whole system and endemic problems of corruption.
It was this breadth of vision that powered the Scottish referendum and Corbyn campaigns to major achievements against all the forces of the establishment. And looking to this, they must also draw on the important tactics of mass rallies for the articulation of this vision and mass debates to place the emphasis of the election campaign very much with the demands and initiative of ordinary people – the majority of whom do support independence according to the most recent polls.
With a bold political agenda focused on improving the lives of the working class, the CUP-CC also has an opportunity to outflank the PSC traditional labour party – which has suffered significant losses in mayors, councillors and support over its leadership’s support for Spanish state repression. The CUP must seize on Monday’s news of a six percent fall in real wages in Catalonia between 2012-2016.
Cause for optimism is that the CUP seems to have grasped its role as the necessary independent and radical strategic force most able to bring a Catalan Republic to materiality, building what MP Anna Gabriel spoke of at Sunday’s Special Assembly as “a popular counter-power” and refusing to retreat into the “past pitch” of regional autonomy and a new referendum. This marks a change from the apparent disorientation in the aftermath of the declaration of independence.
There is urgent need too for a strong internationalist case for social and economic change from the left in Catalonia in challenging the neoliberal austerity consensus across Europe, which can be a common ground of resistance and solidarity from the working classes across the continent, particularly important as the EU continues to support Spanish government repression and any international recognition for the republic is yet to come.
The international demonstration for freedom for Catalan political prisoners in Brussels on the 7th December, announced on Saturday by the Assemblea Nacional Catalana with some confidence, is great grounds for building this. There is a mass mobilising effort from Catalonia already underway and solidarity movements in other countries should look to this.
Amidst the electoral campaign, which officially starts on 5th December, the work of the militant community-level independence movement organisations – such as the republic defence committees – must not take be pushed aside. They are currently the embodiment of any sense in which a republic exists in Catalonia and they are also the strongest tool of defiance to Spanish PM Rajoy’s programme of repression and takeover.
On Monday and Tuesday this week the governing Tory party in Madrid and its Catalan equivalent (which has much less support) made clear they will continue to try to impose article 155 ‘direct rule’ intervention if the Catalan government resulting from Dec 21 elections does not agree to abide by the Spanish constitution and statute – ie. withdrawing the declaration of independence and annulling the referendum. They are also planning to run on a platform of rejecting any referendum on self-determination, “whether legal or illegal”, and are likely to be joined in this by the much more popular (in Catalonia) right wing Ciutadans party.
In this respect weeks of mass campaigning and open activity in the streets by pro-independence forces in the build up to the election can be the best immediate argument that they are the real pro-democracy forces, in direct contrast to much smaller and more restricted activites by the right, such as Spanish PM Rajoy’s close-doors publicity event on Sunday in Barcelona.
On Thursday it will have been one month since the civil independence leaders Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez were imprisoned. There will be more demonstrations on the day, and in some towns these are being programmed as a weekly occurrence, and apart from the weekly mass assemblies. The tweet from one newly forming republic defence committee in the Eixemple district of Tarragona following last night’s assembly sums up the critical sentiment at the base of the movement, and one which bears thinking on for leftists in this country too at this moment: “only the people can save the people.”