Catalan referendum: 'Police threw us aside … and more vanloads arrived'

Catalans describe scenes of violence at polling stations on referendum day that started with optimistic mood in Barcelona

Catalan referendum - live

Neither the dark nor the rain had put off the thousands of people who got up in the early hours of Sunday to gather at schools around Barcelona in the hope of voting on the independence of Catalonia.

Umbrellas were shared, coffees longed for and old grievances aired. But despite the familiar complaints about the government in Madrid – too selfish, too greedy, too intransigent – there was a sense of optimism, too.

Huge cheers went up as the sun rose, the rain paused and plastic ballot boxes were delivered. Members of the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, were greeted with a polite bon dia even though they were under orders to seal off the polling stations.

But by mid morning the mood had curdled. Images showing the national police force dragging would-be voters away from schools and seizing ballot boxes sprang up on social media, stirring fear and anger.

One of the flashpoints was the Escola Ramon Llull, which was stormed by police who smashed through the doors and began pulling people out.

Martí Pont, 19, was among the occupants of the school when the national police arrived.

“We all gathered around the front door and kept calm,” he said. “There were some elderly people but no kids. Then 15 police in body armour and five more wearing balaclavas arrived. They started pushing us with their shields and throwing us aside but there were too many of us. Then more and more vanloads arrived from all sides. They started pushing through and pulling people out.”

Clashes outside the Escola Ramon Llull polling station in Barcelona.
People clash with Spanish police outside the Escola Ramon Llull polling station in Barcelona. Photograph: Fabio Bucciarelli/AFP/Getty Images

Pont said people had been dragged out by their hair or throats and beaten by the police. When he and others got back out on to the street, they sat behind the police vans so that the officers wouldn’t be able to leave.

“They started hitting us with truncheons but didn’t use their guns,” he said. “We met up with another group and the police warned journalists to go away. They ran off and the police started firing rubber bullets … Everyone who could, fled, but others got hit, in the back and the knee. Everyone went off to find somewhere else to vote.”

Elisa Arouca had been intending to vote for Catalonia to remain part of Spain, but changed her mind as she waited outside the Escola L’Estel in central Barcelona.

Arouca said she and others were pulled out of the way by national police officers who smashed the door open and removed the ballot boxes.

“I was always against independence but what the Spanish state is doing is making me change my mind,” she told the Associated Press.

“The national police and civil guard are treating us like criminals. I was most likely going to vote no until the national police sent me flying. Now I will try to vote yes.”

Although similar incidents were reported around Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia, many people still managed to vote peacefully – if slowly.

Josep Magrinyà and his neighbours went to vote at the Escola de la Concepció in Barcelona.

People help a voter at the Escola de la Concepció in Barcelona.
A woman with a walking stick leaves after voting at the Escola de la Concepció in Barcelona. Photograph: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

“The attitude was peaceful and serene, with a spirit of resistance,” he said on Sunday afternoon.

“Older people or people with restricted mobility were given preference in the queue so that they could get home soon and not have to suffer any police violence which we all expected but which fortunately so far hasn’t happened.”

Magrinyà said food and water was provided to those who needed it, adding: “Now we’re staying to guard our votes as long as necessary.”

Blai Antonio, a 76-year-old retired taxi driver, emerged from the polling station at the Escola Mireia in Barcelona with tears in his eyes.

“The experience of being able to vote has given me a satisfaction I could never have dreamed of,” he said.

“Catalan independence is important so that we can live in a democracy, which Spain isn’t. We send all our money to the government and get crumbs in return.”

Such a day, Antonio reflected, would have been impossible under General Franco. But, in a dig at Spain’s ruling People’s party, he added: “Although his heirs are still in power.”

By Sunday lunchtime, Imma Solé had still not voted. After queuing up for hours outside the Escola Ramon Llull, she and her family were forced to retreat to their flat after the police charged the crowds and fired rubber bullets.

Standing in her living room, looking at the image of a woman’s bloodied face on TV, the 50-year-old education manager felt dejected.

“Today was a key day for independence and looks what’s happened,” she said. “Tomorrow they’ll probably arrest our leaders and no one will even notice. Europe’s turned its back on us.”


Sam Jones and Stephen Burgen

The GuardianTramp

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