Thursday, 12 October 2017

Referendum, just for the record

Just for the record of having taken part, for the record of Yes votes, for the record of a wonderful, terrifying emotional weekend, a few notes on the Catalan Referendum on Independence, 1st October 2017, as seen at Sant Esteve de Palautordera, the village in Montseny, Catalonia, that is my home:

We got the call-out on Thursday. Everyone should be at the old primary school - the polling station for the village - on Friday night. The fear was that the police would seal the polling station. In Catalonia and Spain this official seal (it's done with Police sticky tape) makes it illegal to enter a building. So we had to make sure that the police did not seal us out.

Friday Night

By 6pm on Friday there were a couple of hundred people in the school playground. The numbers grew during the evening. We organised food, there was street theatre from Tortell Poltrona of Circ Cric and a story from the Marduix theatre group. And we watched Pride, dubbed into Catalan. The struggle of the lesbian and gay community in London to support, and be accepted by, the striking miners seemed especially appropriate as our tiny village took on the might of the Spanish Empire.

The film was still running when around 1am on Saturday morning the shout 'Police' went out. We shut off the movie, and crowded round the entrance to the playground. We phoned and texted friends and within three minutes there was a crowd of 250 people and growing, jammed into the entrance of the playground. Two very calm, decent Mossos d'Esquadra (the autonomous government's police force) drove up and told us that they had to read a charge against us. Was there any single organisation behind all of this? 'The people of the village' we replied. Was there any one person who was responsible? 'The people' went the shout. The police then told us that they would be back - and this time there might be four of them - at 06:00 on Sunday morning to 'precintar' (officially seal) the school. But that if there was 'such a big crowd that, in our judgement, we might cause public disorder by closing the school' then they would be unable to seal the gates. They repeated this message so that we all understood clearly.

I slept, fitfully, that Friday night at the school with around 50 other people, waking repeatedly at small noises and shouts in the night. In the morning, with three other volunteers and the generous donation of wonderful fresh croissants from the Valflorida bakery we made breakfast for around 150 people.

A Festival for Democracy

Saturday morning was a festival. The group organised dance classes (I took part in tap-dance, and Menorcan 'ball de bot'), drawing classes and talks. There was music, and people contributed food and drink -  we were all avoiding alcohol so it was soft drinks all round - to sustain the crowd. There was another visit by the Mossos with the same message about the timing of their Sunday visit, and the relevance of the crowd. And so into Saturday evening, now with some 500 people in the school and the playground. I retired home for a few hours sleep, and then came back at 05:00 to make breakfast. At 05:30 we served over 200 breakfasts to the volunteers - so many that the local café's coffee machine broke down with the demand. By 05:00 there were at least 500 people there, and by 06:00, the appointed hour that number had grown to represent more than half the number who would eventually vote.

The police did come back, but made the sensible judgement that the crowd was too big to control (it was two friendly Mossos, and 800 people at the school.) The Mossos stayed with us all day, parked just a little way away from the school, watching the entrance to the playground.

The Voting Boxes

Just before 08:00 the shout went out 'Police!' By then we had been drilled to block the entrance, and climb onto the barrier fence surrounding the playground. The crowd was enormous, all of us facing outwards, packed along the fence. Behind us, and thus completely hidden from the two Mossos in their patrol car, three people appeared with black bin bags. The voting boxes! The famous voting boxes that had been hidden so successfully that the entire Spanish police force had been unable to find them! They were smuggled into the school behind our backs and out of sight of the Mossos. And then, realising what had happened, realising that this had been a false alarm designed to distract attention, we all cheered. The boxes, with the voting slips and envelopes were safely in the polling station.

Now an enormous queue formed. We heard that - another masterstroke by the Generalitat - the Catalan government had introduced a universal census so that people whose polling station had been shut down could go to any other station to vote. This depended on access to the web, and so the team had organised IT specialists to be on hand, backed by a team of hackers somewhere in Catalonia, to keep the census open against attacks by the Spanish intelligence service.

Police Brutality

Then we started to see the videos. The awful videos of brutality by the Policia Nacional and the 'Civil Guard' against defenceless voters. The rubber bullets - banned across Catalonia two years ago after an incident in which a woman was blinded. We were all thoroughly scared. WhatsApp and texts began to arrive from friends in other places who had been attacked or seen the attacks. We reorganised the queue to ensure that the oldest people could vote early and leave. And we did more drills to prepare for what we presumed would be an armed attack by Spain's militarised police.

We uncovered a secret police officer. She was identified (in our village, everyone knows everyone so it was particularly stupid of the Civil Guard to send in a plain-clothes cop), surrounded by a group of women, and gently moved away until she left the village.

The Farmers (and Firefighters) Save the Day

Then the tractors came. The local farmers came out in force to support the referendum, and used three tractors to block the main access to the polling station. One farmer parked a livestock truck across a fourth entrance and the fifth was closed with four tonnes of sand, courtesy of a local building supplier. The firefighters arrived - the roar of pleasure from the crowd must have been audible a kilometre away - and added to the blockade by parking a fire tender across the road. 

That was all a relief, but it did not stop us being vigilant, especially when, during the afternoon, we heard that more than a dozen Policia Nacional vans were parked on the main road a few kilometres from the village. People were still frightened - at one point in the afternoon an old lady asked me, from outside the playground, if it was safe to come in and vote; I reassured here that here, now, it was safe.

The young people of the village were incredible, reinforcing a weak section of the fence around the playground with street barriers, and zipping around on their scooters and bikes to watch out for arriving police.

As the referendum closed, the brim-full voting boxes were smuggled out of the school in a reverse of their arrival, and the counting team was taken to a safe house in the village to compile the results.

Democracy Wins

In the end, aside from the plain-clothes police officer, no-one came to assault our village. The people of the village, together, saved the day. The evidence is in the figures - in a village of a couple of thousand voters we achieved the highest ever result for voting in an election or referendum;  85.36% participation, and 95.8% (1,525 people) voting Yes.

It was an extraordinary day. A day of mass participation, of powerful emotions - fear, laughter, many, many tears of pain (when we saw how the Policia Nacional hit old ladies to try to prevent them voting) and joy (at the farmers, the fire fighters, the four tonnes of sand). It was a day of new friendships, of many hugs and much dancing. And a day when democracy, the will of the people, proved that it was stronger than the 'argument of force' from Spain. A day to remember forever.

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