When the October 14 sentencing of Catalonia’s political prisoners was reported in England, my 92 year-old aunt – who normally has as much contact with Catalonia as I do with the waters of the Limpopo – had no hesitation in qualifying the Supreme Court verdict as ’disgraceful’ and ’dreadful’. As indeed it was. Under Spanish law, sexual aggression carries a sentence of 1 to 5 years; rape, 6 to 12; rape of a minor, 12-15; kidnapping, 6 to 10; and voluntary homicide, 10 to 15. Catalonia’s vice-president, several of its ministers, the speaker of the Catalan parliament and two civic leaders – all of them non-violent people – have been jailed for between 9 and 13 years, for having organised or simply encouraged a referendum on independence in which 2,300,000 Catalans voted. The sentence has been condemned by the leader of the Bloc Québécois, Canada’s third largest party; by 200 Portuguese MPs, writers, journalists and artists; by the entire Flemish parliament; by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Catalonia in Westminster; by the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong; by Amnesty; and by the speaker of the Icelandic parliament. But none of this is enough, by a long chalk, to make Spain’s prime minister so much as blink let alone think twice. Since the sentencing, the reaction of the Catalan population – and not uniquely that part of it which desires independence – has been twofold: us oldies go on massive peaceful demonstrations of over half a million people; and the youth go on the streets and disrupt railways, airports, main roads, borders and attack the police when the police attack them... which is what young people, when faced with perceived state repression, have done since my long-term memory started functioning at age seven. The three forces of law and order sent out to deal with the protesters – the militarised Civil Guard, the Spanish National Police, and the so-called mobile brigade of the Catalan police – seem, to all intents and purposes, to have gone rogue. In the week since the verdict, young people all over Catalonia have been dragged along pavements by their hair, beaten into police vans while death threats are shouted at them, or whacked or kicked after having been forced to the ground. Rubber bullets – illegal in Catalonia – have been fired off like paintballs; four people have lost an eye and two, a testicle; two other people have serious intracranial injuries. All of this and much more police brutality has been captured on video. And yes, we all know that not all the demonstrators are non-violent: some have started fires in the street, some have ripped up paving stones and hurled them at police. But the only recorded incident of a policeman being seriously injured by them is surrounded by confusion. The official version claimed he was hit by a paving stone thrown by demonstrators; but when that was shown to be impossible, given that he was struck from behind whereas the protesters were facing him, the version changed to it being a local resident who threw something heavy from an upstairs window, but a video shows that no projectiles came from above; the same video – available on larepublica.cat – shows a distressed policemen (hands to his head) throwing his rubber bullet gun to the floor not long after the injured policeman collapses, suggesting that the latter was hit accidentally by ’friendly fire’.
Meanwhile, the Spanish state has shown clearly where it stands: when prime minister Sánchez came to Barcelona on a brief hospital visit, he went to see one injured policeman but none of the wounded civilians in the same building (Sánchez was booed by the staff). Spanish police going back to their home towns after ’serving’ in Catalonia, openly brandished Spanish flags before cheering crowds. And finally, the state propaganda department known as ’Global Spain’ (whose English language Twitter feed has less than 9,000 followers) decided to defend the Supreme Court sentences by putting out a puerile animated film caricaturing the former Catalan vice-president (sentenced to 13 years) as a masked villain and insisting a little too shrilly that Spain really, really, really is a real democracy. It was withdrawn almost immediately, but not fast enough to stop yet more Catalans wondering if being Spanish is worth it. Or even accurate.