Spain: As Catalonia Burns

Protesters out in the streets at night in Catalonia   

Dateline: Gran Via, Barcelona, Spain

By Chiogor Constance Ikokwu

On Sunday the 13th, I bumped into a group of protesters on my way to the metro. This determined bunch marched peacefully, and slowly with placards imprinted with slogans of liberation. I am used to it now. Street protests are common in Catalonia following sustained call for the independence of the region.

The next day the 14th, I walked into another group, this time rowdier. It was chaotic and the streets were clogged up. Cars honked ferociously. Protesters sat in the middle of the road to prevent vehicles from moving. The few police officers that I saw appeared overwhelmed. Helicopters were hovering in the sky.

On the third day, the demonstrations turned violent. Streets were up in flames. Cars were torched. Angry protesters clashed with the Police, which then used tear gas and rubber bullets to defuse the tension. At least 30 people were detained while over 100 were injured, according to reports.

As part of my morning routine, I had listened to the breaking news that some Catalan leaders were handed sentences of between 10 and 13 years for sedition. The sentence was concerning the referendum they organized last year that was described as “illegal” by the Spanish government.

The impromptu anger displayed by Catalans on Sunday morning was, therefore, a reaction to this court judgment.

From the first week I arrived in Barcelona last year, there have been regular street remonstrations, particularly on weekends. These marches are huge. Thousands of people faithfully respond to the call of defiance to the government in Madrid, the capital city. One year after, nothing has changed.

The story can be simplified thus: the Catalans do not want to be part of Spain, a wish they’ve expressed for many years. They claim oppression, injustice and unfair treatment by the government. The government in Madrid as expected, is bent on maintaining an indivisible country. Its response is the use of any means possible to keep the country united.

It is much complicated than that, of course. I do not claim to fully understand the intricacies of this issue. There are deep historical happenings that fuel both sides of the divide. A quick summary is that the marriage of King Ferdinand 11 of Aragon to Queen Isabella 1 of Castille in 1469 had unified different kingdoms in Spain.

In the 19th Century, the Catalans started a quest for independence. By 1931, they were granted autonomy within Spain. But the military regime of General Francisco Franco abolished that autonomy in 1938. Franco’s death in 1975 saw a renewed call for autonomy rather than independence. By 2010, the struggle turned to a call for independence from Spain when the Spanish court ruled that some articles of a 2006 Statue of Autonomy agreed with the Spanish government was unconstitutional.

This latest incident has caused a dent in Catalonia. Hundreds of flights were cancelled this week. My class with some American students was called off because the kids were afraid of going out. Many streets are cordoned off as a security measure. Every night, the rattling of helicopters in the sky gives off a feeling of living in occupied territory.

My friend from Nigeria called while she was watching the news on television, asking if I was safe. We tried to juxtapose the situation. If this was happening somewhere in Africa, the European embassies would have started issuing warnings of “danger”. The international media would have gone into overdrive.

Unrest can happen anywhere, even in the middle of Europe. Every human being wants freedom or liberation, however, they define it. But the African struggle for his/her humanity is often viewed and interpreted differently especially in Western media.

I was discussing with some Catalan guys recently on the independence issue. I asked one of them if given this background, he understands the plight of African people. He lifted his chin, squinted his eyes, looked at me and kept silent. I reckon he was searching for an appropriate answer. His friend responded instead saying: “it’s not the same thing.” He is partly correct. It’s not the same circumstance. At the core though, it’s about fighting for what you feel is just.

Anyway, I don’t see the Catalan independence movement ending any time soon. Notably, the marches are full of young people. They have the energy and zeal to keep this going!

Question for this week: is an African struggle different from that of a European? Let me know your thoughts.

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