Catalan defence committees ready to take to the streets

Protesters gathering during a demonstration in support of the Catalan independence referendum in Barcelona on Sept 29, 2017.
Protesters gathering during a demonstration in support of the Catalan independence referendum in Barcelona on Sept 29, 2017.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BARCELONA (AFP) - When teachers, students, parents and activists turned up to defend polling stations against police in Catalonia's banned independence referendum, it became evident that a well-organised grassroots movement had emerged.

Many were part of "committees to defend the referendum", or CDRs - neighbourhood groups set up about a month prior, at times with the help of well-honed activists, to ensure the vote went ahead on Oct 1 despite a court ruling it unconstitutional.

Now, scattered across Catalan town and cities, driven by their quest for independence, they are ready to take to the streets against Spain's central government - and pressure their own regional separatist executive if they back down.

PRESSURE ON BOTH SIDES

"We're stoked. And we think this can scare even the Catalan government," said Ms Julia Coll, a participant in a CDR in Barcelona's Dreta de l'Eixample district.

A text on the Telegram messaging app sent after a meeting of another committee in the Sant Andreu area read: "We need to mobilise to demand the proclamation of the independent Catalan republic and/or its defence once proclaimed."

Pressure is mounting for Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont to make clear whether or not he declares independence ahead of a Monday (Oct 16) deadline set by Spain's government.

If he does, Madrid is prepared to impose direct control over the semi-autonomous region.

If he doesn't, independence supporters are ready to pressure him into it.

Either way, people will likely take to the streets this week.

Whether they will be able to match the 700,000 who rallied on Oct 3 in protest at police violence during the referendum remains to be seen.

But the far-left CUP party, an ally of Catalonia's separatist government, the Catalan National Assembly, an influential pro-independence association, and student associations have called for mobilisation.

CITIZENS' MOVEMENT

The CDRs are also getting ready.

It is difficult to gauge how many people they can mobilise, but in their first region-wide meeting Saturday in the city of Sabadell, representatives from 90 CDRs around Catalonia turned up.

Present on Telegram and Twitter, their followers vary from several hundred to several thousand.

The committees were formed weeks before the referendum to mobilise people to vote when it became clear Madrid was going to go all out to prevent the plebiscite from taking place, according to various CDR participants.

"Meetings were organised in villages and districts to see what role people could have on the day of the vote," says Mr Gerard Munoz, one participant.

In Barcelona, he says, the CDRs - whose name echoes that of Cuba's Committees of the Defence of the Revolution, a neighbourhood watchdog considered the regime's eyes and ears - were propelled largely by activists from Catalonia's left-wing independence movement.

Many came from the CUP, Endavant - an influential political movement within the CUP - or Arran, a radical youth group also linked to the CUP that staged protests against tourism this summer.

But in other places, locals took the initiative themselves, Mr Munoz adds.

As the days went by, more and more people joined and when Oct 1 neared, some committees contacted parents' associations in schools that would be used as polling stations to ask if they would be willing to help guard them.

Some agreed to help, for instance, by organising weekend-long activities such as sleepovers and volleyball marathons, thus occupying the schools to stop police from closing them.

Mr David Carmona, a 29-year-old participant on the Sant Andreu committee, said at least one experienced activist was placed in most polling stations to advise others "how to act, how to defend ourselves if the police came". And come they did, in one case firing rubber bullets to disperse crowds, and injuring one man's eye, according to regional health authorities.

REGION-WIDE MEETING

After joining protests against police violence and staging their own local demonstrations, the CDRs are waiting to see what happens politically.

But they have countless ideas as to what to do.

In the Sant Andreu committee that met on Saturday morning on a sunny square, the gathering got off to a shaky start as one man walked by, shouting: "You're ruining Catalonia," highlighting the discord in a region divided over independence.

But then proposals started flowing in, ranging from changing the name of the CDRs to "committees for the defence of the republic", starting a debate on how an independent state would work, to finding ways to put financial pressure on Madrid.

The Sabadell region-wide gathering, meanwhile, called for mobilisation if the Spanish state sought to suspend Catalonia's autonomy or detained separatists, and said it would meet again next week.