October 21 was a sunny day in Barcelona and Saint James’ Square was buzzing. Journalists stood in a line opposite the Palau de la Generalitat, the seat of Catalonian government. Some 130 presidents, including the current head, Carles Puigdemont, have governed from this medieval building. Earlier in the day, the government in Madrid had decided on direct rule, taking away the powers of officials inside the Palau de la Generalitat. It was a “tsunami” in a series of escalations that followed an independence referendum on October 1 despite a ban by Spain’s Constitutional Court. On that day Spanish police dragged women by the hair, kicked men in the stomach and tried to stop the referendum.

Reporters chase after an official who quickly jumps into a car and is chauffeured away. Meanwhile, tourists gawk at the Gothic buildings of the Old City while a tour guide explains how the square is a symbol, a bastion of democracy in Catalonia. Celebrating across the square at the Ajuntament, the town hall, is a group that whistles and cheers on a just-married couple. The bride with the bouquet, the tourists with selfie-sticks and journalists with cameras mingle in the heat of the Catalonian crisis, the worst for Spain since the end of the Franco dictatorship 43 years ago.

Every now and then locals bitch among themselves about the imposition of Article 155. Everyone has a view: fruit vendors and hairdressers, the front pages of newspapers and the twitterati. Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution allows the central government to suspend components of a region’s autonomy under specific conditions, including the disintegration of the state. Red lighting Catalan secessionism was Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announcing that Catalonian leaders would be stripped of plenary powers while Madrid initiated a process of direct rule. Some in Barcelona view the move as illegal. Elections would be held in six months and Catalonia would mark the first instance where Spain’s government has moved to dilute the autonomy of one of its 17 regions.

A woman selling quills in a 300-year-old building calls it “fascism”, a word Catalans often use. The sentiment was echoed from the churro shop to the offices of President Puidgemont who described it as the worst attack on Catalonia’s institutions since Franco’s dictatorship.


A protest starts to form at Barcelona’s Passeig de Gracia.

It is business as usual at Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona’s avenue of luxury. Tourists from all over the world walk past celebrated architecture and into luxury stores. As it gets cooler the Passeig de Gracia begins to morph. Protests have been planned in solidarity with Jordi Sanchez of the Catalan National Assembly and Jordi Cuizart of Ominum Cultural. They were at the forefront of the protests that drew tens of thousands to the Catalan economy department while police carried out a raid inside on September 20. The night had been tense: demonstrators stopped police from leaving the building, a police car was destroyed. On October 16, Sanchez and Cuizart were arrested and their role in the protests is being investigated. The word is that they will be tried for sedition.

Barcelona is a magnet for tourists:  more than 34 million in 2016. But  “the protests have resulted in a greater fall in tourism than the terrorist attacks in August 2017 where 13 died,” declares a churro salesman.

About 4 p.m. when anger over Article 155 competes with anger about the arrests, the Catalan and Barcelona police cordon off Paseig de Gracia. The broadest boulevard in Barcelona is readied for the arrival of pro-independence supporters. Volunteers carry stacks of banners that read “Free Catalonia” and “Save Europe”. Pakistanis, mainly from Lahore, are selling Catalan flags inspired by the Cuban revolution outside the Chanel store. Two Japanese women enquire about the Gabrielle bag and if stores would close early. They will remain open until 9 p.m.

In Miu Miu, the Italian saleswoman shows a pair of studded shoes and assures Arab shoppers  the protestors are usually peaceful. The women who reek of oud decide to watch the scene from the roof of the terrace at the Mandarin Oriental. The terrace becomes a viewing deck where people sip cocktails and try to guess how many have gathered. The number keeps mounting. The flood of people is visible as far as the eye can see. By 5 p.m. streets are packed. The pilgrims of independence have gathered, revolution is in the air.

The protests began in earnest seven years ago, egged on by recession, the rise of debt and widespread job losses in southern Europe’s economies. Catalonia was badly affected. Unemployment had peaked at 26.2 per cent in July 2013; it is down to 17.7 per cent in 2017. Catalonia, which is in the Spanish northeast, has a population of about 7.5 million and more jobs than any other region of Spain, suffered the most. Bigonia, the tour guide, took to the streets on September 11, 2010, the day of the diada, a national holiday. She recently returned from Paris where she worked at the Small World in Disneyland. In those days the demonstrations were about Catalonia’s economic future. The EU flag fluttered across Catalonia and the chants were about, “Catalonia, a new state of Europe.”

Many, but not everyone, feel prying Catalonia out of Madrid’s grip is the answer. Several taxi drivers in Barcelona, but from across Spain, speak about the instability protests would create.

Barcelona is a magnet for tourists: 27 million in 2012 and more than 34 million in 2016, an increase of over 25 per cent in four years. But this year was different. “The protests have resulted in a greater fall in tourism than the terrorist attacks in August 2017 in Las Ramblas where 13 died,” declares a churro salesman on Las Ramblas who witnessed the van plough into a crowd.

Watching from the doorstep of the Mandarin Oriental, the guard calls it a “carnival” and the presence of children, the chants and the laidback atmosphere underlines his assertion. Men in shorts and women in khakis, children in identical Catalonia t-shirts and young ones learning the words to songs of sedition make the demonstration seem like a block party. The protestors are determined to be taken seriously. Catalans are a proud people and many were draped in the flag. The mayor, Ada Colau, in spite of being against independence, tweeted: “Rajoy has suspended the self-government of Catalonia for which so many people fought. A serious attack on the rights and freedoms of everyone.”



n this day there are hardly any Spanish police except for the choppers in the sky. On the day of the referendum (October 1), they stopped people from voting; fired rubber bullets and seized ballot boxes from polling stations. The protestors jeer at the helicopters, wave flags, hold up banners and those whose hands are free give the middle finger salute. Then they break into songs of freedom, including one from the days of Franco.

At the heart of the protest on Passeig de Gracia is Burberry. It shut shop early and sitting on its stone façade are four women in their mid-60s, retired teachers who compare Spanish rule to the days of Franco. He gagged them, shackled them and the women feel Madrid is again trying to do the same. At the heart of the issue is Catalan identity. One teacher recalled how in the days of Franco it was impossible to speak Catalan.

During his 43-year dictatorship, it was banned from the public sphere. Franco’s Spain inflicted a form of cultural genocide, dismantling institutions and associations tied to Catalan identity. When he died in 1975, the language came out of hushed conversations at home into the schools. By the late 1970s, Catalonia had got control of its own education system.

Catalonia is Spain’s economic engine; the highest GDP of all the regions at €266 billion, almost one-fifth of the national economic output.

A woman in a pink blouse points to children sitting on top of a bus stop in front of a huge billboard of Irina Shayk, the Victoria’s Secret supermodel. “We’ve kept the language alive for them,” she said. It was a reaction to Franco’s repression and became inseparable from Catalan identity. “I don’t feel Spanish at all,” said another woman. Some of them joined the protests in 2013, when Madrid passed a national education law forcing more Spanish-instruction hours in Catalan schools.



ne block down, outside Chanel, two young women smoke a joint while handing out leaflets with Libertat presos politics (Release political prisoners) written. One of them is a bakery owner in debt and the other sells espadrilles in her store. She speaks about the rich history of the shoe, documented since 1322 when it was first described in Catalan. Once peasant footwear, the espadrille is now a mainstay in Chanel. She complains that Chanel sells them for €500 while she can charge no more than €40. She blames it on Madrid.

 A student of history traces the roots of the crisis 300 years back, to Catalonia’s defeat by the Bourbon kings in the War of Spanish Succession. It was then part of the crown of Aragon and backed the Hapsburg dynasty against the Bourbons. When they captured Barcelona in 1713, the Bourbons imposed central control and thus began the Catalan loss of autonomy.

For others, the roots of the current crisis lie in the 2008 economic downturn that stoked separatist sentiment. Catalonia experienced the highest budget cuts. Things looked like they were getting better in 2010, when Catalonia sought a statute to collect its own taxes but Madrid rejected the move. Rather than asking for greater autonomy under the Spanish state the contemporary project of nationalism under Artur Mas explicitly called for independence.


Retired teachers show up for independent Catalonia in front of the Burberry shop in Passeig de Gracia.

Catalonia is Spain’s economic engine; the state has the highest GDP of all the regions at €266 billion, almost one-fifth of the national economic output. When the economic crisis hit Spain, Catalans lost jobs disproportionately and resented having their taxes subsidise poorer parts of Spain.

“Catalans make the cake and share it but receive a morsel instead of a bite,” said a tour guide. Because it contributes more in taxes than it gets back from the government, independence supporters have capitalised on the imbalance, arguing that drying out the transfers to Madrid would turn Catalonia’s budget deficit into a surplus. It has always attracted investment, with nearly a third of all foreign companies in Spain choosing Barcelona as their base. For many on the street, Catalonia can survive without Spain. Its GDP per capita (€29,966) is higher than Spain’s (€24,000).

At the forefront of Place de Catalunya waving banners is a group of people from Vic. They have been organised by Manel, a small store owner via email and rented a bus that journeyed from the Catalan heartland. They have a list of grievances plastered on the window of their purple bus. Among them is anger at the government in Madrid for not going through with the many projects promised to Catalonia. There is the high-speed train that was abandoned. Money was collected from the EU for Barcelona to set up the Corredor Mediterraneo, which would connect Algeciras, Valencia and Barcelona. It has been abandoned altogether. Instead, money from the EU will connect Algeciras to Madrid and onwards to the rest of Europe.

Not far from the purple bus is a Catalan policeman eating a banana. He has a gun but is certain there is no need for it. This is a peaceful protest, he says. Anyway, the small number of officers cannot hope to control the situation. He points to the chopper in the sky. “We need them.”



y sunset, the crowd is smaller. Outside Marina Rinaldia a group of people have gathered around a bleacher erected for the news telecasters. A reporter from Chanel 1 Spain news goes about her job when her camera becomes the hub of the protests. People gather around it and  chant that they want freedom. They sing the Catalan anthem. They wave independence flags and say Spanish news lies.

As the evening progresses, young men and women, students from school and universities wave the flag as garbage cleaners make their way to clear the streets of posters and beer cans. Later in the evening, the locus of the protest is a band. People dance in trance as the smell of marijuana rises.

Being European has always played an important role in the Catalan identity and the fear of a break from the bloc terrifies some.

In a road leading away from the protest, a book café struggles with the influx of customers. Away from the camera interchanges become intense. In the last protest on October 17, groups of people had threatened stores, including Apple and McDonalds to shut shop or else. They shuttered their doors even if they didn’t believe in the cause but it was becoming difficult to feel Spanish in this corner of the country.

In a June poll conducted by the Centre d’Estudis d’Opnio, 41.1per cent  of those questioned claimed they wanted independence and 49.4 per cent said they did not. But there were diehard Spaniards in Catalonia and they took to the centre of Barcelona in a huge rally supporting the state of Spain and waved the Spanish flag that in the Franco decades carried the stigma of a misplaced nationalism. People were worried whether Catalonia would be accepted as a member state in the EU. Already, there’s been a business exodus that could hurt Catalonia’s reputation as a hub for manufacturing, publishing and technology. European leaders have made it abundantly clear that they will require independent Catalonia to contend for membership which will be contingent on the support and consent of all members—including Spain.

Being European has always played an important role in the Catalan identity and the fear of a break from the bloc terrifies some. Catalonia and its success attracted many from other regions in the Franco years and the migrants struggled to identify with Catalan identity. A talkative taxi driver listed a roster of grievances with secession. “Do they even have a roadmap or a coherent plan of what would follow after? No,” he said. So for better or for worse along with independence flags on brownstone buildings, on Gothic  façades and in stores, the Spanish flag flutters while Catalan society lives divided. 

This story is from the November 2017 issue