By Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol
Catalan emotions ran high in September and October 2017. On October 1st, the population was called to an independence referendum. It was not a regular polling day because the referendum was declared illegal within the framework of the 1978 Spanish Constitution. Even discussing the issue in the Catalan Parliament was banned.
The conflict can be summarized in the following terms: while the pro-independence movement claims legitimacy, the Spanish government puts emphasis on the (lack) of legality of such a referendum. Yet, different opinion polls have consistently shown that up to 80% of the Catalan population wanted to vote, regardless of their position in favour or against independence.
Between September 11th and October 23rd crowds of people in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia took the streets nine times. Two of the assemblies supported unionism while the rest were aligned with the pro-independence movement. In what follows, I will refer to the latter.
Older people know firsthand what a lack of fundamental rights means, and the prohibition around the referendum resonated with their memories and past experience.
A referendum from below
A combination of grassroots mobilization and institutional commitments made the referendum possible. We can therefore qualify it as a “referendum [that arises] from below” (Della Porta et al., 2017). A referendum that arises from below is fostered by civil movements and constitutes one of the ways in which current protest movements can shape the existing political institutions.
On October 1st, voting was a form of civil disobedience, and people surrounding the polling centres in Catalonia applauded very old women and men who went to vote. Why?
First, every vote had tremendous symbolic power because it meant a potential confrontation with the police and the risk of being injured or struck. Second, because the elders’ disobedience was acknowledged as part of a long-running fight to preserve the civil, democratic rights they had fought for in the past century. Older people know firsthand what a lack of fundamental rights means, and the prohibition around the referendum resonated with their memories and past experience.
In 1978, after a 40 year dictatorship ruled by Francisco Franco, democracy was reinstated. Those who fought that dictatorship are now older individuals. Of that group, some who fought in the 1970s also suffered the consequences of the civil war (1936-1939), several decades earlier.
On October 1st, in response to the brutality of the Spanish police, a large number of citizens – more than expected – gathered at the polling centres to “defend the votes.”
On Tuesday, October 3rd, massive, peaceful demonstrations followed during the general strike/blackout that had been called before the polling day. One of most commonly chanted slogans was: “The streets will always be ours” (Els carrers seran sempre nostres). This slogan exemplifies a bottom-up trend which emphasizes secessionist process; it also illustrates citizens’ commitment to peaceful, massive civil protests as effective ways to challenge the status quo.
The presence of the older generations
Less popular, but tremendously touching, was the chant “Without the grandmas there is no revolution” (Sense les àvies no hi ha revolució). A group of young women chanted it in a small demonstration on the morning of October 3rd when an older woman on her balcony supported the people in the streets by clanging a pan, replicating the pots-and-pans protests that have become common in recent times. Down in the streets, demonstrators clapped back at her and joined the young woman’s chant. Earlier, a similar scene took place: a fragile old man on his balcony applauded the demonstrators and, while those in the street applauded back, he took some pictures of them with his smartphone.
During the protests, deep wrinkles were everywhere. Older people blended with kids, teenagers, and young and middle-aged adults. They attended the demonstrations in groups of peers, with relatives, or on their own. The media covered the strong public presence of older people in these protests, commenting on how this engagement might shape their relationships with younger age groups. One radio program invited four individuals who had participated in an underground political militancy during the dictatorship to explain how they discussed the current situation with their youngest relatives, and how it connects to their lived experiences. When reporting the protests, the Catalan public TV interviewed an 87 year old man who expressed a high degree of engagement by being on the streets whenever a call for protesting was made.
On October 16th, the detention of two pro-independence leaders, negatively evaluated by Amnesty International, led to two more massive demonstrations. In the days to follow, on October 17th and 21st, protests against the suspension of the Catalan Autonomy by the Spanish Government, took place. The speech that closed the last demonstration acknowledged the role of older people by mentioning how “grandparents had fought” to bring democracy back, something citizens would not allow to be destroyed. This claim was in line with the demonstrators’ voiced opinions, who have declared that the Spanish Government’s decision curtailed democratic rights. The pro-independence movement has a strong commitment to peaceful civil protest that is essential to having older adults participate in public demonstrations.
During the protests, deep wrinkles were everywhere. Older people blended with kids, teenagers, and young and middle-aged adults. The media covered the strong public presence of older people in these protests, commenting on how this engagement might shape their relationships with younger age groups.
Physical and Digital Spaces
In addition to the ‘physical’ spaces in which the protests took place, digital spaces are vital for social movements; particularly since the Arab Spring in 2010. In the Catalan region, the older segments of the population are also part of this trend. Information tools were used by Catalan citizens; primarily, distribution channels on WhatsApp and Telegram that were dedicated to the coordination of the protests. WhatsApp, a tremendously popular tool for everyday communications among all age groups, was turned into a space for sharing ideas, memes, videos and personal pictures around the protests. To keep informed about the current political situation, older people in particular use Twitter and Facebook, as much as traditional mass media such as TV and radio.
The commitment of the older generations
The pro-independence movement is a bottom-up movement that transverses across age groups. Of interest is the strong commitment of the older generations. While it might be too early for an in-depth analysis, three elements should be considered to justify this particularity. First, the willingness of the older people to get involved in the protests – a must in grassroots movements. Second, the public recognition of the role of older people now and during the dictatorship. And third, older people’s active participation in the digital spaces that articulate and support the movement.
Della Porta, D., O’Connor, F., Portos, M., & Subirats, A. (2017). Social Movements and Referendums from Below: Direct Democracy in the Neoliberal Crisis. Policy Press.
Notes from the author
This piece was written on October 22. For an updated list of events, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalan_independence_movement
Thank you to Tricia Toso, ACT research assistant, for her editorial work on this piece.