Can Europe Make It?

Three nights with the citizens of Girona

A general strike had been called across Catalonia and somewhere down there, winding through the new town on the far side of the river, a local march was building.

James McEnaney
28 October 2019, 5.15pm
"A cloud of teargas rises above the river" in Girona.
Author's photograph. All rights reserved.

Across the water a cloud rises. It seems to glow, illuminated from beneath as it swells in the still air. Soon another joins it, and then another, until they become one – a huge, grey-white mass lowering over the streets like devil's breath. Below and all around, a flurry of explosions crackle through the night and three new trails of white gas pour through the scene, climbing quickly before the projectiles arch back to earth. The beast before us inhales as it rises ever higher and reaches out towards the people massed along the banks and across the water.

My wife and I have been in Girona for a little over twenty-four hours. We came here with simple expectations – some wine, warmth and time together after a draining few months. A wee break, booked on a whim a few months earlier, long before Spain decided to imprison politicians for up to 13 years for the appalling crime of allowing people to vote. Those sentences were handed down three days before we arrived.

Every single part of the city seems to feature some sort of political symbol, with pro-democracy, pro-independence and anti-fascist sentiments radiating from the streets. There is the Catalan flag, La Estelada, draped over countless balconies; yellow ribbons of protest painted on almost every street sign; graffiti on the pavements and walls decrying the injustice of the Spanish courts and calling for Mort al Rei (Death to the King); banners hung from the side of buildings, slogans such as Self-determination is a right, not a crime; street art demanding llibertat (liberty) and welcoming passers-by to 'the Republic of Catalonia'.

The night before – first of three – we had gone for a walk, strolling through the ancient streets of the old town before slipping across the river. Intrigued by the rumble of a crowd around some or other corner, we soon found ourselves approaching a protest outside the 'Subdelegation of the Spanish Government in Girona'. A small group of riot police was facing off against a swelling crowd of mostly young people who had formed along the western edge of the Plaça de la Constitució (Constitution Square), using a raised concrete barricade running along the roadside to elevate themselves above their opponents. On the road, in the space between protesters and police, stood a young man waving the red and yellow striped flag of Catalonia.

"A crowd of protesters faces off against Spanish police in riot gear".
James McEnaney. All rights reserved.

The square itself is a broad, open and largely empty space, save for a small statue of a seated woman accompanied by a plaque which reads: "During the referendum held on 1st October 2017, the citizens of Girona were brutally assaulted by the Spanish security forces while freely and peacefully exercising their right to vote. This square is intended to be a testimony of admiration and remembrance to the people's dignified behaviour and courage." Now, two years later, those same people had returned to the square to make the same demand.

Later, while my wife slept, I wandered through the contorted alleys that trickle down to the river, then crossed back over one of the bridges. I could hear continuing protest outside the Spanish Government building not far away and found myself drawn back towards it, but as I made my way through its outer edges the whole, heaving mass turned and began to rush in the opposite direction, carrying me along with it. We were running from the Spanish police, and the expressions and exhortations surrounding me left little doubt that getting left behind was not an option.

The crowd split and began to pour into narrow side streets until I eventually found myself carried along into Plaça de la Independència (Independence Square). In its centre stands a monument depicting a small group of fighters, a memorial to those who defended Girona – albeit unsuccessfully – during the siege of 1808. The tallest of the stone figures now grasps a modern symbol, with a black background, white star and white cross – the new Black Flag of Catalonia.

A barman, smiling but obviously nervous, poured me a (very) large whisky, which I drank quickly before picking my way through the streets back to my hotel for the night with the protests still rumbling on behind me.

The next morning, after breakfast, we set out to explore the old city wall, the remains of which, rebuilt and restored, wraps around the north east of the old town. As we walked along the tops of the towering barrier, the city spreading out below us, the sounds of a new, far larger protest rose up from the streets.

A general strike had been called across Catalonia, with enormous marches making their way into Barcelona from cities across the region, and somewhere down there, winding through the new town on the far side of the river, a local march was building. Almost every shop, café and bar was closed, and many displayed signs in their windows announcing their support for both the strike and the imprisoned political leaders.

We joined the crowds gathering along one of the main streets of the new town. The people wore their politics across their chests and cheeks. Flags were swept across the heads of crowds or tied as capes around shoulders. More than a hundred tractors had already occupied the street, ready for a later procession, decked in red and yellow stripes. Next to us, a woman held aloft a placard featuring an image of Freddie Mercury and the words: "We want to vote free." The whole scene – a brilliant carnival of political engagement and popular protest – was a powerful reminder of the strength of ordinary people, and evoked in us strong memories of Scotland's own 2014 independence campaign.

The whole scene – a brilliant carnival of political engagement and popular protest – was a powerful reminder of the strength of ordinary people, and evoked in us strong memories of Scotland's own 2014 independence campaign.

"A pro-democracy mural demanding liberty".
Author's photograph. All rights reserved.

On the ground there were no police to be seen, but when a helicopter passed overhead three generations of families looked to the skies and launched a defiant volley of whistles, jeers and one-handed gestures. The message to the Spanish state was clear.

By nightfall, another large crowd had gathered, this time spreading out through the tree-lined streets and across the roundabout outside the local courts. Countless different conversations melted together, rising and falling in waves, and every so often a wave of rhythmic applause rippled through the crowd. The defiance of the daytime crowd was still present but a new layer of tension had been added, for as the light had faded the police had returned, and now looked out upon a mass of several thousand Catalans demanding llibertat presos politics – freedom for the political prisoners.

Not long after this, the explosions began. By now we were outside a restaurant in Independence Square – just around the corner from the protests and well within earshot. At first we thought the sounds were fireworks being thrown by protesters, but as the atmosphere around us shifted, and local people became increasingly, visibly concerned, it became clear that those responsible were in fact the ones in police uniforms.

Small groups started to drift past our table as they peeled away from the main crowd, but the noise from the main mass of protesters continued to rise. Nerves were fraying, glances sharpening. And then, after a further volley from the police, came the wave of panic as people began flooding into the square. The owner of the restaurant asked us to move inside and, after the next round of explosions sent an even larger crowd rushing passed us, pulled down a latticed metal shutter down over the front door. We understood that this was intended as protection not from the protesters, but from the police.

We escaped during a brief lull, dashing across the square and over a bridge into the old town which, to our surprise, remained relatively quiet despite the lingering sounds of the conflict across the river. Taking shelter in these streets, or even returning to our hotel, was probably the safest course of action. But we soon found ourselves crossing the water once more, following a small crowd which then merged with a larger protest taking place beneath the elevated train tracks. Following the tactics adopted in Barcelona, a large bin had been set alight and placed in the centre of the road, forming a barricade against a line of police that, although out of sight, was clearly the focus on attention and, unsurprisingly, anger.

We worked our way forwards, taking photographs but conscious that, at any moment, we may have to turn and run as I had the night before. That moment arrived within a few minutes when a line of charging police, shields up and batons drawn, drove forwards, forcing the Catalan mass back towards the river. The crowd split as it reached the banks, our section flowing across the bridge while the other fanned out along the banks.

From that position we stood and bore witness as the night unfolded: the creeping clouds of teargas that scratched at the sinuses, the ebb and flow of the determined protesters, the cacophony of cheers and songs that fought with, and often defeated, the near-constant explosions from police weapons. Eventually the police decided to retreat, disappearing into their vans and racing off to another part of the town. The crowd, in response, rushed forward once more, reclaiming this part of their city as another wave of Catalan lyrics filled the air.

By now it was almost midnight and, with a visit to Barcelona planned the next day, we decided to make our way back into the old town as the turbulence behind us began to dissipate. But as we ascended the cathedral steps the violence suddenly returned. We thought for a moment that the protests had finally reached the old town, but quickly realised that it was waves of sound that were in fact crashing into the unyielding cathedral walls before breaking into the alleys and side streets all around.

No matter how this particular night ended, the battle being fought by these people felt to us far from over.

A week has now passed, and as I sit here writing about my brief time in Girona, the clearest image to form in my mind is not the cloud of tear gas rising over the streets, or the burning barricade or the crowds running for cover; but nor is it the beautiful, contorted streets of the old town, the view from the city walls or the awe-inspiring grandeur of the cathedral.

Rather something simpler: a postbox in the middle of town.

It stands on its little patch of ground just like any other, its brilliant yellow paint radiating in the sunlight, while that cheering, whistling, rebellious crowd of all ages marches past, demanding liberty, justice and democracy.

And on it, in sharp black letters, has been written: "Catalonia does not surrender".

Girona 5
"A postbox in central Girona on which protesters have written." | Author's photograph. All rights reserved.

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