Spain’s Catalonia gripped by general strike to protest police violence during independence vote

 In World
Trade unions in Catalonia led a general strike Tuesday that closed down businesses and led to highway blockages in protest against police violence during the region’s chaotic independence vote.

Huge crowds poured through the streets of Barcelona in the latest act of defiance against the central government and its rejection of Sunday’s referendum that backed Catalonia’s long-held ambitions for autonomy.

Some marches were led by firefighters in orange jackets and yellow helmets, others were guided by leftist theater troupes and involvedfamilies with children in strollers.

Protesters — some riding on farm tractors — shut down major highways, including a long tunnel the crosses from northeast Spain into France. Schools, universities, offices, small businesses and bars across the region of 7 million people were closed.

In the morning, smaller groups of young people marched in their neighborhoods, with mimes heckling drivers and blocking tourist buses, urging them to join the strike.

Most shops and cafes had pulled their metal shutters down, but many resisted and reopened after the marchers passed.

Activists broke into an open bakery and grabbed bread. Several surrounded a deliveryman with a handcart loaded with milk cartons. He told them in tough Spanish — not in the region’s Catalan language — that he could care less about their strike and that they should get out of his way, or else.

When marchers tried to force a pharmacy to close its doors, Gregoria Pena, a retired banker, came to their aid.

“Leave them alone!” he shouted.

Pena, who opposed Sunday’s referendum, said he thought Catalans were being manipulated — “brainwashed” — by hardcore secessionists.

But after more than 2 million Catalans voted overwhelmingly Sunday in a chaotic, violent referendum to declare independence from Spain, many are asking: “Now what?” 

The European Union saw the referendum as a violation of the Spanish constitution and privately worried about other secessionist movements in Europe.

The lopsided vote Sunday is sure to be vigorously challenged in the Spanish courts, which declared the vote illegal before it was held. The central government in Madrid has described the referendum and its results as illegitimate.

There was no sign of contrition from Madrid that its national police and Guardia Civil militia had gone too far in trying to stop the vote, despite scenes of officers clad in riot gear firing rubber bullets, whipping people at polling stations with rubber batons and dragging some, including women, away by their hair.

Just the opposite: Spanish authorities generally commended the police. The Spanish foreign minister conceded Monday that some of the violence looked “unpleasant,” but the response by riot police was “proportionate,” he said.

According to the Catalan government, which announced the results early Monday, 90 percent of the voters chose independence. But turnout was low — 42 percent. More than 2.2 million people were reported to have cast ballots, Catalan authorities said, out of 5.3 million registered voters. 

Many Catalans who opposed independence had said they would not vote in the referendum, which they denounced as a sham.

Spanish Justice Minister Rafael Catalá warned Monday that any declaration of independence could cause the central government to invoke Article 155 of the country’s constitution, which allows Madrid to intervene in the running of an autonomous region.

“If somebody tries to declare the independence of part of the territory — something that cannot be done — we will have to do everything possible to apply the law,” Catalá said.

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