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The challenge of matching Catalonia’s past National Day rallies

The independence movement hopes for a massive turnout on Sept 11 despite the pandemic and an improved political climate

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11 September 2021 08:34 AM

by

Alan Ruiz Terol | Barcelona

Over the past decade, the massive pro-independence rallies held on September 11 coinciding with Catalonia’s National Day, or Diada, have been an annual show of force that captured international attention and shaped domestic politics.

But the stunning success of past demonstrations has raised the bar so high that anything short of hundreds of thousands of protesters can be seen as a political defeat.

This year, activists at the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the group organizing the mobilization, face an even greater challenge, as both the pandemic and the improved political climate between Catalan and Spanish governments could potentially dissuade attendees. Despite this, they still expect at least 100,000 people to come out as there will be buses transporting protesters to Barcelona from over 100 other cities and towns on Saturday.

  • "Independence is possible and as necessary as ever"

    Elisenda Paluzie · ANC president

ANC president Elisenda Paluzie has stressed that all safety guidelines will be followed, and insists on the need to take to the streets in large numbers because "independence is possible and as necessary as ever" — and, perhaps most importantly, she says pro-independence parties must feel the pressure from their supporters.

The independence conflict reached its peak of political tension in the fall of 2017, when Catalonia held a unilateral referendum that was cracked down upon by Spain with many top politicians and activists either jailed or forced to leave in exile. But, a change of leadership both in the Catalan and Spanish governments and the release of the imprisoned leaders have opened a door for dialogue, with bilateral meetings due to resume the week after this year’s National Day rally.

However, Paluzie sees the pardons as counterproductive for the independence movement —"They portray Spain as benevolent," she said—, and the dialogue table as a distraction.

"We’re focusing on something unrealistic, which is for Spain to respect our right to self-determination and agree on a referendum, so the more time we waste on that, the less we spend defending viable ways of achieving independence," said Paluzie.

This year’s rally will be held in Barcelona, starting at 5:14 pm in Plaça Urquinaona (the scene of violent clashes between police and rioters following the sentencing of pro-independence leaders in 2019), and ending at the Ciutadella park, where the Catalan parliament is located.

Unlike last year, when the ANC organized over a hundred different events spread across Catalonia to avoid large crowds, pro-independence activists are hoping that high vaccination rates and the reduction of new infections allow for a single demonstration without social distancing—one that will most certainly look up to some of the most memorable pro-independence rallies held since 2012.

2012: And so it begins

The first September 11 demonstration was called by the pro-independence Catalan National Assembly in 2012. Their motto and objective was simple: “Catalonia, new European state:”

There is some debate over how many people actually turned up in what would become a trend at future demonstrations. Organizers claimed they managed to assemble 2 million people in Barcelona, while the Spanish government delegation in Catalonia rebuked this, stating that there were only 600,000. Meanwhile, the Catalan government and local police found a middle ground with an estimate of 1.5 million people, perhaps a more reliable figure.

Pro-independence rally on Catalonia's National Day, on September 11, 2012 (by Oriol Campuzano)

The Catalan president at the time and leader of the now-defunct CiU party, Artur Mas, traveled to Madrid after the protests to demand a better financial deal for Catalonia from his Spanish counterpart, Mariano Rajoy. Rajoy rejected the request and Mas started advocating for Catalonia’s right to self-determination. This marked the beginning of nine years (and who knows how much longer) of talk of independence in Catalonia.

2013: Citizens lock arms in 400km chain

The Catalan National Assembly and Òmnium Cultural organized a rally inspired by the events of 1989 in which people joined hands across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to protest against the USSR. 

Catalans stood similarly together, arm in arm, crossing Catalonia from north to south, with the Camp Nou even opening its doors so that the chain could pass through it. An estimated 1.6 million participated. 

2014: Streets overflowing with a staggering 1.8 million people

Two months before the non-binding November 9 vote on independence, protesters made it pretty clear how they would be voting.

Protesters wore yellow and red t-shirts and formed a giant V with the colors of the Catalan flag through two of Barcelona’s major streets, Gran Via and Diagonal. 

An estimated 1.8 million people participated that year in a figure that has not been surpassed since. The culmination of the protests was at 5:14 pm when out of the 1.8 million people present, one girl cast a vote in a ballot box placed at the point of the V. The time chosen represented the year 1714, when Catalonia was defeated by Spain in the Succession War and lost political independence. 

Catalonia's National Day pro-independence rally in 2014 (by Helena Lins)

2015: Values of the future Catalan Republic

In 2015, pro-independence supporters laid out plans for the future of Catalonia. Protesters, this year estimated at 1.4 million, carried pointed banners. 

People were divided into ten differently colored sections, each representing a different value of the future Catalan republic including social justice, solidarity, culture, democracy, and sustainability. 

2016: Protesters extend sphere of influence

Protesters this year spread across five different cities across Catalonia: Berga, Barcelona, Lleida, Salt, and Tarragona. Once again the divide represented different dimensions of Catalonia as an independent state. However, this year the number of protesters more than halved to 800,000.

2017: Run-up to the referendum

Less than three weeks before the October 1 referendum on independence, the September 11, 2017 protests were known as the ‘Diada del Sí’ (‘National Day of Yes’), given what protesters hoped the outcome of the referendum would be. 

Protesters were brought on buses from all around the country wearing yellow shirts for independence and held a minute of silence in memory of the victims of the Barcelona and Cambrils terrorist attacks in August of that same year. 

This year protesters created a giant ‘plus’ sign in a demonstration at the intersection of major roads. Large pro-independence banners were also passed along over the crowds. Crowds for this year were estimated to be at around 1 million.

2018: A fight to free political leaders

Protesters gathered to demand the release of jailed political leaders who were charged for calling a referendum and trying to split from Spain in 2017.

The number of protesters was comparable to the previous year, estimated at around 1 million.

Demonstration on Catalonia's National Day in 2018, demanding the release of jailed activists (by Ainoa Blaya)

In 2018, protesters donned t-shirts bearing the slogan: ‘We’re making the Catalan republic.’

Much like in 2014, at 5.14 pm an act of symbolism was carried out, once again representing the fall of Catalonia in 1714. Total silence fell, followed by a wave of sound from one end of Diagonal to the other where a wall was toppled, representing the direct rule imposed by Madrid following the independence referendum.

2019: Lowest turnout ahead of long-awaited verdict

With 600,000 attendees, according to Barcelona’s local police, 2019’s rally saw the lowest turnout for a National Day demonstration since the independence movement went mainstream in 2012. Still, protesters managed to flood Barcelona’s Plaça Espanya and Gran Via avenue.

A month later, the sentencing of 9 independence leaders convicted of sedition for organizing the 2017 independence push unleashed a wave of protests that looked nothing like the National Day rallies, with hundreds injured following a week of altercations in Barcelona and other cities.

2020: Protesting despite Covid-19

The Catalan National Assembly opted for a highly de-centralized Diada with over 130 events all across Catalonia, as well as abroad, in an effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

All events combined gathered around 59,500 people, ranging from the 1,700 that attended an event in Badalona to the 12 people that gathered in Taüll, a small town in the Pyrenees.

Under the motto "The duty to build a better future, the right to be independent," these de-centralized protests were complemented by online activities striving to create "a great virtual network" as well as Covid-19 fundraisers.

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  • The 2019 pro-independence protest in Barcelona on Catalonia's National Day (by Andreu Puig)

  • The 2019 pro-independence protest in Barcelona on Catalonia's National Day (by Andreu Puig)

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