Barcelona, the capital of the Catalan region and the most visited city in Spain, has spent the last week roiled by protests that began on October 14 in response to a ruling by Spain’s Supreme Court that resulted in the jailing of nine Catalonian separatist leaders.
Following the verdict, thousands took to the streets of Barcelona, draping themselves in red-and-gold-striped Catalonia flags and chanting for the release of the political prisoners and for Catalan independence from Spain.
At the airport, police decked out in full riot gear battled protesters, some of whom tossed fire extinguishers and trash cans and used luggage trolleys to block escalators. Graphic images of the airport clashes went viral on social media and, according to the AENA airport operator, 108 flights were canceled as a result.
Throughout the week, the demonstrations turned increasingly violent, as tens of thousands clashed with police across the city. On Barcelona’s famous thoroughfare Las Ramblas, protesters set up barricades and lit fires; pro-independence activists burned cars and hurled rocks and firecrackers at police—even aiming, according to reports, “pyrotechnic” objects at police helicopters circling overhead. Police in turn fired tear gas and foam bullets to disperse the crowds.
The largest demonstrations took place on Friday, October 18, the day a general strike was called. Thousands of protesters converged on Barcelona from five surrounding Catalan cities including Girona and Vic, blocking traffic as they walked to the capital along highways. That day, most stores, restaurants, and other businesses in the city center closed. Major avenues including Passeig de Gracia and Via Laeitana were barricaded to cars as an estimated half-million protestors marched throughout the day and into the evening. Even the city’s iconic Sagrada Familia shut its doors due to more than a reported 4,000 protesters blocking access to the grounds. Euronews reported that 182 protesters and 101 police were injured in the Friday violence.
Over the weekend the protests continued; according to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, some 6,000 people took part in a Saturday demonstration calling for the resignation of the regional interior minister, Miquel Buch.
On Sunday evening, a largely peaceful demonstration took place near the city’s police headquarters.
El Pais reported on a statement by Spain’s caretaker interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska that 288 police officers had been injured in the weekend street violence, and that 194 people were arrested, 70 of whom have been brought before a judge and 18 remanded to custody.
What caused the protests?
Verdicts were handed down by the Spanish court sentencing nine Catalan politicians and activists to jail terms of between nine and 13 years for acts of sedition, among other charges, related to Catalonia’s 2017 bid for independence from Spain.
At that time, the ruling separatists in the Catalan parliament declared independence following an October 1 voter referendum that was deemed illegal by the Spanish government. The government invoked Article 155 of the Spanish constitution which “allows the Government to take measures in exceptional cases to restore constitutional order or to prevent any great damage to the general interests of Spain.” The goverment dissolved the Catalan parliament and jailed many Catalan leaders.
The former Catalonian president, Carles Puigdemont, escaped to Brussels and has evaded an extradition warrant issued for him. In response to the current unrest, Puigdemont wrote an October 21 op-ed for Time, condemning the sentences and urging the Spanish government to reconsider its stance:
“It is more urgent than ever before that the Madrid government sits down and talks. [Spain Prime Minister] Pedro Sanchez has to pull his head out of the sand and deal with reality, even if it is a reality that he does not like and with which he feels uncomfortable. Convicting people to 13 years in prison, using repression as the only method of response and assigning the work of politicians to the courts has already proven not to work over the past two years. Their remedy has proven far worse than the illness.”
What should you do if you’re traveling to Barcelona?
As of Monday, October 21, the city was largely back to normal, with streets open and public transportation mostly running on schedule. Sanitation workers had cleaned up the debris and broken glass, and tourists and locals were out in full force, shopping, dining, and seeing the city sites. The airport is functioning normally.
A travel advisory issued by the U.S. Embassy in response to the civil unrest, expired on October 21.
No further demonstrations have been announced and there is currently no travel advisory in place.
However, the pro-independence movement in Catalonia is strong and it’s possible things could flare up again at any time.
The U.S. State Department recommends anyone traveling to Spain when there is unrest to “be aware of your surroundings” and “avoid demonstrations and crowds.” You should also be prepared to adjust your travel plans and consider relocating to another area if a protest is scheduled near where you are staying.
Also monitor the local news for updates. The following English-language websites cover Barcelona news:
- El Pais (English edition)
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