Barcelona: Bloodshed and anger marred the Catalan independence vote in northern Spain on Sunday, as riot police stormed polling stations to seize ballot boxes, beating and firing rubber bullets at would-be voters.
Barcelona mayor Ada Colau said more than 460 people had been injured in “police charges against the defenceless population”.
Video shared on social media showed riot police using force to take the ballot boxes and move would-be voters away, leaving some voters with head wounds and one with a reported broken hand.
Spain’s Interior Ministry said 11 agents of the police and Guardia Civil had been injured in clashes at polling stations. It tweeted video which they said showed protesters pelting police with rocks.
The attempt to suppress the vote appeared to have backfired, with more than a million votes reportedly cast in the poll that a Spanish court had deemed illegal and one which has resulted in the regional government threatening to take the government to court over its attacks on civilians.
One Barcelona voter, Mireia Bosch, arrived at her polling station to find a notice saying “you can’t vote here, police have seized the ballot boxes”.
She said she had planned to vote against independence but “now I am voting ‘yes’ because of the repression.”
She would go to another polling station, she said.
The Spanish government had responded “in the worst way” and she believed that the Catalan and Spanish governments now had to open talks on an official referendum, she said.
Hundreds in Barcelona had queued overnight, forming human shields to protect polling stations.
The Catalan government said less than 10 per cent of polling stations had been closed down, and defiant Catalonians mobilised to vote in anger at the Spanish government’s heavy-handed actions on Sunday morning.
Spanish authorities claimed to have had better success, closing another 350 of the more than 2000 stations in the region.
However in Barcelona, for every polling station closed down there were a handful within walking distance where police chose not to intervene.
Through social media, community action and sheer weight of numbers the region found ways around the government’s attempts to prevent the referendum – which had included using court orders to close the census’ web servers.
According to the Catalan government, their “IT systems were attacked in various ways”, and police had confiscated nine million ballots before voting day.
“We have been watched over by drones and helicopters day and night,” a spokesperson said.
The Catalan government shared a Google map showing polling stations still in operation. Some volunteers roped themselves to ballot boxes to protect them.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said Spain’s “repressive operation” had been unsuccessful.
“Police brutality will forever shame those who are justifying it,” he said.
In the face of “unjustifiable violence” the people of Catalan had offered a “calm, peaceful response”, he said.
Spanish vice president Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said the government had taken action “against, electoral material, never against people”, and was “making a great effort because the law must be respected”.
“It is all about defending centuries of coexistence and decades of stability,” she said.
She said the central government had successfully prevented the poll from taking place.
“The referendum has not been held. The government has disrupted something that had no democratic guarantees … something unconstitutional, undemocratic and contrary to our rules of coexistence,” she said.
“(The Catalan administration) is on a path of irrationality and must stop this irresponsibility. What was never legal now is unfeasible.”
Many opposed to independence stayed away from the polls, not wanting to legitimise the result.
Maria, a Barcelona local taking part in an anti-independence demonstration on Sunday, said she was not going to vote “because it’s illegal”.
She wanted a united Spain because it would give the country more strength, she said. In the lead-up to the referendum there had been lies “on both sides” about the effect of independence on the region’s economy, she added.
She was part of a march of flag-draped pro-unity protesters chanting “you can’t fool us, Catalonia is Spain”.
One of the most violent clashes in Barcelona came at a polling station in the Ramon Llull school.
Volunteer Marc Carrasco said hundreds of people had gathered at the school before daylight, aiming to peacefully prevent police from entering.
Half an hour before the polls opened “they tried to enter but it was impossible – people linked arms”, he said.
“A half hour later the police came back with guns and helmets. They jumped the fence. We went inside and closed the door but they crashed the door and seized the ballot boxes – and that was it.
“A few minutes later when they were leaving they were shooting plastic (rubber) bullets. There was a lot of that. They shot one guy in the eye.”
He shook his head at the Spanish police action.
“It’s so, so sad, it’s incredible,” he said. “Yes, yes, we have anger.”
“The Spanish answer was only police and the law – never a conversation, never, never democracy”.
There were more peaceful scenes at other polling stations, where voters put up with Spanish rain and slow queues.
They cheered and chanted “votarem!” (‘we will vote’).
Pol, 26, said he had waited all night in the queue to vote – finally getting his chance at 1pm, 17 hours since he joined the line.
“It’s a special feeling,” he said, beaming as he emerged from the voting station. “The most important thing is democracy, and the expression of democracy is to vote.
“I think the Spanish government has not done a good thing for its reputation today.”
A football match between FC Barcelona and Las Palmas was held behind closed doors on Sunday, amid fears that anger over the vote might spill into the stands.
In a statement the Barcelona club said it condemned the events in Catalonia which had taken place “to prevent its citizens exercising their democratic right to free expression”, and said the country’s football league had refused a request to postpone the game.
Players from the opposition Les Palmas side wore Spanish flags on their shirts in support of national unity.