When states have seceded, very rarely has it been done peacefully, calmly and legally. Very rarely is the larger, patron state willing to let a part of it break away and find its own self determination. Recently, in the midst of Catalans voting for their independence, there have been outcries that their declarations of independence are illegal. With these outcries came the force of law as judges ordered the police to dismantle the voting stations made by Catalans in support of their independence. The Catalan referendum is different from that of Scotland who peacefully held a vote on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom. Under Spain’s 1978 constitution, regions are prohibited from declaring their independence and fragmenting the country, unlike the Scotland’s referendum which was established as an agreement between the governments of Scotland and the United Kingdom. So while to many Spaniards this is simply an enforcement of law, to Catalans and to the world, this has created a narrative that will set the scene for global support of Catalan independence.
– Protesters flying the flag of Catalonia
The situation is reminiscent of India under British rule. While there are many differences between India and Catalonia, there is one clear similarity. Gandhi’s protests and cries for freedom had the tactic of eliciting the cruelty of the colonial government. The British had created the narrative that they brought order and were model example of efficient governance. However, once the world saw how quickly the British empire resorted to violence to quell the peaceful protests of Gandhi, British rule began to quickly lose its legitimacy.
We see this again in Catalonia. Outside of Spain, most of the world has little knowledge of Catalonia, let alone their culture and their relationship to Spain. They have been seen broadly as being the same as the Spanish with only slight differences. Therefore Catalan independence was seen as unnecessary as Spain carried the image of a fair democracy.
Once the news started to portray Spanish police beating Catalans, using tear gas, and disrupting voting stations, the once neutral third party viewer begins to question exactly how different Catalonia is from Spain. Neither have there been organized acts of aggression by Catalonia on Spain, adding to the narrative that Spain is using violence to suppress a people who are trying to peacefully advocate for their independence. While a handful of acts by police are not enough to completely delegitimize Spanish authority, it has greased the wheels of independence. Since the incidents with the police, Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel has openly condemned the violence, and UK Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, asked Prime Minister Theresa May to intervene “to find political solution to the crisis.” As the violence persists, more world leaders are catching notice and a global empathy is beginning to swell for Catalonia.
– A woman injured on staircase from the aftermath of protests; Spanish police disrupting a demonstration; Confrontation between Catalan protester and police
The monopoly of violence is a term mentioned in the works of Jean Bodin and Max Weber, two early political theorists. This term does not simply mean that the state controls all the means by which to do harm, it also means the state is the only source of legitimacy in the region. It is complete control over the rule of law and the way in which it is administered. But the irony is a state’s monopoly of violence can be the very thing that takes its authority away. The pro Spanish opinion on the matter is simply that the Catalan voters broke the law and engaged in action that was unconstitutional and they are therefore susceptible to the force of law in the form of violence by police. However, the actions by police have raised eyebrows abroad and it begs a comparison to police brutality in the United States. Black Lives Matter is an American organization devoted to end of police brutality and the shootings of unarmed people by police. The organization gets its name because many of the unarmed men women or children have been killed have been African American. Despite the outcry there is a sizeable opinion by those who say the people deserved to die because they were not complying with the law. While there are nuances to the facts of each police shooting, they nonetheless catch global attention and the use of violence is seen as disproportionate, thereby prompting a tension between people and the state that, when lasting decades, becomes ingrained in culture.
– A protester stares down police during a protest of police brutality in Chicago; A quote and picture of Max Weber
This is the comparison with police action in Catalonia. The non violent voting by the Catalans has somehow forced the Spanish government’s hand, and as each photograph of a bloodied Catalan surfaces, the world’s approval of Spain drops further. What was once seen as policing a region of Spain will gradually start to look more like occupation. India, South Africa, the Belgian Congo and the United States of America have experienced the same phenomena. They were over zealous in suppressing a non violent movement in their respective countries and resorted to violence. It was not the violence alone that lost their legitimacy and prompted global support to their protesters, it was the narrative brought forth by the photographs and videos. It should also be noted that in each movement in India, South Africa, the Belgian Congo and the United States, protests were seen as illegal in some form, protesters were thrown in jail and the government mistakenly relied on justifying its brutality in response to nonviolence on the simple notion of illegality. Now in Spain we see a new narrative being created that has not only caught the world’s attention but it has roused once neutral Catalans into opposition. While there has been civil discussion on the matter, there is a competition outside of the negotiation room on how the image of Spanish authority over Catalonia will be portrayed.
This is especially the case for a European country. The world catches notice when things happen in Europe. In Africa, Asia and Latin America things like this happen all the time and get overlooked. There is therefore a paradox. Do these things happen all the time because they get overlooked, or do they get overlooked because they happen all the time? It is a harsh truth, but a truth. By being a European country, the spotlight on Spain is more intense and scrutiny by its neighbors is likely to cut deeper. Only time will tell in how the narrative of Catalonia unfolds.