Civil unrest following the sentencing of Catalonian independence movement leaders is likely to cause widespread disruptions and may turn violent in the short-to-medium term. Independence activists started protesting immediately following the Spanish Supreme Court’s sentencing announcement; many of these protests featured attacks on infrastructure that resulted in clashes with security forces. A split has emerged between established pro-independence organizations advocating for non-violent civil disobedience and a decentralized social media-based movement that has been accused of staging riots. Foreign businesses and travelers are unlikely to be targeted by violence, but still face a significant threat of collateral harm if caught up in any protests.
- Civil unrest relating to the sentencing will likely continue in the short term and will flare up following any significant developments. Significant disruption is likely to be a factor at all protests; Demonstrations may target transport services, with some vandalism possible against related infrastructure.
- Violence is possible at all protests; activists are using social media to coordinate activity and confound security forces.
- Foreign businesses and travelers are unlikely to be targeted by any protest actions, though there is a significant collateral threat of harm to bystanders. This is most likely to occur in Barcelona, where the largest protests are held in the city center.
Background and Sentencing
A secessionist movement in the Catalonia region of Spain has long been a cause of political tension between Madrid and Barcelona. This tension peaked in 2017 when the regional government (Generalitat de Catalunya) unilaterally staged an independence referendum on Oct. 1, followed by a declaration of independence Oct. 27. Madrid declared this move illegal, rescinded the region’s autonomy, and deployed federal security services to restore order and detain those responsible. Tensions have remained high in the intervening period with protests in Barcelona regularly drawing hundreds of thousands of participants. On Oct. 14, 2019, the Spanish Supreme Court delivered a guilty verdict for nine of the independence movement’s leaders, sentencing them to between 9 and 13 years in prison for sedition.
Civil Unrest in Response
Immediately following the Supreme Court’s announcement on the morning of Oct. 14, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to condemn the verdict. In one of the most dramatic examples, around 10,000 protesters blocked access to Barcelona El Prat Airport (BCN), resulting in clashes with police, the cancellation of 110 flights, and at least 115 reported injuries. Protests have continued across Catalonia since Oct. 14. Activists have blocked roads and railway lines, resulting in significant disruptions. Protests in city centers have escalated to violence. Additional protests have been organized through at least Oct. 26, and ad hoc protests are likely to take place at short notice.
A clear distinction is apparent between the established groups organizing protests in advance, and a decentralized group of activists using social media to manage confrontations with police, though there is often overlap with regard to location and participants. Well-recognized independence organizations, most notably the Catalan National Assembly (L’Assemblea Nacional Catalana, ANC), have staged protests throughout the region drawing tens of thousands of participants. The most significant protest so far is a march that began in five Catalonian cities Oct. 16, Berga, Girona, Tarragona, Terrega, and Vic, which will converge and arrive in Barcelona, Oct. 18, for a major demonstration. The arrival in Barcelona coincides with a general strike called by Catalonia-based unions that is likely to swell numbers at the demonstration and cause significant business and transport disruptions regionwide. All of these groups stress the importance of non-violence as part of their protests. The prearranged nature of actions organized by these groups means they can be avoided or mitigated by forewarned travelers.
Despite the call for peaceful demonstrations, riots have taken place in Barcelona each night since Oct. 14 and multiple demonstrations elsewhere have escalated to violence between police and protesters. A decentralized group of activists has been using social media to coordinate short notice protest activity and relay the locations of protesters and security forces’ in real time. An app created by the pro-independence group “Democratic Tsunami” has been a key tool enabling this behavior, though the group itself has condemned the violence at protests so far. Using these resources, violent protesters have been able to set up strategic barricades from which they have launched projectiles at police and limited security forces’ ability to implement preventative measures. Violent protesters often use the app to coordinate actions toward the end of establishment-organized protests, highlighting the fact that all protests should be avoided due to the possibility of violent escalation. While clashes have occurred at protests throughout the region, most of the violence has taken place at night in the Eixample district of Barcelona, where the largest protests have been held. As a result, a significantly increased security presence is likely to be visible in all major Catalonian population centers.
The largest and most disruptive protests are likely to take place in Barcelona; these are also the most likely to escalate to violence. Protest activity tends to be concentrated in the Eixample district, but could occur elsewhere in the capital. Likely protest locations include major thoroughfares, central squares, and outside government offices. The following locations have either seen significant protest activity since Oct. 14, or are likely locations based on precedent:
- Gran Via de les Cortes Catalanes
- Passeig de Gracia
- Passeig de Sant Joan
- Carrer de Mallorca
- Placa de Catalunya
- Placa de Tetuan
- Placa Universitat
- Parc de la Citadella
- Barcelona El Prat Airport (BCN)
Common protest locations in other urban centers include:
- Lleida: Placa Ricard Vines
- Girona: Placa 1 d’Octubre
- Tarragona: Placa Imperial Tarraco
Civil unrest relating to the guilty verdict is likely to continue in the short term with actions including protests, strikes, and disruption of transport infrastructure; the ANC has organized protests through at least Oct. 26 and additional actions are likely beyond that. Similarly, while momentum is high, a radical group of protesters are likely to continue to use social media to coordinate violent activity; this will primarily occur in Barcelona with more isolated incidents in Catalonian urban centers. Counterdemonstrations by federalist activists are likely to be staged more frequently as the disruption caused by the pro-independence activists wears thin; violence between rival protesters is likely in these instances.
While the number of protests and level of disruption is likely to subside in the short-to-medium term due to the natural attrition that affects any sustained protest movement; significant developments relating to the guilty verdict or the Catalonian independence movement itself will induce flare ups in activity. The announcements of Quim Torra, the pro-independence President of Catalonia, could be one such catalyst. Torra has so far been supportive of the civil unrest causing tensions with Madrid, going so far on Oct. 17 as to declare his support for a new vote on Catalonian independence in the near future. If the situation in Catalonia is seen to be getting out of hand. For example, if protest activity threatens to disrupt the national Nov. 10 elections, or if the regional police (Mossos d’Esquadra) appear insufficiently resourced or motivated to respond effectively, Madrid may opt to intervene directly as in 2017, possibly by sending federal security services to quell protests or suspending the regional parliament. Either move would result in a significant increase in violent civil unrest in the short term; this outcome appears unlikely at present but remains a possibility.
Businesses and travelers in Catalonia should exercise vigilance through at least the remainder of October, particularly in Barcelona. If possible, avoid all protests and security force deployments. Heed instructions from security services and leave the area at the first sign of a confrontation. Consider telecommunication options for offices based in areas with high protest activity. Check public transport schedules for disruptions and make alternative travel arrangements if necessary.
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