To Defend the Referendum, Catalans are Building a Republic From Street Assemblies Up

Steve Rushton
5 min readFeb 15, 2018


Madrid has escalated its suppression of Catalan democracy, continuing state violence and judicial control. International media frequently neglects to report that Catalan independence has been a long democratic process catalyzed by Spanish repression. But there is often another untold story: People power is driving the region’s independence and coordinating the long road to get there. Catalonia’s movement offers lessons in building counter-power and real democracy. But if the democratic will of Catalans gets suppressed, it sets a dangerous precedent for governments across Europe to criminalize dissent, imprison opponents and suffocate democracy.

Els Carrers Seran Sempre Nostres

When Catalans numbering in the hundreds of thousands chant “The street will always be ours,” it is hard to discount their voices — or their promise. I heard this chant in Barcelona on Oct. 3, 2017, two days after the referendum that was violently attacked by Spanish police and paramilitaries.

The referendum only went ahead due to the organization by local Committees to Defend the Referendum (CDRs). Based on neighbourhood assemblies, these groups also organised the general strike where all but a few businesses shut shop. If it was not for this form self organization — called autogestió in Catalan — President Carles Puigdemont would not have claimed independence on Oct. 27, 2017.

Countering the independence declaration, Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy declared Article 155, effectively calling for Marshall Law. Madrid ejected Catalonia’s government, enforcing fresh elections for December. Again, independence parties gained a majority in the Catalan Parliament, with increased vote share, helped by the CDRs.

The Latest Political Impasse

Rajoy and the Spanish Supreme Court have made it clear that Puigdemont will be arrested if he returns to Catalonia from his exile in Brussels. Madrid has openly threatened the newly elected speaker of the Catalonia Parliament. On Jan. 30, the threats meant the investiture of Puigdemont was delayed.

When thousands gathered around the Catalan Parliament that night, CDRs had again co-organized the demonstration. Scottish website Bella Caledonia encapsulated the reality of the situation by tweeting: “Riot police are lining up outside the parliament of a European country to stop the elected president entering. It’s 2018.”

Even mainstream outlets like The Economist are recognizing that Spain is quickly turning into a flawed democracy as it tries to quash a peaceful democratic movement too broad and too determined to be ignored.

Local Committees in Defense of the Republic

“Everyone has a reason that moves us to fight for democracy, independence and freedom. I have a daughter. I want her to be able to tweet what she wants, sing what she wants. But they are arresting people simply for tweeting, imprisoning people for simply signing a song against the police suppression,” explained Elisenda from a CDR in Barcelona.

The mother only became aware of the CDRs on the night of the Catalan referendum, when she joined to protect her local voting station, which was held at a school. Afterwards she became part of the swelling movement meeting weekly as a participatory assembly. Many more people have flooded into their local neighborhood CDRs, which went from defending the referendum to defending the result: a republic.

Local CDRs organize their own actions. Elisenda’s group recently organised a talk about commercial alternatives for electrical providers, banks and other corporations. It is part of a growing movement to move public support away from corporations that either support Spain’s governing Popular Party (PP) or left Catalonia altogether after the independence vote. People are encouraged to buy local, support cooperatives and endorse ethical alternatives like the renewable energy provider Som Energia.

“People are taking everyday actions for a republic,” said Elisenda.

CDRs Have Self-Organization in Their DNA

From the outset the CDRs were autonomous, which meant that Spanish authorities couldn’t shut down the referendum since each group organized in its own way. The bottom-up nature also means that the independence movement is crowd-sourcing its strategy and tactics.

“Instead of taking action to stop traffic, which we were worried would annoy people getting to work, we decided to do a performance at the traffic lights, so when cars stopped they saw us singing in yellow,” representing solidarity with political prisoners, she added.

Elisenda emphasised that the CDRs choose peaceful actions based on widespread public input. This form of participation is making the organizing bodies an effective tool that the Spanish government is now trying to tackle in the courts.

When we spoke last month on the day of the Catalan Parliament’s opening, I asked Elisenda whether the ongoing crackdown from Madrid is deflating the independence autogestió. She pointed toward an elderly women working at a stall by the entrance to the park surrounding Parliament.

“Look at these women, they all have grey hair and they have not stopped all morning. You can see the passion,” Elisenda said. “This is not something that the politicians tell us to do, but comes from below.”

Building the Republic from Below

“Collective gesture and mutual support, mass protests, hundreds of assemblies and cassolades [10pm nationwide noise protests] have dignified the struggle for self-determination and political freedoms. They have also opened a space for struggle,” reads the opening statement of Aixequem la República, a people-powered movement that formed in December. It translates as “Building the Republic from below”.

The document continues: “From firemen to teachers, students to peasants, dockworkers to clerks, migrants to feminists, trade unionism to the solidarity economy, from the cultural world to the neighborhood, from municipalism to committed journalism — an extraordinary capacity for collective construction has been deployed.”

More than 40 CDRs and other organizations, including the Catalan pro-independence party CUP, signed on to the initial statement, with more joining as it grows.

“Article 155 and repression from the Spanish state meant that people realized there was no magic independence. We could not just declare independence and Europe would welcome us with open arms,” said Iolanda Fresnillo about the platform.

Fresnillo explained that Aixequem la República was created as a means to focus dialogue around building Catalan sovereignty from the bottom up. Like the Scottish independence referendum, the CDRs and the uncertain political situation in Catalonia have politicized people who are now ready to listen to alternatives. For example, people in meetings are keen to hear about new economic models Fresnillo says she has been working on for years. “Suddenly you have an audience.”

Organizers are confident the movement will continue developing into the spring as it runs assemblies that seek to build an ethical Catalan Republic.

This effort is not about remaining “realistic” within the current political framework, adds Fresnillo. “We are asking for the impossible. But by being aware of the limits and risks, discussing the steps to build a fairer and more equal society, we need to do certain things, and we need to discuss what those things are.”

Originally published at on February 15, 2018.



Steve Rushton

Freelance journalist focused on political alternatives, universal rights and ecological survival