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article imageIn Catalonia, frustration boils over into violence

By Daniel Bosque with Rafa Marti in Madrid (AFP)     Oct 17, 2019 in World

After years of peaceful separatist demonstrations, violence finally exploded on the Catalan streets this week, led by activists frustrated by the political paralysis and infuriated by the Supreme Court's conviction of nine of its leaders over a failed independence bid.

Since 2012, the independence camp has taken pride in its huge colourful marches of hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating their support for separation from Spain in a friendly, festival-like atmosphere.

"The revolution of smiles," they called it.

But two years ago, a failed attempt to hold a referendum banned by Madrid and a short-lived declaration of independence changed all that.

"Now the smiles are over," demonstrators chanted recently not long before the protest movement took a darker turn with angry activists going on the rampage following Monday's verdict condemning nine leaders over the disastrous independence bid.

"We haven't gained anything since the first peaceful demonstrations began in 2012 and they have crossed every red line with this sentence," said Lluis, a 21-year-old student who was about to set fire to a large wheelie bin in Barcelona.

Those who appear most wound up are the youngsters, some of them just teenagers with little experience of demonstrations, who flit between groups of friends and brazenly confront the police with a provocative and flippant attitude.

- Pacifism 'doesn't work' -

For many independence supporters, the verdict has been "a massive attack", explains Jordi Mir, a professor at Barcelona's Centre for Social Movement Studies.

"Until now, there have been marches, human chains but for part of (Catalan) society, it's not enough, it doesn't get any results," he told AFP.

"And in such an exceptional situation, they have decided to take it a step further."

But for the most radical, they're not just angry with Madrid, they're angry with their own regional government over its failure to keep the 2017 promise of an independent state, despite being run by secessionists.

Much of the criticism has focused on Catalonia's pro-independence president Quim Torra, who has actively encouraged the protests and even sanctioned civil disobedience.

But with his government also responsible for the regional police, who are tasked with controlling the demonstrations, it leaves him in a tricky position.

"Torra criticised the sentence but then sent the regional police to suppress demonstrations by the very people who are fighting it," said Oriol Gonzalez, a 23-year-old member of the student union.

"It's very hypocritical," he said, as another fellow student criticised the lack of leadership.

"We need leaders, we don't have any leaders, they don't support us," said Olga, 20, who did not want to give her family name.

And the shift in approach has been steady. Two years ago, supporters limited themselves to acts of civil disobedience like blocking roads.

Last year, there were occasional outbursts of violence as anger grew over Madrid's handling of the aftermath of the 2017 crisis and the deadlock within Catalan secessionist circles about how to advance their cause.

- Lack of leadership -

Berta Barbet, a political scientist who runs the Politikon analysis blog, said the frustration stemmed from the failure "of a project which had generated a great deal of enthusiasm but didn't work".

She also pointed to the lack of leadership following the 2017 crisis which saw 12 leaders put on trial and six others fleeing abroad to avoid prosecution.

And then there was the loss of confidence in the political actors who failed to make good on the pledge of an independent state.

"Without political leadership, it's normal to see groups emerging that express their frustration in a rather more violent way," she said.

Over the past two years, the movement has failed to agree on a strategy to move forward and divisions between the pragmatists and the radicals seem to grow wider by the day.

But for Mir, the problem is less one of leadership than one of direction.

"It is very difficult to know what these demonstrators are looking for: to declare independence? Get more support? A referendum?" he wonders.

Given this lack of vision, it is hard to see a future for the protest movement, says Barbet.

"Without any clear demands, it's difficult to see it going anywhere."

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