Catalans stop work to protest police force during referendum

Demonstrators with "estelada", or Catalonia independent flag, gather in protest in front of the Spanish police station in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Labor unions and grassroots pro-independence groups are urging workers to hold partial or full-day strikes and demonstrations throughout Catalonia to protest alleged brutality by police during a referendum on the region's secession from Spain that left hundreds of people injured. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

BARCELONA, Spain– Striking workers, students and hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan towns Tuesday to protest police violence, adding pressure to Spain’s unprecedented political crisis as central authorities mull how to respond to separatists’ plans to push ahead with secession.

Separatist leaders in Catalonia have vowed to declare independence in the northeastern region this week following Sunday’s disputed referendum.

The central government has declared the vote illegal and invalid, but Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has not disclosed what his response to the independence bid will be, or if he intends to go as far as suspending the region’s self-government.

The city’s urban guard said that 700,000 people joined Tuesday afternoon’s marches in Barcelona, after thousands more took part in scattered protests in the morning.

With protesters still in the streets, Spain’s King Felipe VI made a television appearance in the evening and accused authorities in Catalonia of deliberately bending the law and undermining coexistence, adding that the Spanish state has a duty to ensure unity and constitutional order in the country.

“Today, Catalan society is fractured,” Felipe said in his address to the nation, referring to the political crisis as “very serious moments for our democratic life.”

Catalan officials say that 90 percent of the 2.3 million people who voted Sunday were in favor of independence. But fewer than half of those eligible to vote turned out. The vote was boycotted by most of Spain’s national parties on grounds that it was illegal and lacked basic guarantees, such as transparency, a proper census or an independent electoral governing body.

The king’s call for unity and the blame put on the Catalan authorities was interpreted as laying the ground for an upcoming response from Rajoy. The prime minister held talks on Tuesday with national opposition leaders, but no multi-partisan consensus emerged from meetings.

“He made no mention of dialogue, and that’s worrying,” said Victor Lavagnini, a sports journalist who joined protests at the gates of the National Police headquarters in downtown Barcelona. “He seemed nervous, like everybody is, but showed no sensibility toward the injured.”

The strike affected bus and subway services, shops, schools and other businesses, and disoriented tourists scrambled to find open cafeterias to avoid the protests.

There were moments of tension when a handful of picketers forced the closure of shops that had remained open in the city’s famed Las Ramblas boulevard, but elsewhere the demonstrations were largely peaceful.

Separatist groups and unions had initially called for strikes to be held in support of Catalan leaders pushing ahead with the independence declaration. But many non-separatists were also drawn to the streets following Sunday’s crackdown on the referendum vote.

In Barcelona’s Catalonia and University squares, a sea of demonstrators waved flags, most of them “esteladas” embraced by those wishing secession, but also plenty of Spanish national flags.

People are angry, very angry,” said Josep Llavina, a 53-year-old self-employed worker who had traveled to Barcelona from a nearby town to participate in the protest outside the regional offices of Spain’s National Police.