Catalonia is everyone's business
Julian Assange has suddenly taken an interest in Catalonia. The Catalan Twitter community is active and close knit, and we all noticed his presence right away. Nobody had an explanation. He'd never expressed interest before, has no known family or friends in the area. But if a guy accused of rape and suspected of throwing an election but who also happens to be a world-famous transparency advocate with 350,000 followers on Twitter starts championing the right to self-determination and saying that Catalonia is the most important issue facing the west, how should you react?
I think it was his tweeting in Catalan that got the most attention here. Catalonia's thirst for recognition begins with language, a key, central, beloved part of the culture. The Catalan language is spoken at all but the most unionist events, including theater, political rallies, school performances, book presentations, PTA meetings, choir practice and more. At private social events, there is a constant mix of Catalan and Spanish, the proportions of which depend on the mix of speakers present. Practically everyone understands both but chooses to use each one based on their own preferences, or that of the people with whom they are interacting. In thirty years, I don't think I've ever witnessed an argument about language choice. Most people are extremely accommodating—almost always toward Spanish, occasionally toward Catalan—though they sometimes complain afterward in private. Still, Catalan remains a social elevator and since it is the vehicular language (in theory anyway) in all public schooling, it is a tool for social cohesion and for that favorite Catalan concept of convivència (getting along together).
So if it's a foreigner who's taken an interest in the language, well, there's no faster way to Catalans' hearts. Assange's involvement was immediately criticized by the unionist press, sparking conspiracy theories pointing to Russian meddling into Europe's affairs. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald noted that Assange and Edward Snowden, who had also written on behalf of Catalan democracy, were the two leading 'influencers' accounting for “1/3 of the traffic about #Catalonia. 150,279 tweets and retweets, 40,368 of which came from Assange,” the article's author breathlessly wrote.
My first thought, as a long-time Twitter activist is that that was a lot of tweets in two weeks. So I counted them. Assange tweeted about Catalonia exactly 86 times in the period up to September 24, referenced in the article. That means that 40,282 of Assange's tweets and retweets were indeed *retweets*—times that other people shared his tweets. Most, but happily not all, of those retweets were undoubtedly from Catalans, trying to take advantage of his notoriety in order to be heard themselves.
My second thought was, that it was hardly remarkable that those two users, with almost 4 million followers between them (the huge bulk are Snowden's with 3.4 million) would be the top influencers about a hashtag like #Catalonia (as opposed to Catalunya or Cataluña), since both independentists and unionists alike are overwhelmingly Catalan and Spanish speaking, and don't tweet in English. Making up 1/3 of the traffic about #Catalonia is certainly not the same as making up 1/3 of the traffic about Catalonia.
And my third thought was that as skeptical as I might be about Assange's motives, as frustrated as I am with his group's involvement in the election of the US president, as simply curious as I am about how Catalonia piqued his interest, I cannot help but be grateful that he is bringing attention to this struggle.
I have been tweeting about Catalonia, often in English, for eight years. Though originally from the United States, I have lived here off and on since 1987. My children are bilingual and bicultural Catalan-Americans and we are currently based in Barcelona. I have written and published several books about Catalonia in English, and am the former International Chair of the grassroots pro-independence Catalan National Assembly, having been the top-vote getter in its National Board elections two years in a row. And while I have a fairly large following in social media, painstakingly accumulated tweet by tweet, I surely don't get the attention that those two do.
And it's a shame, because Catalonia's independence process is unique and exemplary. When else in the history of the world has a people attempted to create a new country peacefully? What is going on in Catalonia is an exercise in democracy. Frustrated with their relationship with Spain, Catalans first tried to take advantage of near perfect political conditions to try to improve things through negotiation (with the Statute of Autonomy in 2006). When that statute was brutally whittled down by boastful politicians and a politicized Constitutional court, independence activists began to organize marches, debates, and in 2009 a first non-official, non-binding referendum in the tiny town of Arenys de Munt. A quixotic attempt reminiscent of Berkeley's votes against nuclear arms, the Arenys poll earned a prohibition from a Spanish judge (while she approved a same-day fascist march in the town) and national attention, sparking the celebration of 500 more informal polls, a massive volunteer movement, the Catalan National Assembly itself, and seven million-plus person marches in a population of 7.5 million over the course of seven years. All peaceful. No angry shouting, no burned garbage cans, no broken windows. Democracy in action. Meanwhile, Catalan politicians insisted on negotiating with Spain. 18 times they presented proposals to Madrid, and 18 times Madrid has refused to even talk. And still the Catalan people insist on being heard, on having a voice, on being able to vote.
Spain says voting on independence is illegal, impossible, against the constitution. It doesn't matter to them that Catalans have mobilized, debated, democratically elected a pro-independence majority to the Parliament in the highest turnout elections in Catalonia's history, approved a referendum law and convened an official, binding referendum. Polls consistently point to more than 80% of Catalonia's people who want to decide the matter in a referendum.
Indeed, Spain has pulled out all the stops to block the referendum, scheduled for this Sunday, October 1st. It has confiscated millions of printed ballots, raided Catalan government offices, arrested Catalan civil servants, fined and barred from office political leaders, accused peaceful demonstration organizers of sedition, taken down more than one hundred forty web sites whose principal crime was encouraging people to vote, taken away 'democracy' posters from activists legally putting them up on kiosks, filled Catalonia with Spanish paramilitary police, ordered the sealing of schools and clinics slated to be used as polling places, and threatened the general populace. All the while cynically insisting in the rule of law and democracy.
Still, Catalans respond with humor, peaceful firm resistance, and massive mobilization. When Spain put up their extra police in a Warner Brothers cruise ship decorated with Tweety Bird and Daffy Duck, Catalans laughed and championed for Tweety's freedom. When Spanish paramilitary raided a Catalan newspaper accused of printing ballots, Catalans brought them carnations and sang to them. When Spanish police arrested the Secretary of Economy, 40,000 Catalans peacefully filled the streets, singing and chanting and insisting that they be freed. When Spain's attorney general directed the Catalan police to seal off polling places, a campaign emerged overnight promising a weekend sleep-in to keep them open.
So instead of questioning Assange's motives, instead of criticizing him about pointing out that “what happens in Catalonia will create a precedent for liberty, or oppression, for the entire Western world”, my question is where are the rest of you? How can you sit by and do nothing? You speak of democracy, about the power of the vote, about non-violent activism, about mobilization, and do nothing about Catalonia, where those values are held dear and exercised to an absurd degree of purity. Here is a living example of what democracy means, and the world stands by mostly silently while a huge power like Spain, where kickbacks to the current President are published on the front page of the newspaper one day and ignored the next, pretends this is about legalities.
Sure, Snowden's tweeting about human rights and self-determination from a country where the former are under constant threat and just speaking about the latter is punishable by a 7-year jail term might be ridiculous, but *not* sharing that information is far worse. On October 1st, Catalans stood up to Spanish police at their polling places and insisted on voting on their political future. Now is the time to speak up for democracy and to speak up for Catalonia, no matter who you are.