It is two o’clock on a Tuesday morning and in the seaside town of Canet de Mar a dozen people are hard at work in the darkness. Dressed in white laboratory overalls and goggles, they move silently, plucking cardboard yellow ribbons off trees. Some of them have long-handled gardening shears, which they use to cut down the ribbons that are out of arm’s reach. They gather up the debris in black bin liners and move on.
It may look like an eccentric gardening club but this is in fact a group of political activists who believe they are on the front line of the campaign against Catalan separatism.
The yellow ribbons have become a symbol of solidarity for nine Catalan independence leaders who are in jail awaiting trial for their alleged role in the outlawed referendum on secession held on October 1st, 2017. For the independence movement, the jailed nine are political prisoners. But that's not how this self-denominated "cleaning brigade" sees them.
“We are saying two things,” says one member of the brigade, a 40-year-old woman, who gives her name as “Sophie”. “Firstly, the streets have to be a neutral space; also, that we think [those in jail] are not political prisoners – we think they committed a coup d’état and deserve to be in prison.”
In recent months, the conflict over these symbols has become a new flashpoint in the Catalan crisis. Pro-independence activists put the ribbons up, claiming they have a democratic right to do so, and unionists remove them, arguing that they monopolise and politicise public space.
Threat to democracy
The independence movement casts the cleaning brigades as sinister, potentially violent, extremists whose propensity for roaming towns and cities at night with sharp tools makes them a threat to democracy. In this case, however, the reality is less dramatic.
The group is made up mainly of middle-aged women. Sophie, a professional scientist, has left her young daughter with friends to take part in this operation. The activists wear the white suits and goggles, they say, to avoid being identified and to symbolise cleanliness. But as they got changed into their uniforms in an empty car park beforehand, they were clearly nervous about how local people and the police might react to them.
“We feel like they are always marking the territory,” Sophie says of the independence movement. “We’re not [Spanish] nationalists, we just want things to be based on rights and not identities.”
At one point during the clean-up, a car belonging to the Catalan police, or Mossos d’Esquadra, drives slowly past, its two occupants taking a good look at Sophie and her companions. But the officers say nothing and move on. Later, a local man drives past and films the brigade on his phone and when the activists return to their cars, they see another man who appears to be taking pictures of their number plates.
“They call us fascists just because we take down the ribbons,” says Gabriel, a 53-year-old man who is closely involved in organising the cleaning brigades. He estimates that there are several hundred likeminded activists involved in this campaign across Catalonia.
“I’m Catalan, my family is Catalan, but we’ve got this problem whereby people get called fascists just because they speak in Spanish [rather than Catalan], or just because you don’t think like them,” he says.
He cites the case of the bar where he is speaking, whose owner was recently abused by pro-independence Catalans after he refused to let them put ribbons on the outside of his building. The owner, Manuel García, confirms this and shows video footage of the incident.
Apparent evidence of such excesses by both separatists and unionists circulates constantly, particularly on social media, where a frenzied trolling war is permanently being waged, as each side desperately seeks to present the other as the more violent or extremist.
In May, a group of masked men removed from Canet de Mar beach yellow crosses placed there in support of the jailed politicians, injuring three people who tried to stop them. There have been several other confrontations caused by disagreements over the symbols.
I'm Catalan, my family is Catalan, but we've got this problem whereby people get called fascists just because they speak in Spanish
Pro-independence Catalans tend to play down their region’s social fractures, warning that the media exaggerates them. But Gabi, like many unionists, paints a picture of riven families, broken friendships and social isolation for those in pro-independence communities who express constitutionalist sympathies. Expressing no support for any party, he lays much of the blame for this situation at the door of the political class.
"Catalonia is split down the middle right now," he says. "This is not a confrontation between Catalonia and Spain, it's Catalans against Catalans."
A year on from the divisive referendum, there is little sign of the tensions slackening. The anti-ribbon campaign is part of a broader backlash by unionists to make their presence felt, after years when expressions of Catalan nationalism predominated in the region.
One of the most effective constitutionalist initiatives has been Tabarnia, a satirical, fictional project advocating that the two most unionist provinces of Catalonia – Tarragona and Barcelona – break away from the rest of the region.
In March, the most visible face of Tabarnia, Albert Boadella, went to Waterloo, in Belgium, and stood outside the house where former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont was living in exile, appealing to him through a megaphone to take part in a meeting "at the lowest level". Boadella, who is an actor, has also lampooned his adversaries by announcing a "unilateral referendum" on Tabarnia's independence on October 12th, Spain's national holiday.
Such episodes have introduced a dose of humour to an issue in which both sides had been taking themselves very seriously indeed.
“Tabarnia is a satirical response to the world of those who want independence,” says Boadella. “But behind this fun and satirical idea are things which are related to reality.”
He is speaking in the cafeteria of a Madrid theatre where he is currently acting in a one-man show. Jailed during the dictatorship for a risqué stage performance, for the last decade Boadella (75) has refused to perform in his native Catalonia in protest at what he sees as the unhealthy rise of nationalism there.
“When you look objectively at what has happened in Catalonia it’s impossible to defend,” he says. “As a man of the theatre I often try to put myself in the head of both sides. But I can’t find arguments for [those who want independence]. And all the arguments they use are false, it’s all lies.”
Asked whether dialogue or compromise could help the situation, there is no trace of humour in his voice. “The Catalan issue doesn’t lend itself much to subtlety,” he says. “Either you’re in favour or you’re against. You can’t be in the middle.”
Stuck in the middle of Catalan standoff
The hardening of positions on both sides of the Catalan standoff has left some in the region feeling marginalised, particularly moderate unionists.
Roger Molinas opposes independence, but supports the idea of holding a formal, Scotland-style referendum, and he votes for the leftist coalition, Catalunya en Comú, which has eight out of 135 seats in the regional parliament.
“With so much confrontation and extremism, those of us who appeal for calm and shared sovereignty and who share certain points of view with both sides tend to get attacked by both sides,” says Molinas, who writes a blog on political issues under the pseudonym Arqueòleg Glamurós. “We end up in no-man’s land, accused of being ambiguous or equidistant.”
That has been a constant difficulty for Catalunya en Comú, whose leader, Xavier Domènech, recently stepped down, saying he was “exhausted”.
With the questions of self-determination and independence utterly dominating Catalan politics, the left is having a hard time. “When you have such a context of identity-based polarisation, the left is invisible,” Molinas says, complaining that social and economic issues have been pushed off the agenda.
At a grass-roots level, the unionist ribbon-cleaning brigades disturb him as much as those Catalans who want independence. As for Tabarnia, he sees it as “a joke that has stopped being funny and which wants to divide Catalonia along lines of identity, just the same as the pro-independence movement, albeit on a smaller scale”.