The World

Barcelona Burning

The mysterious group behind Catalonia’s recent unrest.

Demonstrators light fires on Oct. 19 in Barcelona.
Demonstrators light fires on Oct. 19 in Barcelona. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

BARCELONA, Spain—A 10-foot-high wall of fire was burning outside my apartment. In a building above, a middle-aged woman screamed from her balcony, “We are pacifists! We don’t believe in violence!” An angry shout came back from the street, “The pacifists are in prison!” The young protester who had shouted was among those who had started the fire. As the woman kept up her desperate cry, the young man yelled back, “Retard! Shut up.” Other young protesters, ranging in age from 16 to their early 20s, started to drown out the woman with their own chants: “This is self-defense—not violence,” and, “The streets will always be ours.”

Two hours earlier, around 7 p.m. on Oct. 16, a flood of people had streamed down the vital main streets of Gran Via, which cuts across the width of the city, and Carrer de la Marina, which runs toward the sea. Once gathered at the intersection, the thousands-strong crowd began hurling toilet paper rolls in every direction. People were laughing, jovial. They were protesting against Monday’s sentencing of nine Catalan leaders to jail terms of between nine and 13 years for staging an independence referendum two years ago—a referendum the Spanish government never recognized and considered illegal. The protest was convened by Committees for the Defense of the Republic (CDR), a network of groups originally formed to facilitate the referendum and then to fight for the unrecognized “republic” the Catalan Parliament declared afterward. Another mysterious group called Tsunami Democrátic also backed the protests, encouraging its followers on social media to attend and seek out QR codes from other protesters to activate its purpose-built app aimed at streamlining mobilizations.

There were surprisingly few Catalan national flags in the crowd, suggesting that the protests had drawn a broader coalition of those opposed to the sentences but not necessarily pro-independence. A lot of the crowd was also young—in stark contrast to the recent Oct. 1 protest to mark the anniversary of the referendum.

After the mass toilet papering, the huge crowd flowed down Carrer de Aragó, blocking the road and turning off when they reached Passeig de Sant Joan, another main boulevard that leads towards the city’s main park, Ciutadella—home of the Catalan regional Parliament. Instead of heading there, the crowds stopped a couple of blocks down, in front of the Ministry of Interior. More toilet paper was thrown, some fireworks let off. It all seemed good-natured.

The corner of Passeig de Sant Joan and Carrer de Aragó happens to be the block I live on, and I decided to watch the crowds from my local bar terrace on the corner. Unusually, the barman asked me to pay upfront in case he had to close in a hurry. I chuckled, thinking he was being overly cautious.

Over the next few minutes, the police presence in front of the ministry thickened. And then suddenly a phalanx of riot police armed with batons and shields rushed into the crowds. The majority of the people I’d seen demonstrating were peaceful, but I later learned that a firework had been launched at a helicopter hovering above the crowds, and that glass bottles had been thrown at officers. Now there was panic as people fled en masse down side streets and up Passeig de Sant Joan in the direction of my apartment. Riot vans formed a cordon at the end of my block.

The crowds did not disperse, however. They reconvened at the other end of the block. One faction of protesters reacted immediately. Young, faces covered with bandanas, mostly male but not universally, these protesters began to push the large square bins that can be found on most blocks into the middle of the road and to set them on fire. In just a few minutes, a flaming barricade had been erected in the middle of the road.

An elderly man wearing braces and a red T-shirt emblazoned with Catalan colors and emblems lumbered over to one of the fires with an 8-liter water bottle and doused the flames. Then he went to a fountain on the street corner and started filling it up, before heading back to do so again. The young fire-starters argued with him: “If you put the fire out, the police will be able to get through!” They yelled at him to stop. He didn’t.

“I don’t think it will be at all effective, and it makes us look bad,” the man told me as he went to fill up the bottle again. His name was Jordi Martí, a 70-year-old local and independentista. “When the police come rushing in with the vans that could easily kill someone, the press won’t pick that up and instead will only focus on the fires,” he added. “If [the fires] would be effective, I would be the first to be there doing it. But it’s pointless.”

Increasingly frustrated with Martí, the protesters started to harangue him as he went about his work. “Stop, old man! What are you doing?” they cried. At one point someone kicked the water container out of his hands. Someone else threw a bottle as a warning shot. But others persuaded them to back off. Protesters not involved with the fire-starting also came to Martí’s defense. Following his example, others joined him and started filling up bottles at the fountain to put out the fires. Another group wearing bicycle helmets carried away pieces of furniture the fire-starters had set aside to add to the blaze.

But the fire-starters were determined. They retrieved the firewood when left unguarded. They were a mixed bag—students, antifascists, middle class, working class, youngsters from immigrant backgrounds, some teenagers, few much older than 20. Most were dressed in black, wearing hoodies, with bandanas or balaclavas covering their faces. Many were drinking cans of beer. Several of them were ripping the large paving stones out of the sidewalks and throwing them onto the curbs to break them into smaller pieces—ammunition for when the police arrived.

Finally, the flames were too high, the barricades formidable. Martí had given up trying to put out the flames, and the woman had stopped shouting from her balcony. The atmosphere was tense. Police lined the other end of the block in front of a dozen or so blue-flashing riot vans. A front line of protesters threw bottles and stones at the police from just behind the flaming barricade, a considerable distance. A larger group of protesters, around 500 or so, were gathered not far behind them.

As if signaling the commencement of battle, a protester wreathed in black heaved a long stick in the air and led protesters through the flames. A group of them also pushed a bin toward the police, intending to set it alight. Then the police came. The protesters immediately fled up the street. Dozens of officers in riot gear rushed at them, charging through the flames, followed by quickly advancing vans.

It was hard to believe that this fiery confrontation had taken place outside my apartment. After the battle fragmented down adjacent streets, a scene of considerable destruction was left behind. The flames would take hours to die down, leaving deep crevices in the road and sidewalk. The bins had been reduced to embers.

Similar disturbances occurred across the city’s central gridded district that night and would only escalate as the week wore on. Others would occur in cities across Catalonia. The trigger was fired as soon as the end of a long, damaging trial the previous Monday. That day, protests had been aimed at peaceful civil disobedience—but they would commence a tidal wave of demonstrations that would lead to chaotic disturbances more intense than Barcelona had seen in decades.

People hold placards reading "Spain: Sit and Talk" on Monday in Barcelona.
People hold placards reading “Spain: Sit and Talk” on Monday in Barcelona. Jose Jordan/AFP via Getty Images

On Oct.14, the political and civil society leaders who led the wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia in an ill-fated drive for independence from Spain two years ago, were finally convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds. All of the defendants were handed lengthy jail terms including 13 years for Oriol Junqueras, former vice president of the Catalan regional government.

Catalans have their own language, culture, and historical traditions, but support for independence was low until the conservative People’s Party stifled the region’s bid for greater autonomy in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The ruling PP government continued to ignore widespread calls for more autonomy over the following decade, leading to the unilateral referendum of 2017, the arrests of Catalan leaders, and a stalemate between the region and Madrid ever since.

Demonstrations following the sentences of the leaders had been expected. And so it was not surprising to see tens of thousands of protesters pour into the central square of Plaça de Catalunya, closing off the surrounding streets to traffic, the morning after the sentences. But once the crowds had massed, a novel plan started to ripple through it. “Everyone to the airport!” came the call.

Trains and buses heading to Barcelona’s El Prat airport filled up with protesters. Once there, they tried to occupy the airport. For a while, public transport stopped running, and then protesters and tourists alike filled the motorway, walking the 8-mile journey from the city. Demonstrators blocked the security control and flights were canceled—more than 100 by day’s end—bringing Spain’s second biggest airport to a near-standstill.

The secretive new group Tsunami Democrátic organized the protests. Through a rapidly growing following on Twitter and Telegram, an encrypted messaging app popular in Spain, Tsunami had directed people to the airport and given them ongoing instructions. Tsunami even sent out fake boarding passes so the protesters could pass a police cordon. Around 10,000 protesters made it to El Prat. Comparisons were immediately made with Hong Kong’s disruptive airport occupation in August.

Although little noticed, Tsunami officially launched in August and was immediately retweeted by key pro-independence Catalan leaders. Even so, it claims not to be involved with other groups. Spanish and Swiss media have also reported a possible founding meeting over the summer summer, when Catalan politicians who are in self-imposed exile—including former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and former MP Anna Gabriel, from the anti-capitalist party Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP)—convened in Geneva.

Tsunami’s airport protest was intended to be nonviolent civil disobedience. But the police reacted with a heavy-handed crackdown, including shooting rubber bullets. One protester lost an eye; three more would lose eyes over the coming days. According to Pol, 17, a University of Barcelona student who was there, “It was the police who came beating us up—the people were sitting. The atmosphere was very heated—it seemed like a war.”

Tensions eased as the evening wore on. By 10 p.m. protesters had gathered throughout the parking lot, roofs and gangways chanting peacefully and waving aloft lit phones, creating a sea of twinkling lights.

As Catalans woke the morning after the night before, one question was on everyone’s lips. Who was Tsunami Democrátic? The group has kept its identity secret—perhaps not surprising, given the convictions of Catalan leaders.

I received a quick reply after emailing Tsunami Democrátic’s website the night of the airport protests and agreed to a collective email interview: “Tsunami doesn’t have a spokesperson and there’s no other way to do it,” members said in an anonymous message.

To keep itself secret, Tsunami uses a principle that the Spanish media has compared to blockchain—the network is kept secure because each link in the chain only receives certain information. If one link in the chain fails, the whole network doesn’t fall. (A similar approach to transmitting information was used for organizing ballot papers during the 2017 Catalan referendum.)

Two weeks since launching its Telegram channel, Tsunami already has 370,000 followers and is still growing. It has also launched an app that works with Android and “lets you be in touch with those who want to take part in nonviolent action at a given time in a given geographical area.” To activate the app, users have to find someone that already has it, to copy a QR code—it’s almost like Pokémon Go, a sort of gamified activism.

Tsunami described the group’s structure to me as not “top-to-bottom” but “a mutable horizontal network.” Instead of a hierarchical structure, Tsunami’s network was simply bound, they said, by sharing the same objectives with regards freedom for “political prisoners” and the right to self-determination. “When I asked what relationship there was explicitly with CDR, the group that organized Wednesday’s protest, they replied, somewhat obliquely: “We insist, the independence movement has mobilized more than 2 million people in recent years. The social fabric that nurtures each pro-independence actor is the same: They are more than 2 million people.” Although Tsunami only claimed direct responsibility for the airport action, it has backed many of the subsequent protests, and its initial action seems to have strongly inspired the sustained demonstrations since.

Tsunami has specifically referenced the Hong Kong protesters on social media—and Hong Kongers have returned the favor—but the group wouldn’t explain which parts of the Hong Kong protesters’ strategy they had replicated, saying only “Tsunami learns from all nonviolent protest and civil disobedience movements in recent history.” The spokesperson also referenced the writings of Gene Sharp, an American nonviolent protest guru.

Tsunami wouldn’t say whether it had been in communication with protest organizers from Hong Kong, either. Joshua Wong, a key figure in the Hong Kong protests, has publicly expressed solidarity. Wong also told me in a statement: “I feel upset to read the news about police’s excessive use of force on protesters, in Hong Kong and also in Catalonia. As we condemn state violence and as we share the pain with each other, let us also bear in mind our genuine cause. People in Hong Kong and Catalonia both deserve their right to determine their own destiny.”

A key question is whether Tsunami is in it for the long haul. The Spanish government is banking on the Catalan crisis fading as the weeks roll by. But Tsunami confirmed plans for a sustained and permanent mobilization until its goals had been achieved. Spanish authorities intend to counter this. Last week the top criminal court, Audiencia Nacional, ordered police to close down Tsunami’s website, app, and social media channels—with little success.

Tsunami criticized Spain’s interior minister for investigating who was “behind” the group, saying that investigators “will find that behind Tsunami are the same people in front of it.” In other words, Tsunami is not a single group of masterminds but the entire protest movement.
They added that to speak of who’s “behind” them implied the intention to criminalize organizing.

“We ask ourselves if they also investigate the rest of social protest movements,” they said. “Perhaps the minister should respond if they are also investigating who ‘is behind’ the feminist movement that organizes strikes. Or who is behind [climate activist group] Fridays For Future. Or any movement that wants to change the state of things.”

It’s clear why Tsunami is so secretive: If the Spanish state finds them, they may also be charged with sedition. But as one pro-independence Catalan put it to me, use of an app to clandestinely direct protests was “dystopian” because no one knew who was steering it. The group could even be abroad, far from the reach of Spanish justice. When I put this to Tsunami, they replied poetically: “If you share nonviolent principles and are in favor of fundamental rights, you are the Tsunami, wherever you are.”

A masked demonstrator in Barcelona on Wednesday.
A masked demonstrator in Barcelona on Wednesday. Jose Jordan/AFP via Getty Images

Barcelona has not seen such disturbances in many years, and they didn’t stop after my street was engulfed in flames. All week, demonstrations continued, with Tsunami continuing to encourage attendance, and that followers download the app and find someone with a QR code to activate it. A general strike was then called for Friday, Oct.18. Groups from different corners of Catalonia arrived in the city—some of the demonstrators had been walking for days. Organizers estimated there were about 850,000 in attendance. The atmosphere at the main site of the protest, Passeig de Gracia, was good-natured, with families and a mix of ages and backgrounds. A multitude of activist groups and organizations had backed the protests, including CDR.

But when the crowds reached Plaça Catalunya, people expressed concern about the huge cloud of smoke billowing above a street one block over. Protesters there reported that police had fired rubber bullets from a balcony. Police also charged a sit-down protest, and the street had descended into chaos.

A few hours later, toward midnight, I walked to the site and it was almost unrecognizable. The ground was covered in rubble, debris blocked the roads leading off, fires still raged. Down Via Laietana, police still filled the street as far as the eye could see. Small groups of young protesters were still hovering around, hurling missiles at police from a big distance, and chanting the Star Wars “Imperial March” theme at the arrayed blue lights. From time to time, three or four riot vans careered through the square, and people scattered, some shouting, “Sons of bitches!” Nearby Plaça Catalunya was in a similar state of disarray.

The unrest appeared to be spiraling out of control. The young protesters had little respect for Catalonia’s political leaders, who had condemned the violence—chants calling for the resignation of the Catalan interior minister and others were now commonplace. On Oct. 19, demonstrators gathered for the sixth consecutive night of protests explicitly to protest police violence.

First, crowds assembled above Plaça Urquinaona again, the site of the previous night’s worst violence yet. “We’re here to protest the police repression there’s been these days,” a young man, 18, from the neighborhood of Raval told me (he spoke on condition of anonymity). His arm was in a sling: “I fell down the stairs. Obviously,” he said. He and his friend were at the protests the night before, only leaving when police charged the crowds with riot vans—a common police tactic over the last few days.

Two young female students, 19 and 17, draped in Catalan flags told me they had also been at the protests in Plaça Urquinaona. “It was brutal, chaos everywhere,” the 17-year-old said—they too were forced to leave when the battles intensified: “We said to each other, ‘If we don’t leave here we’re in huge danger.’ ” The 19-year-old called the scenes “shameful,” adding that the police went with the intention of causing bodily harm: “They don’t care how old you are, what you think, it doesn’t matter who you are—they’ll just go for you.”

“Yesterday was hell. Everything was full of fire, people breaking everything,” Pol also told me. He and his friend, Bruno, 18, had stayed almost the whole night, but repeatedly had to retreat from the square due to advancing police and tear gas. “There were times when you couldn’t see anything,” Bruno said. “You were just crying from the gas.”

As the evening wore on, protesters gathered in front of the police still filling Via Laietana—and sat down. A cordon of mostly older protesters sat nearest the police and encouraged hundreds of mostly youngsters behind them to keep their bums on ground. They chanted peacefully, condemning police violence. Around 10 p.m., the police called for the crowds to disperse over loudspeakers, and tensions rose. Groups of youths with faces covered behind the sitting protesters started to gear up, pulling sticks and ammunition from backpacks. The police cordoned off every entrance to the square.

But while skirmishes broke out north of the square and a couple of small barricades were set up, the scene didn’t descend into violence. The main group of protesters remained seated, until finally, the police got in their riot vans and drove away. The unrest seemed to have peaked.

Protests continued last week, but there has been no repeat of the previous week’s disturbances. That does not mean this crisis will just fade away, as the Spanish government seems to hope. Another protest attended by around 350,000 was held in Barcelona this past Saturday, culminating in more disturbances, though not as severe. Tsunami Democrátic has posted a series of “save the dates” for November.

Javier Astudillo Ruiz, from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, doesn’t see an easy or obvious way out of the crisis because a sector of the independentistas won’t accept that the Spanish government isn’t going to negotiate, “while a large part of the politicians in Madrid still think that it’s only a question of time until support for independence drops, without having to negotiate absolutely anything.” He noted that the most radical strands on both sides had started to call more moderate voices “traitors,” a worrying development that makes compromise even more unlikely.

What doesn’t help any of this is the lack of political stability. Spain is in the middle of an election campaign, its fourth in as many years, and unlikely to break the stalemate. (Elections were already held in April, but the winning center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party was unable to form a government in Spain’s fragmented multiparty Parliament.) The fragile coalition of pro-independence parties in the Catalan Parliament also has yet to pass a budget.

Out of the political vacuum could come more unrest. In one statement, CDR, calling for an end to police violence, veered into vaguely revolutionary rhetoric: “If the political leaders fail to respond, the people take power.”