Some people have been trying to depict the Catalan ‘referendum’ as a story of a bad repressive state vs a good oppressed people. That is clearly not the case and blame should be allocated correctly.
The Catalan government are the first to be blamed: they called for an illegal, and undemocratic referendum which they knew had no binding nature, with the main purpose of provoking the state’s apparatus to react in order to sell their narrative of oppression. It is important to note that this referendum was not only illegal according to Spanish law, but also Catalan law. In order to reform the “Estatut” (semi-constitution of the Catalan region), two thirds of the Catalan parliament are needed; this referendum, as well as the declaration of independence completely transforming the Catalan constitution, was approved with only 53% of the vote. Furthermore, every law in the Catalan parliament goes through several stages of readings and amendments- the whole process may take at least several weeks. This law was passed in only one day, without giving the members of the opposition enough time to read it. Moreover, the Catalan government did not want to give the opposition even the opportunity to reject the whole law- obviously a fundamental right of any representative. That is a clear violation, not only of Catalan legality, but of the fundamental rules of democracy which the Catalans agreed to give themselves in order to solve their political differences. This act was so outrageous that the civil servants refused to publish the law in the official journal of the parliament, and the members of the pro-independence party had to do it themselves.
Why then, did the Catalan government decide to call an illegal referendum? The main reason is that they wanted to provoke Rajoy’s government into action, so that they could justify their narrative of oppression. It was clear to everyone that the police had to stop an illegal act (that is, after all, their job), and the Catalan government went through with it regardless, because they wanted to create the images we saw on Sunday. We can discuss whether there should be a legal and democratic referendum in Catalonia (of which I am in favor) or whether Catalonia should succeed (which I am against), but it seems clear that calling for an illegal and undemocratic referendum which everybody (yes, including most Catalans) knew that had no biding power was not the right to resolve the issue.
The second to blame is the Spanish government, the Catalan court of justice and the police. Their acts were both strategically and morally wrong. It was an strategic mistake because the government fell into the Catalan government’s plans of appearing as victims, and it was not necessary. The referendum had no democratic guaranties, people who were going to be called to the electoral tables counting the votes, but were against independence, would not go to those tables. This means that only those who were pro-independence would count the votes, giving no guarantee of a fair count. In addition, non-supporters of independence did not vote, as shown by the fact that turnout was 42%, compared with 75% in a normal parliamentary election. Moreover, the organization was such a disaster that some people voted up to four times and some citizens voted directly in the street with no checks of ID (https://www.elconfidencial.com/espana/cataluna/2017-10-01/irregularidades-votaciones-referendum-cataluna_1453255/). From the Spanish government’s perspective, it would have been enough to stress the lack of guarantees of such referendum, as happened with the other false referendum that the Catalan government held on the 9th of November 2014. Now, the Spanish government has enabled deplorable images of violence, which will be used by the Catalan government to justify its narrative of victimhood.
However, beyond strategic concerns, this was also a moral mistake. The wrong was not that the police acted in order to prevent an illegal act (that is their job), but the disproportionate way in which they did it. We all saw brutal images of policemen hitting peaceful protesters- this should not happen. If there was no other way of stopping the referendum than resorting to violence, then it should not have been stopped. These people were not the Catalan government and a peaceful act, however illegal, should not be met with violence. As a Spanish citizen, I reject this behavior completely. I cannot stress this enough: this was morally wrong. Nevertheless, this of course does not justify the outrageous accusation that Spain is an authoritarian regime. Spain is a strong democracy, and one moral mistake of disproportionate use of force does not entail its citizens support, or that the government is undemocratic. My position is clear: the use of force was disproportionate and wrong, and the government should resign. (The central government is also to blame for political inaction in the whole Catalan conflict, however, I am circumscribing myself to the specific acts that resulted in the events of Sunday, not on the whole Catalan secession process).
Thirdly, the Catalan police (“Mossos d’esquadra”) were instructed by the Catalan judges to stop the voting in the morning before it started, and they simply did not follow their duty. This forced the police (Nacional and Guardia Civil) to intervene with the actions we saw.
Finally, some protesters were very aggressive and attacked the police with great violence. These people contributed to the violence and tension of the day and must share some blame; however, they were in the minority.
If the Catalan government had not pushed an illegal and undemocratic act so far, if the police had not used violence, if the “Mossos” had intervened and if there hadn’t been violent protesters, the 1st of October of 2017 would have gone through as another peaceful day. It did not.
Key players in the conflict should understand that carrying their political agendas too far (as declaring a unilateral independence) will only result in a train crash. Stories of good vs bad only help those driving the trains feel justified to collide with one another and media loves those kind of narratives, but they are not reality. Let’s resist that simplification and understand that all actors in the conflict share a good amount of blame. I am not Catalan, but coming from a Catalan-speaking region (Valencia), I would like to say something in my language: “més seny, per favor” (more common sense, please).