by Zach Campbell, The Intercept:
I ARRIVED AT the polling station on the night before Catalonia was set to vote in a contested referendum on the region’s independence from Spain. A Spanish court had declared the referendum illegal, and Madrid had sent thousands of riot police to Catalonia to shut down the vote. By midnight, workers at the polling station closed the building’s corrugated metal gate and sealed us in until morning, or until the police arrived. Inside, we waited for whichever came first.
The vote was organized in secret. The organizers spoke and texted in code: In this polling station — a community center in Barcelona, called Foment Martinenc — and others in the area, ballot boxes were called pizzas and the ballots, napkins. The government representative who officially opened the voting center was called “la pizzera” — the pizza maker. The organizers who drove from polling station to polling station, to make sure each center had enough pizza and napkins, were called Telepizzas, after a cheap pizza delivery chain. Central Barcelona was divided among five Telepizzas.
When Catalonia voted on Sunday, October 1, ordinary voters in polling centers across the region used unconventional tactics to organize a referendum in the face of a heavy crackdown from the central Spanish government. It was a day of tension and drama, as Catalans voted for seccession by 90 percent (though most “no” voters abstained), and Spanish police reacted with force. This week, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont said he had the mandate to declare independence for the region and signed a declaration doing so — but soon after he suspended the effects of the referendum in favor of dialogue with Spanish authorities.
The October 1 clashes drew international attention to the referendum. But Catalan citizens had been preparing this vote for months.
The weekend before the referendum, police in Catalonia were given an order to shut down spaces to be used as polling stations. In response, ordinary citizens began occupying places like Foment Martinenc to keep them open. At another nearby polling station in Barcelona, an elementary school, organizers spontaneously held a weekend full of events and invited residents to camp out at the school. In a nearby city, voters organized a weekend-long tournament of rock-paper-scissors, advising participants that it might last a while, and to bring camping gear. Others were more direct, calling for a “territorial defense” of voting centers. Whether subtle, absurd or explicit, the idea was clear, said Lluís Rotger, an organizer at Foment Martinenc: “any activity to keep the polling stations open.”
Ballots and ballot-boxes were targets for Spanish police in the lead-up to the vote. Police raided Catalan media, print shops and other businesses in search of voting materials, seizing millions of ballots and hundreds of ballot boxes in each bust. After the initial seizures, the Catalan government ordered new ballot boxes from China to be delivered to a city in southern France, where ballots were being printed. Activists then drove the voting materials across the border into Spain and hid them however possible.
“People hid the material in their houses, cars, underground — it was up to their imagination,” Rotger told me. He explained that, among organizers, information about the vote was given out on a need-to-know basis. “Even the ballot boxes,” he said, “I didn’t know who had them, nor when they would arrive.”
Foment Martinenc is in a quaint residential neighborhood just outside the center of Barcelona. On the morning of the vote, the center was buzzing with activity. Poll workers opened the metal gate at 5 a.m., and a large crowd of people had already gathered outside. It was still dark out, and it was raining. The police were due to begin evicting polling stations one hour later, and organizers were rushing to prepare the space.
But where were the ballot boxes? Another organizer at Foment, Daniel Rofín, said he had no idea. Because the referendum organization was so secretive, Rofín explained, neither did anyone else at the polling station.
Soon there was a commotion outside, and a small sedan pulled up to the entrance of Foment. The crowd outside parted to make a path to the door. Two women opened the car’s trunk and pulled out four large masses wrapped in black trash bags, and shuttled them inside. Both women quickly got back in their car and sped away. The pizzas had arrived.
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