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.”