Workers downed tools, shops closed and activists blocked roads in Catalonia on Friday in a general strike called in protest at the jailing of nine pro-independence leaders over their roles in the failed push for secession two years ago.
Tens of thousands of people who have marched from across the region began converging in Barcelona on Friday afternoon to protest against the Spanish supreme court’s verdict and to call for the leaders to be freed.
Their presence brought the city to a standstill before a massive demonstration that began at 5pm local time.
The entrance to the Catalan capital’s most famous landmark – the Sagrada Familia church – was blocked by pro-independence protesters and 57 flights were cancelled at Barcelona-El Prat airport.
On Friday morning, the Spanish football federation announced that the Barcelona-Real Madrid game due to be played in the Catalan capital on 26 October had been postponed because of the unrest.
During the afternoon the atmosphere in the city was quiet and there were few incidents. However, there were police charges and two arrests on Via Laietana, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, after objects were thrown at officers guarding the headquarters of the national force by a large crowd of students.
Marchers entering Barcelona were also pelted with stones as they passed through the working-class neighbourhood of Santa Coloma de Gramenet.
The militant Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) called for an indefinite protest camp to be set up at the key city centre junction of Gran Via and Passeig de Gràcia as of 6pm on Friday. Blocking this junction would paralyse traffic across a large swathe of the city.
Meanwhile a judge at Spain’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, ordered police to shut down the website and social media accounts of Tsunami Democràtic, the pro-independence organisation that has used apps to co-ordinate and control protests. The group was behind Monday’s attempts to occupy Barcelona airport.
Peaceful protests, which have long been the hallmark of the pro-independence movement, have been eclipsed this week by violent unrest and running battles between protesters and police.
Barcelona had its worst night of violence on Thursday as pro-independence supporters clashed with police and rightwing groups in skirmishes that lasted into Friday morning.
After another large demonstration broke up, protesters fought police, throwing stones and at least one petrol bomb in an apparent attempt to reach the seat of the Spanish government in the city. A clothing shop was set on fire and a bank vandalised.
One pro-independence protester was badly beaten by a group of rightwing supporters while once again the streets were acrid with the smell of bonfires of burning rubbish. Numerous injuries were reported.
As the unrest continued, Catalan TV and the main Barcelona TV channel ceased broadcasting news, as did at least one of the online dailies, in support of the general strike.
The supreme court’s decision to jail the nine leaders for secession and misuse of public funds over their roles in the failed push for independence has provoked uproar among many Catalans.
Among those heading towards Barcelona on Friday morning was Anna Parella, a hospital worker from the coastal town of Calella. She had joined the march with colleagues to call for independence and the release of the jailed leaders.
“A lot of people have joined us as we’ve gone along and the mood is really nice and festive,” said Parella.
She said the marchers were all peaceful but added that some people had grown sick of the situation and begun to go about things the wrong way.
“I’m against the violence and we can’t have people starting to think we’re all violent,” she said. “Our calls will lose their force if they do.”
Also on Friday, Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president who led the failed bid for independence two years ago, handed himself in to judicial authorities in Belgium in response to the reactivation of an international arrest warrant against him this week. His extradition hearing has been scheduled for 29 October.
Catalonia’s pro-independence regional president, Quim Torra, has been criticised for being slow to condemn the violence – and for calling for civil disobedience while sending in Catalan riot police to restore order.
Speaking on Friday morning, Spain’s interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, said 16 people had been arrested overnight and 10 police officers injured. He repeated the government’s assertion that while people had a right to protest, any violence would be dealt with firmly.
Asked about reports that violent groups from the Basque country, France and Germany were planning to travel to Catalonia to take part in any forthcoming disturbances, he said such participation had already been anticipated by the authorities.
“We know that these kinds of radical, violent people – people with varying ideologies – have been present in Catalonia, particularly Barcelona,” he said.
“They tend to turn up for the kind of events we’re seeing in Barcelona.”
Reports have already emerged of some of the violent protesters speaking neither Catalan nor Spanish.
Despite the simmering tensions, Torra has suggested that another unilateral referendum on Catalan independence should be held.
“If we have been sentenced to 100 years in prison for putting out the ballot boxes, the response is clear: we’ll have to put them out again for self-determination,” he told the regional parliament on Thursday.