BARCELONA — The buzzing excitement in the square outside Barcelona's Ciutadella Park — which houses Catalonia’s parliament — had been building all day. Separatists of all ages trickled in, first in spurts, and then by the hundreds as the clock edged closer to Catalan President Carles Puigdemont’s big moment. But one of the most important moments of the day was the arrival of some of the real heroes of the Catalan revolution, the farmers. Hours before Puigdemont’s address on Tuesday night, they rode their tractors through the city's Arc de Triomf to the applause of the hundreds of pro-independence Catalans already gathered there.
The Unio de Pagesos, or the Catalan Farmers Union, have become proper folk heroes for separatists. Catalans are quick to tell you that their independence movement is a peaceful one.
And it’s true — the region doesn’t have a military. There are no Catalan guerillas. And so it’s been the farmers here who have embraced a role closest to something of a defensive force, using their agricultural equipment to create blockades between protesters and Spain’s national police. But one moment that really helped solidify their hero status here was when a group of farmers pulled one hell of a fast one on Spanish police and gave Catalans something to laugh about during the tense days following Oct. 1’s fateful vote.
Two days after the Catalan referendum on independence — which the government in Madrid declared illegal but, it went ahead anyway — thousands of people took to the streets for the Vaga General, or general strike, to protest the shocking acts of police brutality carried out by Spanish police officers who wanted to stop the vote. The farmers’ participation in the strike was crucial. Their tractors acted as protective cover in areas all over Catalonia, allowing protesters to gather in the streets peacefully, blocking any intervention attempts from the Spanish police.
Here’s how the story goes:
During the general strike on Oct. 3, Catalan farmers had said that they were going to close off the border with France with their tractors.
Hundreds of Guardia Civil, or Spanish national police, went to the border to stop it from happening.
It was a trap. Once the police got there they found out that there was no one there.
What the farmers had actually done is closed off the motorway and all of the roads going back into Catalonia, and now the police can't get back.
According to Catalan media, this all happened in a northwest region of Catalonia called La Jonquera, about six kilometers from the French border. Rumors started circulating the night before the strike, all saying that the farmers were going to try and shut down the border.
So at the crack of dawn, the Spanish police all gathered at the edge of a major toll road. Then, in a maneuver that would make military generals jealous, a large number of farmers and townspeople went south and cut off the highway. Tractors and cars successfully cut off 52 of the 57 possible roads back into the area, leaving the police stranded outside of town.
When asked by BuzzFeed News on Tuesday in Barcelona about where those rumors about shutting down the border came from, Joan Caball, the president of Catalonia’s farmer’s union laughed and said, “The Guardia Civil just didn't have any good information.”
“They went to another point because the Guardia Civil thought the border was going to be closed, but we didn't want to close the border, we just wanted to close down the railway,” he said. “And then when Guardia Civil tried to come back, they found all the farmers, and they couldn't get through.”
Pau Banès, a milk farmer who came down into Barcelona from the city of Girona on Tuesday told BuzzFeed News that he wasn’t sure if the whole trap was planned, but he thought it was really funny. He also said he thinks some of the reports were a little exaggerated.
“When police wanted to come back from the highway, some of the protesters did let them pass, because we didn't want any violence from them,” he said. “We knew they were really angry, like hornets on a summer day. And the image for that day was not showing violence.”
Local reports say that the blockade stopping the police from reentering the region lasted several hours and did manage to keep the authorities at bay during the most crowded moments of the protest.
Another milk farmer named Marc Xifra, who came down from Girona with Banès repeated the same line about “bad information.”
“We just closed the highway and the police had been somewhere else,” he said with a shrug. “They had bad information. That happens. In the strike, the other day, we weren’t trying to do anything to the Guardia Civil. We wanted people to be peaceful.”
The farmers’ role in the independence movement is one they take very seriously. On Tuesday, as the sun began to set over Ciutadella Park, they posed by their tractors, cracked open cans of beer, and snapped photos with separatists draped in the Senyera estelada — the flag of Catalan independence, nine bars of yellow and red, a blue triangle, and a white star.
Monste Matas, the only woman farmer to arrive with the Farmers Union, said she traveled 30 kilometers by tractor to get to Barcelona to watch Puigdemont speak.
“The farmers are a symbol of Catalonia. It's the person that cares for the land and works with the soil and it's a symbol,” she said. “We came here to give support to our president because today maybe will be a day that is very important. We don't know.”
The farmers outside Ciutadella Park on Tuesday afternoon didn’t know at the time that they weren’t crossing a finish line, only making a pitstop, when they passed under Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf.
On Tuesday night, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont would go on to deliver an address, laying out his arguments for why Catalonia should be independent from Spain, only to conclude it by postponing a serious declaration of independence for several more weeks to allow dialogue between Spain and Catalonia. The cheers in the crowd outside parliament, spilling out past Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf, would quickly turn to confusion and then palpable frustration. There are more protests and demonstrations planned on both the unionist and separatist sides. The situation here doesn't seem like it will be ending any time soon.
But no matter what happens, you can absolutely expect to see Catalan farmers — and their tractors — out and full force, defending separatists, come whatever may to the region.
“The government of Catalonia doesn't have a military, we only have the power of the people and we think we must be in the street to defend our government,” Xavier Safront told BuzzFeed News. Safront was one of the many members of the Farmers Union to ride his tractor into the city on Tuesday from Maresme. For him, an independent Catalonia is a chance for a new beginning for everyone.
“The new republic is a window to a new state, a new state that defends our producers of vegetables and cereals, and we want to change the politics of agriculture,” he said. “A new politics that benefits the little farmers and the little producers. Not the big ones.”