Just minutes after the first boisterous voters entered the polling station at an elementary school here on Sunday, dozens of National Police in riot gear smashed through the front window and began searching for the ballot boxes.
But the activists who organized this controversial vote on independence for the Catalan region were two steps ahead. As the police forced their way through shouting crowds into the polling station, the organizers spirited away the ballots and hid them in the classrooms amid coloring books and crayons.
An hour later, after police had driven away in their big black vans, under a hail of insults, the ballot boxes re-emerged and the voting began again.
The pattern was repeated again and again across hundreds of polling stations Sunday in the Catalan region of northeast Spain, where a secessionist movement is pushing ahead with a disputed independence referendum that the central government in Madrid, backed by the courts, has called illegitimate and illegal.
By midday, the regional authorities said more than 300 people had suffered minor injuries in scuffles with National Police, who dragged protesters out of their way. The police fired scores of rubber bullets at crowds at voting centers in Barcelona and other cities. Officials in Madrid said a dozen police officers had also been injured.
The optics could not have been worse for the central government. Although Madrid might have had the Spanish Constitution on its side, the images being blasted around the world out of Catalonia showed ordinary men and women being roughly dragged from the polls by helmeted police dressed all in black.
The vote in Catalonia was a mass act of civil disobedience, organized by the regional government but propelled by WhatsApp groups, encrypted messages and clandestine committees.
Thousands of parents and their children were deployed to occupy hundreds of polling stations before the vote to keep them from being locked down by National Police and Guardia Civil militia.
As the central government shut down websites promoting the referendum, new apps popped up to guide voters. When Madrid tacked right, Barcelona went left.
The almost-surreal clash between the central state and its citizens saw mass demonstrations in the past two weeks and a high-risk game of cat-and-mouse, as the secessionists sought to bring off a vote that Madrid vowed it would stop. The Catalan government, dominated by breakaway leaders, said that despite police raids, more than 70 percent of the polling stations were open Sunday afternoon.
Long lines snaked around the blocks in Barcelona. In the countryside, farmers circled the polling stations with tractors to protect the ballot.
The region’s police force stood aside and did not raid the polling stations. Instead, firefighters sought to preserve calm and keep the crowds and National Police from setting upon each other.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · William Booth