One million people have taken to the streets of Barcelona on Tuesday, on Catalonia’s National Day, to defend independence, according to official figures provided by local police. People of all ages started filling Diagonal Avenue in the early afteroon. Many were wearing pink T-shirts saying “Fem Republica” (“We build a Republic”). Many people were waving the Catalan independence flag, while others waved banners calling for the release of jailed leaders. On the run-up to the big moment there was music in the streets, and chants of “independence” and “not one step backward.”

Many families came to the demo together, and groups of friends also came together for their shared cause. Human towers also played a big part in today’s event. As it got underway, the atmosphere was festive, waiting for the key moment at 17:14 when particpants made a wave of sound stretching along the length of six kilometres of Diagonal.

The seventh such demonstration in a row to take place on September 11, this one is not like previous years. The political backdrop has changed. After last year’s October 1 referendum and subsequent declaration of independence, the former Spanish government stripped Catalonia of its self-rule. There are currently seven pro-independence leaders in jail as a result, and more officials in exile abroad.

Freedom for political prisoners

The hundreds of thousands of people in favour of an independence Catalan state called for the release of those in jail, and the return of those who are in exile avoiding Spanish justice out of fear they won’t receive a fair trial.

People came from all over Catalonia to take part in the demonstration. Pro-independence parties called on supporters to take to the streets in force, and people responded. Buses brought thousands of protesters to Barcelona ready to take part in the march.

One year on from the referendum

It will be the first September 11 pro-independence demonstration since last autumn’s independence bid, which saw a unilateral referendum held on October 1, which was followed by a declaration of independence in Parliament on October 27.

That led to the imposition of direct rule on Catalonia, the firing of the government, the jailing of officials involved in organizing the referendum, while other political leaders avoided arrest by going abroad, where some still remain, including former president, Carles Puigdemont.

Support for those officials who are unable to return or who are awaiting trial was one of the main focus of the march.

Over the weekend, president Quim Torra called on the public to make September 11 this year, “historic.”

Measure of support for independence

Moreover, given the political tensions in the country in the past year, which has seen unionist parties fiercely campaigning against secession, and the independence camp determined to continue in its push for a republic, the turnout at the demonstration will serve to measure the strength of support in the country for secession.

Following the October 1 referendum last year, support for independence in Catalonia rose to 48.7%, according to a poll carried out by the Centre for Opinion Studies, which was a 7.6 point increase compared to a similar poll conducted before the referendum took place.

International interest

Another key aim of the annual September 11 protest is to publicize Catalonia’s political situation to the wider world, as the pro-independence camp claim the conflict is a European crisis and not simply an internal matter for Spain.

This year foreign lawyers are participating including Ben Emmerson, who is representing jailed and exiled Catalan leaders to the United Nations, and Aamer Anwar, who successfully represented former minister Clara Ponsatí in her fight against extradition from Scotland. Anwar accused the former government of being a fascist administration of which “Franco would be proud of.”

The size of the demonstration is also likely to generate interest among the international media, which have widely reported the event in previous years. The idea this time is for the hundreds of thousands present to create a huge human wave through the city center.

Unionist criticism

Unionist parties have accused the pro-independence camp of ‘taking over’ Catalonia’s National Day. The leader of Ciutadans (Cs) called it a “day of exclusion, hate, and attacks against Spain.”

Rivera published a message on Twitter for Catalonia’s National Day accusing the current government of “hijacking” what, in his view, should be a “regional holiday for all Catalans.” “I hope one day we will have a Catalan government for everyone,” he added.

Meanwhile, the head of the Catalan Socialists (PSC), Miquel Iceta, said that anyone wanting dialogue between the Catalan and Spanish authorities must “not put conditions that make it impossible.”

The People’s Party accused the government of seeking “confrontation” and only representing “pro-independence supporters,” a spokeswoman said.

The People’s Party leader in Catalona, Xavier García Albiol, called on the Spanish president to explain what he will do to “stop” independence plans.

Spanish president tweets in Catalan

Meanwhile, Sánchez wished all Catalans a National Day of “coexistence, respect, dialogue and agreement.” “May this September 11 be a day of celebration and pride for a culture, a language and a history that unites all Catalans,” he said on Twitter in a comment in Catalan.

His message was similar to the one he wrote last year, when he was still leader of the opposition. Back then, in 2017, weeks before the independence referendum, he asked for “dialogue and coexistence” and insisted that a “new agreement” between Madrid and Barcelona was “possible.”