Life has returned to Las Ramblas, the pedestrian boulevard in central Barcelona that was the site last week of a deadly attack for which the Islamic State claimed credit. Shopkeepers, artists and street workers are back at their daily routines, albeit in a daze. Tourists and locals alike drift from Plaça Catalunya to the old Drassanes shipyard with downcast eyes. Where blood was spilled on the promenade’s tiles, makeshift memorials of candles and roses now grow. Beneath the trees that line the mall, people hold handwritten signs saying “We are not afraid.”
This rejection of fear has turned into a cry for unity in the aftermath of the attacks. On Aug. 26, emergency medical services and local and regional police will lead a march under the same banner. As a gesture of deference to Barcelona’s civil society, local, regional and central government officials, including the king of Spain, have accepted a secondary role in the march.
But Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy does not seem likely to leave politics out of whatever comes next. “We know that terrorism can be defeated,” Mr. Rajoy said in a speech on Aug. 18. “It can be defeated through institutional unity, police cooperation, prevention, international support and the firm determination to defend the values of our civilization.” He then announced that he would call on all of Spain’s political parties to reaffirm their unity by joining a Counter-Terrorism Pact his government proposed two years earlier — and which was rejected by a wide range of political parties.
For Mr. Rajoy, unity means something more than a post-trauma platitude.
With Catalonia set to hold a prohibited referendum in October on independence from Spain, the response to the attacks is a source of intense debate between political opponents at every level of government. The prime minister’s conservative Popular Party government must now work with its staunchest opponents to develop a counterterrorism strategy in a place where its support is particularly weak. Unfortunately, Mr. Rajoy is best known for his obstinacy. It’s unlikely his administration will relinquish the opportunity provided by the attacks to expand the central government’s role in Catalonia, much to the frustration of the people of Barcelona and the wider region.
Barcelona’s municipal government is a product of the Spanish “indignados” movement that emerged in the wake of the Great Recession. The mayor, Ada Colau, got her start in politics as a housing rights activist before going on to lead Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common), the left-wing platform that won municipal elections in 2015. The government of Catalonia, meanwhile, is led by a nationalist coalition of center-left and right-wing parties called Junts pel Si (Together for the Yes).
Junts pel Si and Barcelona en Comú don’t always see eye to eye, but they tend to stand strong against Mr. Rajoy — especially when it comes to security and immigration. In 2013 the prime minister introduced what was popularly known as a “gag law” to counter the tactics of the indignados movement by granting police officers more authority in the application of heavy fines. That legislation was accompanied by penal code reforms to further dissuade public dissent and unregulated use of public space. These policies have been widely criticized for threatening freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, as well as enabling racial profiling. And while in September 2015 the administration promised to receive 17,337 refugees over a two-year period, as of July Spain has accepted only 1,700.
These policies have produced no demonstrable improvements in terms of social integration, migrant flows or security. Their chief purpose is to appeal to the Popular Party’s conservative base. In the coming weeks, the temptation for politicians to play along with these sorts of policies will be great. On Monday, two Popular Party leaders linked welcoming refugees with terrorism, with one of them proposing that Spain kick all Muslims out of the country. Such tough talk may reassure some fearful voters, giving the impression that politicians are willing to respond to extraordinary circumstances with extraordinary measures. But in reality, the effect will be to further marginalize immigrants, threatening social cohesion and empowering hateful demagogues who exploit insecurity and alienation to pursue violent agendas.
Some groups have already demonstrated their willingness to take advantage of the situation. In the days after last week’s attacks, neo-Nazi organizations vandalized several mosques, as well as a Moroccan consulate. On Friday night, a 14-year-old Moroccan boy was assaulted by a man shouting racist insults. That same day, in the Catalan town of Vic, the far-right politician Josep Anglada and a handful of followers provoked scuffles by interrupting an official minute of silence to display Islamophobic posters. And in Barcelona, several neo-Nazi organizations met near Las Ramblas to hold an anti-Islam rally. They were expelled, however, when a much larger crowd of Barcelona residents and passers-by surrounded them, chanting, “Fascists, get out of our neighborhoods.”
There is good news: That crowd is not alone. In 2015, the Catalan Parliament demanded Spain shut down its immigrant detention centers. Barcelona has done the same, citing human rights violations and taking legal actions against them as a result. Both the government of Barcelona and of Catalonia have likewise rejected the gag law and, following a huge citizen-led march in Barcelona, demanded that the Spanish government and the European Union accept more refugees.
There is no reason that these positions should be specific to Catalonia. They are not a result of the good will, moral virtue or cultural traits of Catalan politicians or people. They are a result of a thick social fabric, woven over years of bottom-up political mobilization. This fabric is hardly specific to Catalonia. In the aftermath of the crisis, social movements have acted as something of a safety net, keeping Spain from going the way of other European countries, where reactionary and xenophobic ideologies have gained considerable political clout. To give in now to base fears and petty divisions would be to play into the hands of organized hate. If Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain truly want to show that they are not afraid, may it be by resisting the temptation to close themselves off and uniting instead around a commitment to being open to one another and to the world beyond their borders
Carlos Delclós is a sociologist and writer based in Barcelona. He is the author of Hope Is a Promise: From the Indignados to the Rise of Podemos in Spain.