Ciudadanos spearheads clash over yellow ribbons

Rivera and Arrimadas walk the streets of Alella tearing down the yellow symbols, but independence supporters put them back

Unionist party Ciudadanos has jumped behind the wheel of the yellow ribbon conflict and is spearheading the confrontation strategy which they had been encouraging for quite some time. Yesterday Albert Rivera and Inés Arrimadas, the two party leaders, took action and personally pulled down some of the yellow ribbons [tied to lamp posts and fences] in the streets of Alella (Maresme, north of Barcelona city). Rivera argued that “it is the authorities who should be doing this”, as he reiterated his view that public spaces must be free of any political symbols to ensure that they remain neutral. Ciudadanos believe that Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez and Catalan president Quim Torra should take it upon themselves to guarantee that.

This is the first time that the top two Ciudadanos leaders take a street walk to personally remove the symbols calling for the release of the Catalan political prisoners. So far only the rank and file and mid-level party officials had done so. In fact, only a week ago Albert Rivera thought that “it wouldn’t make much sense” for the two party leaders to tear down the yellow symbols. “I have other business to do rather than remove ribbons”, he stated during an interview with Spanish radio network Onda Cero. However, he has had a change of heart. Ciudadanos were well aware of the fuss they would stir, so yesterday they summoned all the media ahead of their stunt to ensure widespread coverage that would put the cherry on the cake of their confrontation strategy, which has been in the making for some time, aimed at thwarting Catalonia’s independence drive.

Only a month ago Ciudadanos announced the start of a campaign to remove all independence symbols from the streets and public buildings in Catalonia. It kicked off as party members tore down yellow ribbons in Sant Cugat del Vallès, which MP Joan García —the party’s secretary of institutional action— justified by arguing that “local communities are entitled to public spaces that are devoid of any political message”. The same operation was conducted in Reus a few days later, when the local Ciudadanos councillors took down a banner that had been hanging on the city hall’s balcony and alluded to the exiles and political prisoners. Shortly afterwards, the local government had it put back, which is rather like what happened yesterday in Alella: as Rivera and Arrimadas were speaking to the media justifying their action, several local residents put back the ribbons which the two leaders had just ripped off. Every time these symbols have been removed from the streets of Catalonia it has angered independence supporters, who see it as a provocation. In contrast, Rivera believes that this reaction proves that there is “a social chasm” in Catalonia, as his party has claimed for some time.

80 people removing symbols

Ciudadanos’ call to —in Rivera’s own words—“cleanse” public spaces and remove any pro-independence symbols has gained momentum and drawn a growing number of volunteers over the last few weeks. For instance, last Wednesday up to 80 people clad in white (and most of them covering their faces) took down ribbons in la Bisbal d’Empordà and Pera. The Catalan police wrote them up for a violation of the law for the protection of public safety —also known as the “gag law”— and took the details of the person which they saw as having called the unauthorised street gathering in Cabrera de Mar, where the volunteers had initially met to start their action. As with Rivera and Arrimadas, this time the Catalan police did not ask any of the participants to show their ID, unlike two weeks earlier in Ribera d’Ebre, when they took the details of 14 people (including one Guardia Civil officer) that were removing ribbons.

When a woman was assaulted in Barcelona’s Parc de la Ciutadella, where she was removing some yellow ribbons, Ciudadanos argued that this symbol incites violence. Although there are contradictory accounts about what happened exactly, Ciudadanos believe that the assault was politically motivated. Last Tuesday they filed a complaint against the assailant for discrimination and hate crime. The woman also filed a complaint with the Spanish police for aggravated assault which, according to her, was committed for ideological reasons.

Yesterday Spanish police officers held the alleged attacker —who had himself filed a complaint with the Catalan police against the woman— for some hours until the city’s examining court number 32 released him after the judge agreed to issue the restraining order requested by the prosecutor. The man refused to answer any questions and has been charged with minor assault and a crime of hate and discrimination. The latter charges are due to the fact that the woman is Russian and the man allegedly abused her verbally. In her statement the woman insists that she was punched in the nose when a row over her removing yellow ribbons escalated.

The other parties slam Ciudadanos

So far, Ciudadanos’ confrontation strategy has only managed to get on board their own followers and the PP, who also have encouraged people to remove yellow ribbons, even if none of their leaders have done so. The other Catalan parties have shunned Rivera’s strategy. The pro-independence parties slammed Rivera and Arrimadas’ action and former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont called for “avoiding an escalation” of the conflict. The socialist party (PSC) did not endorse the Ciudadanos strategy and Jaume Collboni, the PSC president in Barcelona city, criticised them for prioritising “electioneering efforts”. Comuns spokesperson in the Catalan parliament, Elisenda Alemany, accused Arrimadas’ party of showing “little decency”.

As the conflict becomes more entrenched, the Spanish government has called a meeting of the Security Board on September 6 in order to discuss the matter, among other issues. However, the Catalan government is adamant that the Catalan police’s actions were justified. Meanwhile, Ciudadanos continue to capitalise on a controversy that may last for as long as there are political prisoners.

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