Half a million people gathered in the heart of Barcelona over the weekend, clutching roses and holding banners not only denouncing violence and extremism, but also warning against Islamophobia and calling on Spanish leaders to stop selling weapons.
The mass demonstration followed two attacks on Aug 17 that killed 16 people, including 14 who were mowed down by a van that zigzagged down Las Ramblas, the most famous promenade in Barcelona.
Last Saturday, marchers carried banners bearing the defiant message “No tinc por” – Catalan for “I’m not afraid”.
The attacks hit Barcelona at the height of its tourism season. But the violence also came at a critical political moment, as the regional government of Catalonia prepares to hold an independence referendum on Oct 1, despite strong objections from the government in Madrid and Spain’s judiciary, saying the vote is unconstitutional.
To defuse political tensions, Saturday’s march was led by police officers, paramedics and other members of the emergency services – with King Felipe VI of Spain, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Mr Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, following them.
Still, many in the crowd held Catalan separatist flags and booed every time the monarch’s face appeared on the big screens. Amid a sea of Catalan flags, Mr Sergio Fernandez, a local truck driver, held a Spanish flag and described the booing of Spain’s King by some of his fellow Catalans as shameful.
“We came here to condemn killers, not to insult our King,” he said. “I’m from Barcelona, but Spain is, of course, my country.”
The Aug 17 attacks were claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and carried out by a terrorist cell whose members were mostly born in Morocco.
Several participants in Saturday’s march held up signs warning against Islamophobia in the wake of the violent attacks. One of the speakers who addressed the crowd was a leading voice from the local Muslim community, Ms Miriam Hatibi.
But a few who attended the rally called for stricter migration restrictions, including Ms Sonia Garcia, a school teacher. “Fifteen years ago, you never saw anyone from another country here, and now we’ve got neighbourhoods that almost feel like being in Morocco,” she said. “I’m not saying we should stop them from being here, but if you open your door, you must know who’s coming in and keep some control over them.”
Ms Veronica Gomez, a hospital employee who attended the march, held a sign directed at members of ISIS that read: “The end is coming and nobody will remember you, nobody will cry for you.”
She choked back tears as she recounted fielding phone calls from people who were searching for missing relatives and friends in the hours after the attack in Las Ramblas.
“I had to tell utterly distressed people that I had no idea what happened to their loved ones and where they might be – and that was just horrible,” she said. “I couldn’t get the names of some of the missing people out of my head for two days after that.”