The Spanish region of Catalonia has been embroiled in political turmoil for months in the midst of a growing separatist movement. On Friday, that turmoil came to head when Catalan lawmakers voted to declare independence. The Spanish government dismissed the region’s president and dissolved its parliament.
As protests have overwhelmed the city’s streets, a number of Elon University students found themselves caught in the chaos. Elon junior Ashley Follenweider, who began her study abroad in Barcelona this semester, is one of those students.
“There are always protests up and down my street,” Follenweider said. “The whole entire street for as far as I could see was full of people. They all had candles. I ended up walking through it coming home from the gym. I had no idea what was going on.”
Pushes for Catalan independence have gained momentum in recent years, but political action by the regional and national government has picked up in importance this September.
“Over the summer, when I read an article saying, ‘Catalonia is going to break free from Spain,’ I was like, well that’s the most stupid, pointless thing I’ve ever heard,” Follenweider said. “I was very ignorant about it, but once I got here ... I learned the reasons they wanted to be independent, I saw the passion behind it."
Other students haven't found as much sympathy for the cause. Junior Ryan Doane is also studying abroad in Barcelona, but hasn't been swayed by the protests he's seen during his visit.
"I just think it’s pointless," Doane said. "It’s essentially like Texas wanting to leave America, which is very unrealistic and United States would never allow that."
Many visitors to Barcelona have encountered protests, parades and vocal support out in the city’s streets. Follenweider felt it was not enough to just watch.
Inspired by the pro-independence fervor, she bought herself an “independentista” flag and joined a parade of separatist protesters clad in the region’s striking yellow and red colors. She later wrote about the experience on her blog.
Doane has also found himself wrapped up in the excitement of the movement, enjoying the revelry taking over the city.
"I always go to the parades," Doane said. "They are fun, they go wild and make these human towers which are really cool to see. Everyone wears their flags around their neck and starts random chants."
Any Elon student who has studied abroad might notice that Follenweider is defying the Global Education Center’s strong suggestion to “avoid participating in demonstrations and other political activities.” Follenweider said she knows the risks and has taken steps to avoid putting herself in harm’s way even while being a part of multiple demonstrations.
“I’ve never felt unsafe,” Follenweider said. “But I also haven’t put myself in hostile situations. I haven’t partaken in any of the protests since Catalonia voted to be free because I just don’t know what they’re going to turn in to.”
Follenweider said police have been brutal at protests, citing videos of police shooting protesters with rubber bullets and “pushing old people down stairs.” To make sure she was removed from protesters’ clashes with police, Follendweider stayed away from voting precincts because of the danger.
While Follenweider has participated in some protests and avoided others, she has made it a point to keep abreast of the region’s political happenings during her stay in Barcelona.
Whether she is having conversations with her “homestay mom” or taking to the streets with her friend, Follenweider has been immersed in the maelstrom of separatist activity. Despite her passion, she says that her level of interest and feelings toward the movement is not shared by all of her classmates.
“They don’t really care,” Follenweider said.
While some of the other Elon students in Barcelona have kept tabs on developments, Follenweider said more students see the protests as an “inconvenience” while on the way to go drink on the beach.
“It depends on who you talk to,” Follenweider said, “but I really think the Elon kids haven’t taken the time to immerse themselves in this.”
Follenweider sees this fall as a chance to learn something new and make the most of her proximity to history-shaping political events.
“My perspective has changed because I took advantage of this historical moment going on,” Follenweider said. “It’s opened my eyes to different ways of thinking, and different ways of politics in other countries in general.”