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View Donald Kaufman’s photos of Catalonia’s independence vote.

BARCELONA, Spain—Shortly after noon Monday, thousands in Barcelona’s Plaça de la Universitat were chanting “Assassin” in a deafening roar and waving their middle fingers at the Spanish government helicopter circling above. The mood was buoyant, and many in the peaceful crowd were smiling broadly.

“We have voted!” and “The streets will always be ours!” were among the chants at the demonstration, one of many that have been mounted in support of Catalonia’s referendum Sunday on whether the region should be independent from Spain. The central government has vigorously, and at times violently, opposed the referendum.

One of the demonstrators, with red hair and bright blue eyes, gave her name as Lola and identified herself as a retired professor of ancient and modern Greek. “We need to have the right to determine our future,” she said. “The Spanish politicians become lawyers of the state. They say the law is more important than the people. We in Catalonia don’t believe that’s how our government should be run.”

As she spoke, a fire truck edged into the crowd. Many waved, cheered and shouted in unison, “More fireman, less police.” The chant is a favorite among crowds here since video footage revealed police battering Catalan firemen who formed a human shield to protect those casting their votes.

More than 900 people are reported to have been injured by police, who fired rubber bullets, used clubs and tear gas and dragged some people by their hair.

According to Catalan officials, 2.26 million people voted (43 percent of the region’s 5.3 million eligible voters), in defiance of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who said the referendum was illegal.

Jordi Turull, a Catalan government spokesperson, said authorities caused a loss of 770,000 votes. “Four hundred schools [used as polling stations] have been sealed and many votes have been directly stolen,” he said.

Rajoy alleged the violence was not due to brutality by police, who he said acted with “firmness and serenity,” but instead resulted from the actions of Catalan politicians. In response, Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, demanded an end to police operations and called for Rajoy’s resignation.

One of Monday’s demonstrators, Antoni Sudria, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Catalonia, said a shift has happened. “Now we are convinced we need to be independent.”

Although Catalonia previously held a vote calling for independence, “This is different,” said Pau Imiaz, a voting station worker and a student from a small town outside Barcelona. “In 2012, it was accepted that voting was not relevant. It was a question to the people. They wanted to know what the people were thinking. Today, it is expected that this is real.”

Soufiane, a hotel worker who appeared to be in his mid-30s, said, “In 2012, the people didn’t want to be independent, but because Madrid and the Spanish government lied and didn’t let us make a democracy, we have changed how we look at what must happen next. They wore a mask and stopped us from making our own referendum.”

For Imiaz, the goal is for Catalonia to be accepted in the European Union as an independent state. Many in the crowd want the EU to come to help Catalonia become independent but feel the EU is manipulated by Spain. That sentiment was not helped by French President Emmanuel Macron, who in a telephone call with Rajoy on Monday said he backs the “constitutional unity of Spain.”

When asked why Catalonians felt the need to be independent, demonstrator Escola Joan Miro, a Catalan painter who worked at a polling station, said, “All our taxes all go to Madrid. Sometimes it comes back, sometimes no. We get crumbs.” Catalonians point to the inadequate railroad system that strangles the region’s imports and exports.

According to The Washington Post, Catalonia paid about $11.8 billion more to Spain’s tax authorities in 2014 than it got back. Catalonia accounts for almost one-fifth of the nation’s output and has long been a driver of Spain’s economy.

On Tuesday, most if not all of Catalonia will go on what is being called a “stop.” Lola explains that Catalonians don’t call it a strike because that word would pit employer against employee. To her and the Catalonians marching, it’s important that everyone stay on the same side and that the protests stay nonviolent.

View Donald Kaufman’s photos of Catalonia’s independence vote.

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