Stroll to get ice-cream ends with a rubber bullet injury: Former Echo reporter caught up in Barcelona riots 

Stroll to get ice-cream ends with a rubber bullet injury: Former Echo reporter caught up in Barcelona riots 

Protesters run away from teargas thrown by national police officers, during clashes in Barcelona, Spain, at the weekend.

I'm always being told that my sweet tooth is dangerous, but I never expected to get shot by riot police with a rubber bullet while getting an ice cream.

There's an eerie mundanity to the ongoing riots in Barcelona, which began last Monday after nine politicians received jail sentences of up to 13 years for their part in the 2017 Catalonian independence referendum.

Instead of running from the fires on the street and the men in black masks, people are just going about their business.

Tourists take selfies with flaming piles of rubbish while locals calmly brush past rioters to get from A to B.

The city isn't paralysed by violence - it's pock-marked.

But it can all change in a second.

A longer trip around Europe has taken me and my girlfriend to Barcelona for a few days.

After dinner on Friday evening, we head out to get some air, an ice-cream, and do a bit of riot-seeing.

That day, an estimated 500,000 people from across Catalonia marched to Barcelona, the regional capital, in a peaceful show of solidarity with their jailed leaders and a show of anger at the national authorities.

The scale is breathtaking. Workers down tools and shops shut their doors as part of a strike across the region. People from all walks of life - old people, students, families with kids - wrap themselves in the yellow, red, and blue Catalonian flag.

The police - Catalonian's own Mossos d'Esquadra, autonomous from the national force - keep a calm watch over the crowds with only minimal conflict.

The Catalonian independence movement is complex and often controversial - both within Catalonia and beyond - but it was truly inspiring to see so many people standing up against the actions of a heavy-handed government.

But, as with previous days, things change once night falls.

As with any movement, a tiny percentage can wreak havoc for the rest.

In Catalonia, it's teenage boys and young men. They wear the typical uniform of the angry youth of anywhere - baseball hats, black hoodies with the logos of skateboard brands, scarves masking their faces.

Like many young people - especially those growing up in somewhere with the complex political problems of Catalonia - they want to fight the system but don't know how, so they revel in destruction, mimicking what they've seen deliver change elsewhere.

As journalists, when we see flashing lights and fires, our instinct is to head towards them instead of running away.

But there's nothing special about us - huge crowds form everywhere to watch the small gangs of rioters block streets, set fires, and shoot fireworks and flares.

No one feels like they're in danger. It feels more like bonfire night than a violent revolution. But despite the lack of alarm in the crowd, there's still tension.

And when the swat teams arrive it reaches fever pitch.

As we stand at a crossroads, observing the calm chaos of the crowd, people suddenly start running.

We hear sirens and see blue lights.

The crowd transforms into a violent wave, rushing away from the scene.

We pull into a doorway to let them past, trying to avoid being trampled.

Black swat vans screech onto the street and a horde of armoured, baton-wielding police rush out.

We start to move with the crowd, calmly but quickly, hugging the shopfronts to avoid the fray.

Then I feel something in the back of my leg, like a stone or a punch just above my knee.

We can't stop, so we push forward until we can take shelter in a hotel foyer.

I can see the welt on the back of my leg already - a white circle with a bruise forming around it. It's the mark of some sort of baton round - a rubber or foam bullet designed to cause pain and fear with minimal injury in order to shock and disperse a crowd.

As we try to walk the two blocks back to our hostel, rioters are tearing down barricades and ripping flower boxes apart.

Restaurant staff rush to bring what chairs and tables they can inside before they're taken by the mob.

Before we make it to safety, we face another wave. We pull back against a wall and watch as people attack the swat vans with anything they can find.

People trip to the ground as they try to flee the rioters and the police, narrowly avoiding being trampled in the crush.

On Saturday morning, Barcelona is almost back to normal.

Though a few streets are closed and cleaners are hard at work trying to undo the previous night's damage, families are out for the weekend and tourists are wandering past burned out phone boxes and graffittied shopfronts to admire the architecture of Gaudi.

There's no accounting for the disproportionate violence of the police.

Riot control is based around shock and awe - get in fast, assault the sense of the crowd, and don't give people enough time to think before they start to disperse.

The police have been controlling these crowds for days. They know they are mostly made up of bystanders. They know the lights and sirens are enough to get them moving.

Yet some trigger-happy cops still fire baton rounds jusy because they can.

But violence begets violence and accomplishes little in situations like these, and that's something the rioters don't seem to understand.

They think they're freedom fighters taking on the system, but the riots in Barcelona are just Catalonians destroying the property of other Catalonian and clashing with Catalonian police.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government, based halfway across the country in Madrid, can watch Catalonia rebel against itself and continue with its alarmingly authoritarian approach to holding the different regions of Spain together.

Because Spain functions so well as a single unit internationally - from the EU, to the World Cup, to the Eurovision - we fail to realise how dysfunctional it is internally.

To the Spanish, Spain is not one single entity - it is a fragile union of several provinces and historical kingdoms.

People are Catalonian, Gallician, and Navarran first, and Spanish second.

When Ireland was joining the EU and finding its place as a modern European democracy, Franco still reigned over the region. Spain's path to freedom wouldn't begin until the late 1970s.

Since then, the country has remained under the authority of a national government, but each region - each as diverse as the next - has extensive autonomy over its own internal affairs, which often leads to conflict with the capital, Madrid.

Things reached a head after 2008 as the financial crash rocked the country's economy.

Madrid has remained in chaos - Spain is heading into its second general election this year, and the fourth in the last four years - as national and regional conflicts open old wounds.

To Catalonians, Spain's violent crackdown in 2017 on a peaceful referendum - held following a renewed interest in Catalonian self-determination during the global recession - was a mark of the oppression and control they wanted to escape.

For many, the heavy sentences handed down to the referendum's organisers confirmed that feeling that the current state is becoming a throwback to the Francoist dictatorship of less than 50 years ago.

But answering that with violence will do nothing but harm their cause, yet the rioters cannot see that.

The riots are an aimless distraction from the demonstrations that might really deliver something.

With a general election coming up, the hundreds of thousands of Catalans willing to march on the streets are in a unique position to force this issue further into the national conversation as a new government is formed.

Peaceful people power might make a difference and lead to a peaceful an agreement or compromise that could settle the question of independence.

Violence - be it rioting or riot-control - will do nothing but frustrate that cause.

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