Police fired rubber bullets, wrestled protesters, smashed doorways and carted off ballot boxes in several parts of Barcelona on Sunday, as long lines of people voted in an independence referendum that could radically reshape politics across a divided region.
The outbreaks of police violence at a handful of polling locations served to heighten tensions in the Catalan capital, potentially boosting turnout for a vote that could have significant consequences for the autonomous region's future, and that of Mariano Rajoy's Spanish government.
After polls closed Rajoy made a televised address reiterating that voters had been tricked by Catalonia's political leaders, and that the national police had simply responded in accordance with their orders.
Ricard Gene, 56, a commercial lawyer who had volunteered to help at a polling station inside the Miquel Tarradell secondary school in Barcelona's Ciutat Vella - or Old City - said he was shocked by the images of violent police tactics that played out across his city, as ordinary citizens sought to vote in a referendum that Spain's constitutional court had already declared illegal.
"We thought it would be hard, but never this hard," he told CNBC as he handed out ballot papers to Catalans who trickled in to the secondary school's entrance hall.
He had walked just fifteen minutes that morning from home to his assigned voting location, where the school foyer was filled with tables, ballot boxes and fellow volunteers. By mid-afternoon his team had ushered "hundreds, maybe thousands" of voters through the process.
The ballot papers had been printed in secret and delivered just after 8 a.m. local time, while volunteers interlocked arms to prevent national police from capturing them.