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BARCELONA, Spain – When striking college students rallied on Thursday in Barcelona to defend a vote on whether Catalonia should secede from Spain, Josep Lago headed in the opposite direction, to his Law class.
The 24-year-old has little sympathy for the political struggle that many of his fellow students have embraced. Catalonia as it is now, a prosperous region of northeastern Spain, suits him well. Like most of those who agree with him, he doesn't plan to vote in Sunday's referendum.
What moves him to get out of the classroom and protest, though, is what he sees as the refusal of his right to dissent in a society where the separatists' is the loudest voice.
"Radical independentists who had the monopoly of thought in the university campus don't want to allow other ideas," says Lago, who has taken legal action against the harassment and threats that his group of non-nationalist students received when they started to speak up.
Many who feel both a Catalan and a Spanish identity dub themselves as the "silent majority" of Catalonia. Lago says it's also a silenced group, facing social isolation and stigma from a solid group of nationalists and, very occasionally, also verbal and physical violence from a minority of radicals.
Polls show a nearly even divide among the 7.5 million Catalans between those who are for and against independence — with oscillations, depending on the performance of Spain's economy — but the "no to independence" side has proved to be much more fragmented.
Politically, they are represented by regional incarnations of national parties, across the ideological spectrum. Their little common ground these days is opposing Sunday's planned referendum on the region's split, saying it goes against the Spanish constitutional order.
Only the separatist coalition that called the referendum recognizes it as a binding and legitimate vote, and analysts say the abnormal formulation of the referendum explains why opponents have found that the best way to oppose it has been to ignore it.
"Because the Spanish government has always refused to negotiate a referendum, it's a self-organized vote by the Catalan government, which is for independence," said Andrew Dowling, a specialist in Catalan history and affairs at Cardiff University in Wales.
"It's announced three weeks before the vote, so by any stretch of the imagination that's not a real campaign," Dowling added, noting the absence of a "no" campaign as such.
At street level, opposition to the vote is even less unified than in the corridors of the regional parliament.
"We don't have organizations, we don't have the control of media, the funding or the backing of political parties as powerful as the independentists," says Victor Pellerin, a 35-year-old Barcelona native who was among the few hundred protesters who yelled "We are Spanish!" at the headquarters of the Catalan regional government on Thursday evening.
"There is no urge to protest for us if we are the ones who agree with how things are," Pellerin said, explaining the low turnout to the protest. "It's those who seek to change the status quo who are taking it to the streets."
Within Catalonia, intellectuals, sports and businesspeople, and other prominent public figures have come out on one side or the other, publishing a series of manifestos supporting or opposing the vote.
The "no" camp has enlisted more than 4,000 signatories, including filmmaker Isabel Coixet, designer Javier Mariscal and the bosses of most Catalan companies.
But at the grassroots level, Societat Civil Catalana, or SCC, has emerged as the main and almost only opposition to the vote. On Thursday, the group unveiled a last-minute ad campaign calling for "sanity" to prevail over "fury" and asking people not to participate in the illegal referendum.
The group claims to have 18,000 associates — far from the hundreds of thousands of volunteers mobilized in mass demonstrations by the Assemblea Nacional Catalana and Omnium Cultural, the two main civilian driving forces of the referendum.
The SCC's student branch is an example of the challenges the group faces. Founded two years ago by Lago and another student in the Autonomous University of Barcelona, it went from 30 activists in its early days to fewer than a dozen joining in activities nowadays.
Photos of the group's members are being used by a self-identified group of "anti-fascists" in calls to oust the non-nationalists from the university campus, Lago says.
Lago blames the harassment on this group. The SCC's information stands have been attacked, Spanish flags burned and the screening of a documentary ended last year with police showing up to rein in a confrontation with separatist students who occupied an auditorium to a debate.
"We live in a democracy and nobody should be a hero to defend his political ideas," he says. "If you go against the ideas of independence, you are exposed to retaliation."
The fear of social isolation, stigma or lack of empathy was cited in a dozen interviews this week in Barcelona among those who say that sharing their views in public is too troublesome.
A vice chancellor with the Autonomous University of Barcelona said that the school is trying to encourage that "all ideas flow, for all students to enjoy freedom and respect."
"We understand that the wider political debate is sometimes expressed in university with the vehemence and exaltation often found in young people," Virginia Luzon said. "But this can't be confused with violent activism."