SABADELL, Spain — In a mass act of civil disobedience, organized by Whatsapp groups, encrypted messages and clandestine committees, a small army of parents and their children occupied hundreds of polling stations across Catalonia on Saturday, hoping to thwart efforts by the central government to shut down an independence referendum that Madrid calls illegal.
The remarkable occupation of elementary and high schools, which in Spain serve as polling stations, set the stage for an almost surreal confrontation between pro-independence Catalans and their central government.
The defenders of the vote were not trained cadres of activists, but ordinary, over-extended and stressed parents from the neighborhoods, who carried babies on their hips and entreated rambunctious children to stop teasing their siblings.
As the occupiers were gulping coffee and sharing plates of pastries brought by volunteers, police units on Saturday started to sweep the schools to warn the parents that the buildings must be emptied by 6 a.m. Sunday, three hours before the controversial plebiscite is scheduled to begin.
Police have been instructed to clear the polling places but to use limited force.
As children in playgrounds ran around chasing soccer balls and scribbling with crayons in classrooms, their parents were huddled in the hallways, sneaking a quick cigarette, scrolling their mobile phones and worrying.
“I would not deny that we are nervous because we don’t know what is going to happen,” said Roger Serra, a parent who spent the night at Enric Casassas primary school here alongside about 50 others.
The people who came to occupy the buildings to defend the referendum were almost in disbelief, that in a prosperous, stable and globalized country in Europe in 2017, they suddenly found themselves at a modern-day version of the old barricades.
The families spent a restive night, watching Disney movies and curled…