Spain erupted into chaos on Sunday as Catalonia held a referendum on independence, with police firing rubber bullets at protesters and smashing into polling stations in an effort to halt the vote, reports the AP. The officers fired the rubber bullets while trying to clear protesters who were trying to prevent National Police cars from leaving after police confiscated ballot boxes. The Spanish government has ordered police to stop the voting process, saying it's illegal. Catalan officials said more than 300 people were injured, some seriously. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont condemned the crackdown. "Police brutality will shame forever the Spanish state," he said as crowds cheered. Tension has been on the rise since the vote was called in early September, crystalizing years of defiance by separatists in the affluent region, which contributes mightily to Spain's economy.
Enric Millo, the Spanish government's rep in the region, said police and National Guard forces acted "professionally" to enforce court orders to suspend the vote. He dismissed the vote's validity, saying, "today's events in Catalonia can never be portrayed as a referendum or anything similar." Clashes broke out less than an hour after polls opened. Polling station workers reacted peacefully and broke out into songs and chants challenging the officers' presence. Spanish officials had said force wouldn't be used, but that voting wouldn't be allowed. Regional separatist leaders pledged to hold it anyway, promising to declare independence if the "yes" side wins, and called on 5.3 million eligible voters to cast ballots.