Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Cause, a Protest, and Violence

So I find myself with internet for the first time in several days, and oh my so much has happened. Indeed it would seem unfair to relate all that has happened/is happening in one short post, so in an effort to do justice to the recent events I have experienced, I will devote this post to one event in particular.

*Note: the picture to the left was take not 50 yards from where I was standing on the 15th of August in Seoul. Note the green dye from the water cannon on their arms, this dye was used to mark protesters for later arrest.

My friend Billy and I arrived in Seoul with the rest of our Fulbright group last Friday, and decided we wanted to see the town. We thought that Friday night was as good a time as any, and besides, it is only a city of 20 million people, so I was sure we could see most of it in one night. Anyway, so the two of us decided to do a few touristy things, like go to a palace and walk around the city hall area, and as we were doing so we saw riot police almost everywhere we went; not doing anything in particular, just standing around and looking bored. But nevertheless, everywhere we went we saw these guys, hundreds and hundreds of them in their black riot gear. So as night approached we were down by city hall, trying to find a sushi restaurant, and we ran across a large number of protesters, lighting candles and holding signs. A few people were making speeches to the crowd, and we stayed a few minutes as we tried to understand what they were protesting. We soon found out. As we were leaving, we were walking down a street and two lines of about one hundred riot police ran in front of us and completely blocked the road. The lined up with their shields in front of them and stood, staring at us, expressionless, waiting. We were obviously a bit confused, so we just stood there, about ten feet from these gentlemen clad in black, and waited to see what would happen. After a few minutes, several of the protesters came over to the line of police and started heckling and yelling at them. As the situation escalated we stepped back a few feet and tried to go around the line of police, and as we did we began to hear screams, and sirens, and yelling, and what can only be described as chaos. So we ran towards the sounds and as we did a truck with a water cannon passed us, its contents bound for unforeseen victims, and we began seeing more and more riot police, until they were everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Once we rounded a corner and a huge intersection came into view, we found the source of all the chaos. Thousands of people were running and yelling, many trying to evade capture by the riot police, many trying to escape the fury of the water cannon and tear gas that had recently been fired. The scene was complete and utter chaos. So, after a moment of deliberation I turned to my friend Billy and said, "Billy, we can stay here and be safe, or we can risk our safety, run into the this, and be in the middle of something we won't ever forget." With nothing more than a simple nod and smile, Billy and I ran towards the confusion. As we ran into the square, we were literally forced to dodge protesters and riot police as they ran around in a strange game of cat and mouse. We could see the water cannon, spraying the protesters and fleeing the scene, and we could see protesters yelling and fighting with the police. It was insane. As we tried to run across the intersection lines of police (50 or more in each line) would run at us, clubs drawn and shields raised, and we would dodge them as best we could and move on to the other side. Shortly after we entered the square, the police shut down the square completely, sealing off every possible exit to ensure that no one could get in or out. In between chaotic moments in the square we had a brief chat with a korean protester who informed us that the protests were against their President, and the fact that it was the Korean independence day made it a perfect day to protest and make their point. She said that they had been protesting peacefully with candles when the police came down on them, first with the water cannon, then tear gas, then beating them with their batons. She told us that there were around 10,000 riot police in and around the square, and maybe 5,000 protesters; not a fair fight if you ask me. Our conversation was funny in that while she was telling us this she would occasionally stop to yell at the police and call them names, or sing a song with several others about the police not being able to marry and how they are shameful, then return to our conversation with a completely normal tone of voice. Anyway, our conversation came to a brief halt when tensions among our group escalated and the crowd began to yell and push the police, who pushed back, which devolved into a mess with us at the center. As we were pushed towards the violent scene, we decided to try to use the chaos to our advantage and make our way beyond the square where we could comfortably stand (as we had been in the square for a half hour or more). So we were able to slip out and watch at a distance as the violence dissipated.

After we grabbed dinner and proceeded to walk around town a bit more, we continued to see riot police running in one direction or another. We ran across the water cannon truck re-filling at a fire-hydrant, and saw tons and tons of undercover police in plainclothes, (although they were anything but subtle, they all wore close to the exact same clothes and all had the same green plaid fishing hat, as if it would somehow make them blend in) always following the police at a not-so-discreet distance. Anyway, the night was wild and shocking and eye-opening and really made me think about the role of an individual in society and the role of police and government and....well maybe you should just ask me about it sometime. The final tally was 156 protesters arrested, which isn't bad considering all the people in the square. Here are some pictures from earlier in the protests, taken from a Korean newspaper:

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