A brief note: as always with blogs by foreigners in Korea, caveat emptor. I’ve done a lot of work confirming a lot of this, but there are many points of view I’ve not represented. Yes, some protesters have been badly behaved. Yes, I haven’t been at the protests daily, like Scott Burgeson. Yes, I rely on my fiancée Lime for some news, some confirmation, and she’s a pretty good wingperson (er?) for photography, pointing out things I hadn’t noticed myself.
Anyway, if this interests you, read other people’s posts about this whole series of events — I recommend Gusts of Popular Feeling (or try starting here) as a good place to start — and think for yourself. I’m just trying to put some facts and observations out from my own experience, sans any ignorant, superiority complex bullshit and mockery.
And yeah, I’m still working out what I think of all this. I’m glad to say I didn’t just make up my mind on day one. It’s a complicated series of events, but I think they’re worth thinking about, if only because they may indeed have repercussions in the shape this society takes in reference to politics while the current level of disenchantment with representative democracy as a whole remains as high as it currently is.
So a few days ago, the ongoing protests — the ones that so many have mocked, the ones that some are bored with (no offense, Joe — I’ll be posting some sillier stuff soon too, like others have promised you — actually, about a Korean SF story I found that begins in the Yeokgok Homeplus and involves a mini-alien invasion in Bucheon, of all things!), and that others (er, weeks ago) triumphantly predicted are going to taper off into insignificance so that everyone can shut up and go home… it seems everyone’s got an opinion to report…
… well, those protests just turned a corner.Not the corner they turned a gew days ago, the violent corner. And, yes, some morons are mocking that, too. Sure, there’s been violence going on for some time now, and not just violence by police, but also (some) violence by protesters. Of course, newspapers have been overplaying the protester violence, and underplaying the violence by law enforcement. Like, for example, publishing by the Seoul chief of police that water cannons cannot injure people, side by side with reports by medical experts who have treated people with skull fractures, brain hemorrhages, and ruptured tympanic membranes because of the violence (and outright, documented misuse) of water cannons.But you know, it wouldn’t be the Korean police if bullshit, incompetence, and violence weren’t all right out there on display for the world to see.However, most of the time, the world is not looking. Right now, though, Condi Rice is in Seoul. And you know what that means, right?
So a couple of nights ago, descriptions of the way cops were handling protesters changed in nature. A few weeks ago, I was at a relatively sedate protest and saw that, as long as you played by the rules — standing on the sidewalk or crosswalk, and not in the street — the cops didn’t arrest you. In fact, they’d say, “Excuse me,” or firmly (but not violently) try to shepherd people out of the way while the few people who stepped “outside the lines” got chased across the road, and those who went back and forth along the crossing lines — technically, in bounds, but irritatingly violating the spirit of traffic laws, according to the cops’ point of view — were shouted at, but not subjected to violence or arrested.
Well, that changed a couple of nights ago. One scene that’s gained notoriety of late is of a housewife with her kid in a stroller blocking the passage of the dreaded water cannons. “I pay taxes, this is my road, so hey, you wanna drive that violent thing here, go in front of my baby!” is what I’m told she said, and the water cannon truck, finally, backed away. There are some pictures of that here.
But that didn’t stop the violence. Oh, no, and the violence was plentiful on the street. So much so that a local camera club has volunteered to be “official” photographers for the protests. They’re amateur — but very skilled — SLR camera fanatics, and they’ve organized themselves into something vaguely reminiscent of what was described in David Brin’s novel Earth: they’ll snap pictures of anyone being beaten by a cop, to prove the cops used violence on the person, and hopefully in order to provide evidence should the legal system ever grow a pair of balls and prosecute this violence.
The violence, by the accounts I’ve read, was out of hand. Not only were protesters beaten, but even medics who were treating injured protesters got beaten. It didn’t matter whether you were in legal bounds or not, whether you were doing anything illegal or not — well, unless you accept the (patently unconstitutional) claim by the police that all these demonstrations are illegal from now on.
Which might be why even medics have taken to wearing hard hats for protection.
And that is where the Catholic Church comes in, and it’s that corner I’m talking about the protests having turned.
Now, everyone who’s been reading this blog for some time knows that I have some problems with the Church, and with religion in general, but I have to admit: I’m impressed with the response of a very large group of Catholic priests as of today.
Those priests, essentially, said, “Huh? People no longer have the right of public assembly? Well, they’re going to insist on it, so… fine! Then we’re holding a public mass in front of City Hall Monday night.”
Which was tonight. I was there. Approximately three hundred priests and (plenty of nuns) turned out, all in their vestments — and as can imagine, just the opening procession to the improvised altar at the A/V stage took a long time. The mass got delayed — of course, because the cops decided to block the A/V equipment for a while — but it finally got under way around 7:30 or 8pm. How did they start the mass?
They read Article 1 of the Korean Constitution, which is translated thus (from here):
Article 1 [Democracy]
(1) The Republic of Korea is a democratic republic.
(2) The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea resides in the people, and all state authority emanates from the people.
And then there were some pertinent readings, and a scathing sermon that touched on the following points:
- that all those in attendance should pray for President Lee that he may overcome “his arrogance and ignorance” (and yes, the phrasing was that harsh)
- a call for the resignation of the chief of the Seoul police for his use of unwarranted brutality against Korean citizens
- that the government has no right to prevent constitutionally-guaranteed free rights of assembly
- that the demonatrations are neither pro- nor anti-American, should be neither left- nor right-wing — despite a certain proportion of Korean society dismissing the demonstrators as “mere leftist [or, Communist] agitators” — but should focus on goverment’s failure to respect the voice and power of the people, and their constitutional rights
- that protesters should refrain from any form of violence, and hold fast to nonviolent tactics and engagement with the police and government
- that the so-far thwarted attempts to “march” to Cheong Wa Dae — the Korean “Blue House” — should cease
(And framing things this way does make a difference. It’s pretty hard to argue in favor of stripping people of their constitutional rights or using excessive violence just because you disagree with them… unless your a total scumbag and a nut, of which there are several here. I’m not saying violence can’t be used, but in excess, it’s anti-democratic. People, democracies are messy. They’re annoying and sometimes they’re a pain in the ass. That’s how freedom works.)
Anyway, then the mass went on a while more, and those who deemed themselves eligible were invited to take communion; then the priests — a huge mob of them — led a march in the streets.
The path of the march circled back to city hall, and finally dispersed somewhat. The dispersal, no doubt, had something to do with the fact that the cops had, in their sniveling way, decided to roll their “chicken-cage” buses forward and block the street so that a second round of marching was impossible. Or maybe it was their downright totalitarian intimidation tactics? When you can’t engage in violence, threaten to ruin people’s lives: yes, they started photographing participants in the protest for, as is naturally implied, prosecution at some future time.
But the cops’ little blockage and brutish intimidation was far from a victory. The priests, indeed, have followed up with a statement that Lime told me about once we got home, which was that, since the protesters seem to need some guidance and hope, and since the government — so far — seems leery to beat the crap out of vestment-clad priests on the streets of Seoul, they’ll be holding masses again daily. (I don’t know if that will be daily, though, since there’s a Protestant prayer meeting scheduled for the protest venue on the 3rd, and a Buddhist prayer meeting on the 4th, but Lime tells me that several Catholic priests are staging a hunger strike in a tent on the grounds in front of city hall now, so I expect their presence will be a continuing thing in the days — if not weeks — to come.)
There’s one more interesting fact: that the march went away from the direction in which they had gone previously. That is, previously, people marched northward, toward the Blue House. Preparations — perhaps they would be better described as “fortifications” — were pretty strong, apparently, with water cannons and teargas ready for tonight’s protest, but the priests said, “Everyone, nonviolence!” and “Everyone, they’ve blocked the road north, so let’s march south!” And people did it, with older protesters and some priests stopped along the way to encourage people only to block half the road.
The word is that the apparent symbology is this: when people were trying to get to the Blue House, they were trying to communicate with the government, but having turned south supposedly represents a change in tactic, an attempt to communicate instead with the people in general. We’ll see if that takes, but I have no doubt the cops are going to do their best to blockade protesters regardless of what direction they choose to take next.
Lime tells me, by the way, that in terms of history, such “public masses” being held by Catholic priests in Korea have been an infrequent, but always momentous, part of the movement for democracy here. It seems that the last major big public mass was in 1987, and that as a rule, the tenor of demonstrations tends to change when the Catholics wade into the fray. We’ll see, I guess.
Personally, I was inspired, which says something if you know me, since I am very rarely inspired by anything done by clerics. But they had me the moment they started the mass by quoting the first article of the Constitution. And even I had to laugh when, during the Communion part of the mass, some of the songs were secular protest songs, and one of the priests said, “This [Buddhist] monk requested we sing such-and-such a song, so let’s sing that now!” (The Buddhist monk has apparently been there every day, and was part of the procession of priests, and hanging out up by altar… not that we could see anything. We were almost a full city block away, sitting on the damp ground, of course upon a newspaper.)
By the way, I was interviewed by someone named Kim Kyung Hyung, who is a Korean filmmaker who has, it seems, been pretty involved in documenting the whole series of protests from the start. I was really leery, because reports by others, like Scott Burgeson, of misquotation by reporters, but Lime said she’d heard of him and that he was relatively respected (and respectable), and he seemed like an okay guy, so I told him my complex, convoluted opinions. He seemed to understand most of what I said and smiled a few times. Here’s hoping that if anything gets used, it’s used straightforwardly. But if not, I have his email, a cell phone number, and a street address of some kind… muhahaha. He did, at least, promise to try track down everyone whose footage he uses in whatever documentary he might someday make.