Catholics 1, Riot Cops 0

This entry is part 10 of 14 in the series Beef Protests '08

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…

Will Be Televised

… 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.

Medics. Note the Helmets

And that is where the Catholic Church comes in, and it’s that corner I’m talking about the protests having turned.

Some Marchers

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?

Leading the March

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.

Not Small

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.

Busloads of Nuns

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.

Working Traffic Duty

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.

Buses Stuck

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.)

Priest Passing By

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.

Also by the way, for those wanting better pictures than mine, have a look here. As for my photos, I’ll be expanding on the Flickr photoset containing all the pics above in the next day or two.

Series Navigation<< On the Ajumma Slain in North Korea, and Anti-Communist Paranoia in the South<< Greased Shipping ContainersV and the Protesters >>

18 thoughts on “Catholics 1, Riot Cops 0

  1. Gord, good post, you seem inspired. I can only say that I was there on Saturday night and after seeing all that went down, I am considerably less anti-police than you are in this post. The protesters were seriously out of hand, jabbing long metal pipes through the windows of police buses trying to hit police, smashing windows with fire extinguishers and shovels and capturing quite a few policemen after the police came out at midnight. I saw a couple of police with bleeding faces, or getting mobbed on by protesters (as happened on Wed. and Thurs. nights, too). I don’t know, I would call it a draw in terms of violence and who started what first. The protesters were fairly extreme on Saturday night and the police responded in kind. Certainly the police did not just randomly crack down for no reason. Yes, the police used water cannons but then the protesters used two high-pressure fire hoses against the police for at least two hours as well. In some respects I admire the protesters for their courage, even as I am somewhat troubled by the way that some of the protesters seriously go ofter the police once they have been captured, especially the cowards who run up from behind and hit or kick the police in the back while the police have their hands pinned and can do nothing in response. I think the protesters need to accept the fact that if they are going to attack the police, they are hardly innocent martyrs of police violence, which is precisely what the left-leaning media here are trying to make them out to be. It’s just not that simple.
    I don’t know why, but at the end of the night on Sat. I felt sorry for the police, actually. Maybe it was because when I saw some volunteer medics leading four captured police to an ambulance to escape the crowd, some young punk asshole came up from behind and tried to pond one of the police on the back of the head. The other protesters peeled the assailant off, but then they just let him go without a word of reprimand. I really didn’t think that policeman, who barely was out of his teens, deserved that, and the look of shame and terror on his face made me feel quite disgusted by it all.

  2. Amazing post. I appreciate the local insight, whatever caveats you’ve got. You’re trying to give info, not trying to opine, and that’s the important thing. But you know that.

    I always find it inspiring to see religious groups working for the common good rather than to brainwash folks in the interests of ideology.

  3. Joe,

    And it’s also about alien sex tourism on Earth, plus it’s kind of a police procedural. Sort of. I think. (Actually, the alien invasion is, if I remember right, fought off by other aliens who are using local ajummas as hosts. Or something. The story was related to me by my fiancee, who was reading it and howling with laughter. I’m thinking of finding someone to co-translate it with me. I imagine it’ll be hard, as there were bits when Lime went, “Oh, God. I have no idea how to say that in English,” and flipped a few pages.)

    It’s called 대리전 (代理戰) by DJUNA (듀나), and seems to be available in this book. (Not sure if that’s a collection of shorts or what.) It was originally published online, though, here. And there’s a bunch of other Korean SF in webzine form there, too, if you care to look about, here. Okay, not really a ton, consider it’s several years’ worth of archives, but anyway, it’s free. I’m gonna read it myself, maybe this week or next, in that painful, slow way one does when one is horrible at the language in question. But I will get to the end of it. I will!

    Oh my, that was my first time entering Hanja, sadly and pathetically.

  4. (Note: I chopped this to make it a second comment, thus easier to read.)


    I hear you. Like I said,

    #1. Caveat emptor. I’ve been lucky (or unlucky?) to be busy or otherwise occupied with work and other stuff, and almost always been in Seoul only on days when things have been peaceful, so I haven’t seen all the things you have seen, but…

    Well, I think that bad behaviour on the part of some protesters is all too easily used as an excuse for police brutality. I hardly imagine that all the families and young women in heels and haute couture were pouncing onto cops and beating them up. But, yes, I imagine a lot of rage has built up with things like these constant declarations that the protests are “illegal,” and outright lies about whether the (absolutely illegal) use of water cannons was actually dangerous or not. And, let’s face it, lots of young men just have crappy impulse control, and there’s no excuse for them lashing out at kid-cops in whose boots they would be standing, there but for the grace of being born a year or two before or after the unlucky ones.

    Whether it’s ethical for the government to be sending out virtual kids — who are prone to be less disciplined, who are likely poorly trained, who are definitely being taxed to the limit — is one question worth exploring. Whether those kids are being taxed to the limit on purpose is another, darker and more disturbing one.

    Properly trained professionals, though, might not have used those water cannons as they did. Lime knows one of the doctors who treated a brain hemorrhage, for example. That doctor was accused by commenters of lying about the injury, but she knows for a fact the person is a trustworthy and well-trained medical professional. And frankly, anyone who claims a person cannot be hurt with a water cannon is outright lying. It’s idiocy to think anyone will believe it. It’s also probably idiocy to think that these kids are the right people to be handling as delicate a situation as this, especially with weapons than can cause such dramatic harm. But hey, it’s Lee’s reputation, not mine.

    Whether protesters have a right to violence is something I think the priests tried to address: they essentially demanded nonviolence and pushed the situation into a direction where such violence was less likely to break out, which is one reason I was so inspired.

    (Especially since I’m often so unimpressed with the Church’s track record and the things it chooses to stand up for. As Lime says to me sometimes, “The Korean Church isn’t really the Church Church.” Weird, but makes sense in a Korean way, I guess.)

    Protesters who have resorted to violence can be said to be discrediting the whole movement. But really, what it seems like to me is that te handling of this has been botched all around. I especially get the feeling the question I asked you on the street didn’t convey my meaning very clearly. Do you remember when I said, “What are they gonna do when they get to the Blue House anyway?” And you said, “They’ll chant!” Remember?

    Well, I meant that it would probably have been anticlimactic if it’d happened in, say, late May or June. By setting up huge barriers — easily read as an iconic statement of a paternalistic, “No! I won’t listen!” — the authorities have aided the protest leaders and protesters and prolonged and intensified all of this. The greased shipping containers and chicken-cage buses seem to me to have expanded the life of this whole thing, which may well be the reason for thwe “ritualistic” nature of the confrontations you described to me that day we met.

    Realistically, a few days of sitting outside The Blue House and chanting — and being ignored — might have finally bled the movement of some kind of instinctive defiance, enough to lose critical mass. I don’t know, but I do suspect they aren;t so nuts as to try occupy The Blue House, as that would be a national security issue and, to reasonable people, grounds for mass arrests and maybe even shootings.

    Maybe they wouldn’t have dispersed more quickly, but it seems to me calling out huge numbers of cops just prolongs things… and then you’re stuck having to push and push the protesters back, having to declare their protests illegal, and of course having to hold cameras up and photograph them — intimidation and whatever, anything to provoke a few individuals into violence so as to discredit the whole movement… and well, of course, as to rescind any of those constitutionally-guaranteed rights that people might use to embarrass a president whose approval rating is almost as low as we can realistically imagine it’ll reach.

    But as I say, I haven’t seen the things you’ve seen. I’m almost glad, as I prefer to have a little bit of faith in humanity left, and my faith in humanity is somewhat fragile even at the best of times.

  5. Gord, you are correct that the police-bus barricades escalate the violence radically. Whenever confronted with actual police, the prostesters generally disperse quickly. On Friday night, for example, in front of the Seoul Finance Center, there was also a big crowd but the police put up a line of policemen in front of the protesters and nothing really happened (besides an assemblyman clocking one of the police in the head). I actually think most of the protesters are not as tough as the like to pretend since they tend to scamper away when the police come out, yet they certainly put on a big show when pulling the buses and busting out the firehoses and whatnot.

    I also agree that they should have let them go to the Blue House.

    The 5th is a big day and my gut intinct tells me it will be peaceful. The 8th of June was pretty violent, and then on the 10th when hundreds of thousands turned out, a solid majority of people were against the violence and that held out. I imagine the protesters will think of something imaginative and symbolic to do (along the lines of the styrofoam staircase on the 10th), in place of the same old violence.

    But we’ll see, it’s been hard predicting this thing all along.

  6. Val,

    Thanks. My opinions (and blind spots, I’m sure) do creep in, but this is what I’ve seen, and what I think from everything I’ve gathered. It’d be good to hear more from Scott on the proportion of protesters who are using violence, though.

    I can say that I’ve given up completely on the media when the story is at all political: each side of the spectrum is so prone to distortion that you can’t trust any of them.

  7. Gord, I would say between 20-30% of the protests have been violent. The violence always happens later in the evening. Last week starting from Wed. was more violent because the government was in the midst of publishing the new import regulations for US beef, so people were pissed at that. They started pulling the buses much earlier and the police came out much earlier as a consequence. If you include pulling police buses, defacing them and whatnot, I would say the number of people actually engaged in violence approaches the thousands, since one of those ropes is like a hundred meters long and they sometimes use two or three ropes per bus and each one easily has a hundred peope on them; then multiply that by several buses per night and of course the people involved in the pulling constantly rotates. On Thursday night, I even met a hot young lady who was a grad student in Oriental medicine pulling one of the buses by Kwanghwamun; she was in high heels and wearing those blood-red gloves, which was oddly erotic. She agreed that what she was doing constituted “violent” activity.

  8. Scott,

    Hmm. 20-30% of the protests, or of the protesters? (Is that a typo?) I’m wondering what proportion of the people engage in violent acts.

    All due respect to you and the hot high-heeled grad student, I’m not sure I’d agree to consider defacing buses or towing them with ropes “violence,” personally, since that seems to expand the definition of violence very conveniently to include the reaction but not the thing to which the reaction is occurring. (ie. If forcefully unblocking roads is violence, what should we consider forcefully blocking them?)

    I even wonder about the constitutionality of blocking the roads. Beyond “should have” let them go to the Blue House, I wonder about the constitutional legality of restricting their movement to that degree.

    (Oh, to know a creditable Korean Constutional scholar I could ask!)

    But I admit, I haven’t seen the rope-pulling up close and in person — I’ve been stuck in Bucheon much of the last month — and I might well think it violence were I to see it first hand.

    (Though I tend to define violence pretty much as, “Use of direct force against others’ persons (ie. bodies),” else we get into a situation where all kinds of things can be defined as violence.)

    Violence or not, I also suspect that the bus-towing, like everything else, is part of the confrontation ritual. There’s relatively easy passage through most of the day. Could people not, theoretically, have convened together nearer to the Blue House before the roads got blocked for the evening, if they wanted to do so? I think the organizers must grasp the symbolic power of the image of peasants protesters being blocked by the Palace guard crappy, defaced buses and prevented from going to petition an audience with the court at the Imperial Palace chant in front of the Blue House.

  9. “Hmm. 20-30% of the protests, or of the protesters? (Is that a typo?)”

    Not a typo. I meant protests.

    The bus pulling involves a lot of logistical violence. They first tie the ropes on the wheels, then the police try to cut the ropes from the backside or underneath so there is a lot of hitting or pipe wielding going on back and forth (defense and offence). Then the police use fire-extinguishers to try to disperse the bus pullers, which in turn prompts the protesters to start attacking the police to try to stop them, or throw rocks at them, or hit them with pipes through the windows or whatnot. After a while, it gets pretty crazy. And of course, once a bus has been pulled away, hundreds of protesters rush forward and there is direct conflict with the police which can often get extreme since that’s when police get pulled off the lines and whatnot.

    In the end, though, it does have a large element of ritualized violence to it since in general things seem pretty well contained. I agree that the protesters could get to the Blue House if they were more determined and really wanted to get there.

  10. Thanks for the clarification, Scott. That does sound like no fun, and a great deal of weirdness on all sides. Honestly — I fault both sides for the outbreaks of violence. If it’s as you described, it seems like it’s mutual brinksmanship.

    (Which incidentally makes me wonder to what degree similar tactics are likely to come into play between North and South Korea, in various scenarios.)

    Though… in terms of culpability, though I don’t advocate violence, I wonder whether blocking streets is, constitutinally speaking, “doing violence” to people’s rights, in which case, I’m less willing to openly condemn those who respond.

    And I think it’s wrong to declare whole protests illegal for the illegal actions of a few people. The comparable example — more comparable, I imagine — would be declaring internet use illegal because some people engage in illegal activities online. You arrest the people breaking the law, you don’t use law-breaking as an excuse to rescind constitutionally-guaranteed rights.

    Yes, it’s a big job. But if the police were actually competent and given the necessary equipment, they could indeed do it.

  11. Gord, well, for the sake of argument, if it’s illegal to jaywalk here, certainly blocking the entire width of Chongno from 9pm to 6am so that no cars, buses or taxis can get through is not exactly legal, is it?

    Many of the protests have been legal and sanctioned by permits (such as at Chonggye Plaza or City Hall), of course, even as they have usurped other cultural events pre-planned at the same locations.

    Anyway, violence as political dissent and illegally blocking roads are not something I necessarily disapprove of under the right circumstances, but we need to at least be honest about describing what’s really going on here.

  12. Gord, I should clarify why I am so troubled by the exploitation of the violence meme amongst the protesters.

    After talking to many protesters and observing things first-hand almost nightly, I can safely say that violence is intentionally being used by a certain hard-core segment of the protesters in order to provoke a reaction from the police and thereby increase sympathy amongst the greater public for the cause.

    I remember on a Thursday night in late May watching several ajosshis hurling themselves at a police line in front of Kwanghwamun Post Office for like an hour straight, and the police did nothing but absorb the blows and gently push them back each time. I later recognized one of those ajosshis as one of the main organizers of the protests when he helped lead the building of the giant styrofoam staircase in front of the MB Castle on the 10th of June.

    So I think that on that Thursday night in front of Kwanghwamun PO, he was playing a cynical game of trying to provoke the police, and the police were too smart to play into his hands, especially since there were quite a few media cameras following every move up close and waiting for something “exciting” or “dramatic” to happen. In the end, nothing did happen and after an hour, that ajosshi and the others gave up and walked away.

    You and I have both discussed how the protesters seem less than fully committed to going to Chongwadae, and I think they actually don’t want to go to Chongwadae — at least the hard-core element who are dictating the mood of the crowd later at night. I think that many of them want to just provoke the police enough to have the police crack down hard and thereby create pictures of “police brutality” to circulate in the left-leaning mediasphere, such as Hankyoreh, OhMyNews and MBC.

    Last week the police had announced that they were going to start cracking down on the organizers of the rallies through investigations and whatnot. Things were looking desperate for their movement, so what could they do? Well, they provoked the police repeatedly on Sat. night until the police finally came out. Sure, the police hit and kicked a few people but mainly those were people who were throwing things at the police first. But this kind of protester instigation or provocation is often edited out, as are any scenes of protesters beating up cops (remember I saw prostesters beating up cops myself on Sat. night), and then videos and photos of “police brutality” are circulated and the leftist media start making comparisons to Chun Doo-hwan and Kwangju. Since most ordinary people were not there, they believe this version and suddenly the religious groups are outraged and lend their support to the movement — giving it much needed wind in its flagging sales.

    Again, to be perfectly clear, there are people in this movement cynically using the police violence meme as their own kind of propganda weapon, and look how well it works — even you were moved by what you saw on Monday night, right? (Consider the title of this post for starters.)

    I think that the beef issue is so flimsy (especially after all US beef over 30 months was banned from importation weeks ago) that the anti-2MB organizers needed more issues to push their anti-government agenda. And the fact of the matter is that the left have no one but themselves to blame for being asleep at the switch last year and letting an idiot like Lee waltz into the Blue House. So violence is a crucial progaganda tool that the organizers have exploited to the hilt, in the absence of other credible issues. I mean, the GNP won a plurality in Parliament just in April, so even two months ago the left was too lame to have enough voters feel that they represented them adequately. That’s why they lost. So I don’t buy this whole thing about “democracy being denied,” since the people’s democratic will was accurately expressed just last Dec. and again in April (just to be clear, I certainly don’t like Lee, but I am blaming the left here at this point, and see what they’re doing now as a shameless power grab that is trying to mask their recent failures at the ballot box here). So, basically, violence is a crucial issue in this movement: That was the main theme of the speech you heard on Monday night, and that is one of the main things you hear people chanting against at the demonstrations. People complain about the “violent police” almost as much as they do about 2MB, and certainly less than they do about the need to renegotiate the beef deal.

    The funny thing, however, is that it is almost taboo amongst many protesters to suggest that the protesters are cynically exploiting the violence meme by intentionally trying to provoke the police. Last Friday night, I had a young woman in front of the Dong-A Building get extremely upset when I suggested that some of the protesters had started the violence first. She insisted that the police had started all the violence so far and that the protesters were simply innocent victims. I told her that one of my Korean friends was actively involved at the protests and had told me himself that he thought it was necessary to use violence as a tool at the demonstrations. She refused to believe it, although it was absolutely true. I then told her that one of the main organizers had told me last Thursday night that it was good news that someone had had their finger seriously cut that night because it would mean more people would turn out to demonstate the following night (as far as I recall, I think it turned out to actually be a self-inflicted wound). He at least was honest about the media game that he was playing, but that women again refused to believe me because I had violated the ultimate taboo by mentioning one of the dirty unspoken secrets of this movement: Many protesters are cynically exploiting the violence issue and are not as innocent as they like to claim. No doubt, if she only read Hankyoreh and OhMyNews, she probably would not have an objective view of what’s been going on at the protests in terms of violence on both sides. She was a conservatively dressed office worker and I had never seen her before after dark at the demonstations. Anyway, there were other people there who had gathered around me in a circle, and some of them admitted that what I was saying was true — that some of the protesters had initiated the violence as well — but there were others there who were also upset and rather worked up that I had violated one of the key taboos of this movement. I had wounded one of their most sacred cows: That the police have started all the violence, and that the protesters are but innocent victims of a heartless, authoritarian regime.

    Well, fuck that shit. It is pure hypocrisy to twist and distort reality while at the same time attacking the government for “not being honest” and “not being believable.” And the fact of the matter is that if you take away the whole violence issue, this movement would have probably died already. Certainly the religous groups would not have turned out this week and given new life to this thing.

    Tonight I walked to City Hall at around 7:30pm and was disgusted by what I saw. A group at Ch’onggye Plaza was protesting human rights abuses in China, but all of 5 people were stopping to listen to a speech that was being made. Nearby, on the corner by Seoul Finance Center, another group was protesting against global warming and advocating green living and vegetarianism, but again nobody was even listening. Then I went to City Hall, and it was flooded by people listening to a monk give a speech about the need to renegotiate the beef deal. I’m sorry, but why is a vegetarian monk promoting eating beef at all? Shouldn’t he be calling for outright cancellation?

    I left after a few minutes and spoke with the anti-global warming people once again. They had a large-screen TV showing how cows produce methane which in turn increases global warming. I spoke with the nice halmosi there for a while and asked her what she thought of the beef issue. At first she said she didn’t care because she was a vegetarian, but then after some prodding, she said, “Those people have low consciousness” and went on to talk about how traditionally Koreans didn’t even eat much meat, and that the cattle industry in both the US and Korea was harming the environment in serious ways. I agree with her completely. She ended by saying, “Those people don’t seem to really understand what going on in the world we live in. All I want to do is give some information about the Earth.” Too bad nobody really cared about what she had to say, because they were all too busy protesting their right to cram their faces with beef at City Hall.

    Well, if they are really as radical as they fancy themselves to be, they should simply announce that they will stop eating beef entirely and start actually giving a fuck about the enivironment for a change. I mean, I cannot even begin to imagine how much trash has been generated by two months of daily protests.

    I have to say that while 2MB certainly sucks, this movement is starting to look more and more morally bankrupt the closer I look at it.

    Perhaps the strangest thing is that as I was walking home and going past the Seoul Finance Center, one of the police captains who was sitting there with some other police called out to me in English with a smile and a friendly wave, “Hello!” I’ve been a borderline participant at these demos almost every night and wondered if he recongized me and was simply trying to say, “No hard feelings.”

    I’ll never know for sure, but for now I like to think that he was.

  13. King Baeksu,

    First of all, thanks for the comments. I really appreciate you bringing more information and a different opinion into this discussion.

    One thing that I’m in a funny position about is not having posted recently on how I view the overt subject of the protests, the US Beef “issue.” While I think that some foreign commentars have been unthinkingly snide in their mockery, I’m not all that sympathetic to that issue myself. — though I kind of waver between how central it actually is. Sometimes it seems completely peripheral, and then someone says to me, “Are you American? This isn’t about you, we like your country, it’s just the beef that’s an issue,” and I’m back to scratching my head. The beef fixation brings this book to mind, really, for me, and I’m working on an article about explores the role of SFnal and fantasy-sounding tropes in the protests. (I’m saving my observations on that subject for the article, though, which has probably given the impression I’m not at all critical of the claims that have been flying around for months.)

    But as for the guys you describe throwing themselves into the police line, well, my thinking is, if they are indeed doing anything that could be construed as assault — and it sounds like they are — they should be promptly tasered (tased?), cuffed, and carted away for their “chicken cage bus tour” and short stay in police detention. This is far preferable to allowing them to assault cops until the cops finally retaliate. When it was announced that “organizers’ offices” would be raided, I was asking myself, “For what? What are they going to do, seize all their samizdat literature and burn it?” Again, arresting people who behave badly at the start would preclude later use of the misbehaviour as an excuse to do all kinds of unnecessary things that not only impact the current demonstrations, but also set a precedent for later ones… which, as I say, are the demonstrations that will really matter. And setting up a mode of response that has a chilling effect on later demonstrations, or has people hesitating to even consider mounting them, is a bad thing for a democratic society, especially one in which a leader can be as blasé about public opinion as Lee sincerely seemed to think he could be.

    (And in some ways it seems like what’s happening is a generational clash, period. The younger, “Don’t tell us to go screw ourselves,” generation is hollering at the older “Shut up and trust me,” leadership.)

    I don’t know if they aren’t being arrested because of procedure, or because of a standing order not to arrest them, or out of fear of crowd reprisal, but as I say, if the cops were competent and given the means (equipment and permission) to deal with the lower-grade violence sensibly, then the organizers’ (cynical, I’ll definitely agree) gambit wouldn’t work. But it sounds to me like either outright incompetence on the part of whoever’s organizing the police response, or a similarly cynical desire to let violence fester and escalate to discredit the movement, or maybe a bit of both.

    (The problem with not having been there daily like you is that I’m relying on media for news, and media is always slanted. That said, the chunks of media I’ve seen — possibly heavily slanted, I’ll admit, but corroborated by 시사인, which is about the most balanced coverage I know of — have suggested that outbreaks of violence started a long, long time ago, and were started by cops, but mostly only very early in the morning. The one media source I know is hated by left and right alike, 시사인, has described as much. And when I described the contents of your comment to Lime, she said it sounded quite different from descriptions in the Korean media across the spectrum. And she has been tuning into the live, streaming webcasts until all hours on many occasions; what she’s seen on them contradicts what you describe, or at least, is different in particulars — especially on who started the violence.)

    (Which is even more depressing, if it’s the case that both sides are cynically exploiting violence — the organizers and the officials directing the cops alike.)

    But yes, cynical it is, if organizers are gleeful at the injuries of fellow protesters, and I understand your disgust. Still, organizers are just organizers, and at times this whole thing looks like it’s spun out of everyone’s control. I don’t think it’s quite right to dismiss the (nonviolent) efforts of the many because of the actions of a (possibly at times large, but still only a) minority. That’s the problem I have with images like this one being used to discredit the whole movement. (Which I think is what the title implies.) After all, it’s out of context. Maybe Koreans did pile onto this one kid, but what’s going on a few feet away? What happened a month before? I know you’ve seen the video, so it’s water cannons being used on May 31st. Brutally. To the tune of ruptured tympanic membranes, skull fractures, and brain hemorrhages, which at least one of Lime’s doctor friends treated a case of (brain hemorrhage, I think it was) and reported on online. And was called a liar by not only netizen commenters, but also the chief of police, who claimed the usage could not injure people seriously.


    But really, arguing about who started it is a bit like a couple fighting over who started the argument; there’s no really satisfactory answer, and the point is, there’s enough culpability to go around, or that’s my impression. The kids behind the shields have my sympathy; the people directing them do not, at all. Demonstrators who beat on those kids don’t either. But the demonstrators hit by cops or water cannons do.

    Anyway, I do think it’s unfair to equate participation in these protests with not caring about other things, though. This was one thing Lime talked with me about after we all met on the street that day. It was one of the things I said to her, “Well, why didn’t you say that to him, not me?” Equating protesting Lee’s trade policies doesn’t necessarily mean one doesn’t give a shit about North Korea, any more than, say, my blogging about SF in Korea implies I don’t give a crap about human rights in China or the environment.

    (In fact, I suspect most of the participants — let alone the organizers — strongly prefer Sunshine Policy to Lee’s more conditional North Korea policy on the grounds that, short of an invasion of the North which is not going to happen, it’s more likely — in their opinion — to do actual individuals in North Korea some good. (And according to Bradley Martin in this book, many North Korean defectors think aid is better than no aid, too.) So saying they don’t care about North Korea is, well, it’s a complicated claim that you must know would anger many.)

    Anyway, Lime’s a good example of someone who has a strong interest in environmental issues — and has adjusted her (and my) lifestyle in many ways in response to those concerns. Should this preclude involvement in the demonstrations? Cannot one care about both issues, or indeed many issues at the same time?

    I think one can be interested in both, and still choose to throw one’s weight into the movement that looks like it might achieve some kind of momentum. (The fact that the momentum seems aimed at banging into buses night after night is what’s turned her, and I think many other intelligent people, off.)

    As for the monk leading a protest — well, monks don’t actually proselytize their dietary restrictions to others, and besides, people seem convinced that you can get vCJD from products made with byproducts of beef processing, right? Maybe he believes (like many) that you can catch madcow disease from choco-pies and tampons. Which is one of those odd, SF/fantasy tropes I gestured at above, but given a misbegotten belief in such an idea, then a monk’s involvement doesn’t seem quite so irrational.

    (UPDATE: Also, Lime told me, after writing this, that one of the monks’ commentaries was explicitly about that, to the tune of,

    What the hell? We don’t even eat meat. We live on a goddamned mountain and we’re vegetarians! Who the hell made us come to the city? Who the hell made us come to Seoul? It’s Lee Myung Bak!

    Which pretty much underlines that the monks’ involvement today had nothing to do with the ostensible beef issue.)

    Moral bankruptcy… ah, it’s inescapable, it seems. Humans suck, don’t we? Or maybe it’s just that no organization is pure. I’m sure there are cynical operators, and glassy-eyed fanatics, on both sides of the barricades. Alarm bells went off in my head the second day of the protests, when I saw the “literature” that was being distributed. But I don’t think that discredits everyone involved. But I don’t doubt that the police response is being managed with odious ends in mind, regardless of how decent-hearted the kids behind the shields might be.

    At this point, the best things I think can come from this series of protests are that:

    1. Lee’s government will be more likely to consider the potential for popular backlash — and people will be aware that protest can actually change policy, which will matter when it truly counts, like with this ridiculous Canal, water privatization, and the adoption of American-style health care insurance. (And whatever other stupid ideas they come up with. )

    2. Other interest groups with more legitimate explicit concerns — like the environmentalists you mention, and those concerned with human rights in North Korea and China, or those calling for reform of the police, an overhaul of education, better labour laws, a saner work culture, and improved food safety here and so on — will learn something about how to shape a narrative, however fantastical, that can set the public imagination on fire and keep the flames burning long enough to affect policies.

    Frankly, I can understand why the halmoni thinks people have low consciousness. I think it of people all the time! But, indeed, I bet that I would probably think the halmoni had low consciousness if I started to try to convince her that the IP law in the FTA is a much bigger immediate danger than the environmental ravages of agriculture or the conjured safety concerns regarding this beef, because it could cripple the prospect of any technological innovation ever occuring here, since after all it’s newer, greener, cleaner, and smarter technology, and not hairshirts and vegan diets, that we must realistically rely upon to keep humanity alive long enough to see the end of the 21st century. I could easily accuse her of having a low consciousness too, therefore.

    But accusing people of that is not an attitude that attracts many supporters, or that engenders a way of speaking that attracts interest among people. Maybe the halmoni and her crew could learn from the organizers, while doing away with the most odious tactics you’ve described.

    (Also, realistically, especially in Korea, the mental triage that people perform on issues is inescapably going to factor in (hugely) what everyone else is doing. This could be a good thing, though, if the people concerned with the major issues, like the environment, learn how to exploit that as effectively as the current protests’ organizers have done.)

    But especially, I hope that the whole ritualized violence aspect of things can be overridden or substituted with something else. Surely by now it’s clear that the protesters can engage in protest without clashing with cops, and that if they do it in a way that makes violent responses on either side look unreasonable, then violence will be less likely on either side.

    But I should reiterate that I think the implicit issue here — Lee’s style of governance, which is, even within the Blue House, rumored to be quite concentrated in a few people and quite disdainful of any criticism at all — is a worthy issue. The “shut up and trust us” approach displayed a couple of months ago is deserving of a political smackdown, and sadly the masses had to do it, because nobody in government had enough guts to risk it.

    3. Maybe it will shake up some of the apathetic ninnies who didn’t vote last time. I was talking today to someone who voted for Lee, and was complaining about that decision today. Perhaps even some of those who were sucked in by the empty rhetoric have been shook up. But more importantly, maybe the divided, flimsy moderate left among the public will do some soul-searching. Maybe the political left (whatever that means in Korea, they all seem somewhat right-wing to me) will do some soul-searching, too. Actually, soul-searching all around seems called-for.

    But I am, essentially, ready for all of this to be done sometime soon. I want to move on to other things, and I’m not even attending most of the demonstrations the way you are.

  14. Gord, as I predicted at the top of this thread, last night was largely peaceful and there were no reports of serious violence or clashes at the demonstration.

    Without the violence meme, the media here lack a compelling narrative to work with today as they did last Sunday. What they are left with is the reality of the actual issues, whether they or the protesters want to face them honestly or not. The fact of the matter is that Lee has made significant concessions and even apologized twice to the nation, despite the protesters’ claims that Lee “refuses to listen” to them or compromise. Thus, the only lasting message I can take away from all this is that the progressive forces here are simply sore losers, and have no one to blame but themselves for their recent loses in the December and April elections. Everything else is just distraction.

    I just made a pass-through at City Hall at 6pm tonight after grabbing a bite to eat, and there were all of 75 or 100 people milling about here and there in the entire Plaza. The police had cleared all the tents and the only organized group that seem to remain was the “Candlelight Church,” and they were a rather sorry sight: Their “church” consisted solely of a small flag and a banner reading “Ch’otbul Kyohoi,” on which a half dozen people were sitting forlornly. I asked them if they expected a large turn-out of demonstrators tonight and of course they said yes, although when I asked a nearby KBS camera crew the same question they said probably not. The largely empty Plaza was evidence enough for me.

    Indeed, for the first time in weeks, the police buses that had been protecting the Kwanghwamun intersection are now all gone, and the police buses that had been lining Taep’yongno for the past week are also all gone. That suggests to me that the authorities feel reasonably confident that things are starting to cool down.

    It’s been hard to predict the direction of this movement over the past two months, but at this point I think it’s safe to say this thing is nearing the endgame. There may a few largish weekend demonstrations throughout the remainder of the summer, but I think that last night was a final face-saving hurrah for the protesters, and that the candlelights of this movement already starting to flicker out.

    What remains for the progressive forces here is to articulate a proactive and compelling agenda for the future, rather than relying on reaction and negative to attract the citizenry to its cause.

    A year ago I wrote that Korea will never have its own “Summer of Love.” Let us hope that the bitterness and anger here subside quickly, so that 2008 is not remembered as Korea’s own quite bizarre Summer of Hate.

    But perhaps it’s already too late for that.

  15. King Baeksu,

    Yes, I was there Saturday night and took some pictures. I was meaning to post about it, but got busy/distracted with other things, and was debating with myself whether to reply to your comment here, or in the course of the upcoming post. After having left it for some time, I though I’d reply here and work up a post later today or tomorrow.

    Sunday’s low turnout was amusing to me, since while there, I was discussing the whole affair with some people. You know how it is, one person asks the random white guy why the hell he’s there, and then a crowd forms so that ideological correction can be performed.

    As soon as I asked questions, the inconsistencies started to show. One guy was asking me a lot of questions, like, “Why are you here?” so I asked him, “So why are you here? What is the goal of these protests now?”

    The range of answers from the group was wide, from “I don’t know,” and “Because the beef renegotiations aren’t yet satisfactory” to “Because we want 2MB to be impeached.”

    There were a few people who seemed to be in between, and were saying that they hoped the demonstrations would change Lee’s governing style, and make him more likely to consider public opinion. But the one lady who talked impeachment wasn’t having it.

    “We will come everyday until he is impeached!” she said, and I asked her, “Don’t you think people sometimes just want to, you know, go to a movie? Or get some sleep? Go on a date? Have a beer with friends? How much longer do you really think people will keep coming?”

    “Until he is impeached. I just hope so!” she said, ardently, and didn’t seem interested in hearing me ask others whether they thought that was realistic.

    There definitely was a sense of the Saturday demonstration being a last big final push, but you know, discussions on Agora have been suggesting things tone down and go back to weekend demonstrations for the summer anyway. I suppose I can still credit your predictive powers, but you know, many people out there could have told us this before Saturday.

    Like I say, we should be careful not to give the “organizers” all the credit they seem to want to claim: their lack of a realistic handle on the situation suggests they’re, on some level, as clueless as anyone as to how the masses are going to behave. Also, I wonder whether it was just, er, bluster, given how discussions on Agora have been, for some time now apparently, calling to treat the 5th as a big day, and then to cut back to occasional weekend demonstrations. I can’t even access those discussions, but Lime told me that this has been in the air for some time.

    I think you’re right that the progressives here are kind of stuck now: when I asked people, “What’s the goal of this demonstration. Today’s. If it is a perfect success, what will it achieve?” The answers were all so different, and they were looking at one another with awkward smiles. This as a much harder job than pointing out how bad 2MB is and how offensive he is to people across the leftist spectrum. I think it’s probably beyond the ken of the self-declared organizers, indeed. People who’re good at mobilizing others are often good at it precisely because they’re not the sort to sit down and think deeply about what kind of agenda needs to be laid out and pursued.

    But as for the “Summer of Love” and “Summer of Hate,” do you recall my (and another friend of yours’) comment about that? About how the significance of the Summer of Love has been exaggerated, romanticized, turning it into something so much more than it really was? If anything, that’s what I imagine people will do to the demonstrations this summer.

    Young people, anyway, will romanticize these events, and regardless of how they voted, they will remember it as a moment of solidarity against a government foisted on them by old people or lack of choice or whatever. (Even if, yes, a few months before, they were among those who voted for Lee.) It’ll be like the Red Devils, but political. It’ll get cited as a catalyst for later political movements, whether or not it really is one. Just like the Summer of Love.

  16. Gord, good points, and I agree except for the Summer of Love bit at the end. Sure, it’s been mythologized as have the ’60s in general, but it represented a real crystalization of social currents that had been coming together at the time, and helped make them mainstream for a while. And apart from the Scott McKenzie song that advertised the Summer of Love, they played some great music at the time as well. At the protests here, I swear they played the same three damn songs 90% of the time, over and over and over again, including a super-heavy NK-style workers’ song from the ’80s and some cheesy song about how “South Korea is a democratic nation!” If they’d had some seriously good live music, maybe even organized a few raves, and of course had more drugs, this thing would have been a whole lot more interesting and potentially revolutionary.

    My own take is that this entire phenomenon will be remembered as yet another instance of the famed easy-to-boil, easy-to-cool “tin pot character” of the Korean people.

    Somehow, it already seems quite far away.

  17. King Baeksu,

    Heh, well, we’re going to have to agree to differ in opinions about the Summer of Love, and the effects of drugs and what I’ll be lazy and call “scenesterism” on protest movements. On the upside, though, it might be that such stuff helps people keep focused because they don’t need to take nights off from the protest to relax, have fun, or, heaven forbid, go on a date. But I do think a lot more gawkers who have no investment in change would have turned up, and disappeared as soon as the raves stopped and the marching started.

    But on the music, Lord, yes. I was wondering if that was the best they could do, too. “South Korea is a democratic nation!” had me ready to go home after half an hour… it’s not even a good techno song. I have to say, even if I got tired of the [rhythmic] clap [that everyone did to go with “대~ 한민국!”), they had more variety and better songs for the stinkin’ World Cup.

    I was kind of thinking they’d have done better even with some avant-garde shit, like metal neo-pansori consisting of rants describing random motley Heungbu-esque Starcraft characters flying toward a Blue Alien Space Station called the Beef Star managed by Nolbu Vader, if you get my thinly veiled cheesophorical drift. Well, at least I would have enjoyed that.

    I guess time will tell how this thing is remembered. It’ll probably depend on who we ask, too: lots of people I’ve talked to snicker when asked how they remember the Summer of Love, saying, “Ha, I was in Iowa, my family’s blue collar. I had a job that summer.” Given the complexity of how things like Kwangju have been remembered, and the riot of different opinions even among the protesters — and, heck, the very different view many of those who voted for Lee seem to have in hindsight, — it might be most realistic to expect a range of different opinions, with leftist media romanticizing it, and rightist (ie. mainstream) media either dismissing or demonizing it.

    But these are interesting times, and who knows how much that will matter in ten years?

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