Thursday, June 5, 2008

Candles And Cell Phones

Some more information about the organization of the candlelight vigils. There is a committee called Against the Importing of Mad Cow Disease Beef, formed after the vigils began, that meets each morning to discuss what’s going on. They attend the vigils, and may make suggestions or offer advice, but the committee doesn’t direct the protests, and has no authority to tell the participants what to do. They can’t cancel the vigils unilaterally, for example.

The vigils began as a festive affair. People came and went, talking to friends, listening to the music, most concerned with showing their numbers. Even after the police violence, playfulness remained. Police transports like the one shown above are doubleparked around the perimeter of a demonstration as part of the crowd control; the protesters plastered them with stickers notifying the owner that his vehicle was illegally parked.

This was what confused the Lee administration. They supposed they were dealing with forms of activism familiar to them from the Eighties and before – well-organized groups locked in solidarity, ready to face the police and die if necessary. (This was not bravado; many of them did die.) Perhaps Lee’s men were looking for someone to negotiate with, who could call off the demonstrations if their demands were met; perhaps they were looking for someone to arrest, which they would expect to stop the demonstrations – cut off the head, and the body will die.

But they were not dealing with that kind of activism: the movement against American beef imports is a genuine grassroots movement, like the American Civil Rights movement or AIDS activism, with almost no structure and no leaders. That makes its achievement all the more remarkable. It wouldn’t have been surprising (and Lee probably expected) if, after the police violence of last Saturday night, the high school kids had decided that things were getting too heavy, and it was time to stay at home in the evenings. No one would have blamed them. Instead they were back in the streets the next night, despite the rain, knowing that the water cannons and clubs might be waiting for them. They made it clear that they would keep on coming, night after night.

One Korean friend told me that if any protesters had been seriously hurt, let alone killed, that would have been the end of Lee Myeong-bak’s administration. Fortunately, thankfully, no one was seriously hurt or killed. Just the video clip of cops kicking the head of a woman they’d knocked down was enough to enrage the whole country, costing Lee support even in his own party. It may be the end of Lee’s administration anyway, but even if it survives, it will be in a severely chastened version. Lee has already backed off from his canal project; the Free Trade Agreement may be blocked indefinitely; his neo-liberal programs are going to be a lot harder, maybe impossible to implement. All because of some high school kids with candles and cell-phone cameras.