The Whole World Is Watching?
Thoughts on police violence in the streets of Bucharest and the streets of Portland, Charlottesville, Ferguson, and Chicago 1968
“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington
This past Friday night, August 10, a major demonstration was held at Piata Victorei in downtown Bucharest to protest the widespread corruption of the SPD government, led by Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă, and by the party’s leader and power-behind-the-throne, Liviu Dragnea, himself convicted of corruption charges and separately for 2012 electioneering irregularities. While this particular demonstration was organized mainly by expatriate Romanians, it was supported by a wide range of civil society organizations, and represented a continuation of major large-scale protests that have been held repeatedly since early 2017.
Approximately 50,000 Romanians showed up on Cale Victorei, and many tens of thousands of showed up in cities across the country, to engage in a non-violent protest of their government, whose corruption, and whose efforts to obstruct justice by interfering with judicial independence, have been widely criticized by European officials, international NGOs, and a wide range of Romanian civic groups.
They were met with violence.
The headline in the Independent put it well: “Bucharest Protest: Riot police fire tear gas into crowds and beat protestors, leaving hundreds injured.” Here is a video of the protest, and here is a video of police firing tear gas at the unarmed protestors.
According to Romania Insider, there may have been some provocation (Romanian civic groups have often charged that the government seeks to provoke confrontation at such events): “What started as a peaceful protest in Bucharest’s Victoriei Square on Friday morning ended in violent clashes between the riot police and groups of aggressive protesters, most likely hooligans from the galleries of Bucharest football teams. Many peaceful protesters ended up being hurt by the gendarmes, which intervened with an unprecedented violence against the people to clear the square.”
What is clear is that in recent years Romanian civil society has become very adept at organizing and conducting orderly, non-violent demonstrations; that the police charged the unarmed crowd with truncheons, water cannons, and tear gas; that many people were gassed and some were beaten; and that over 400 citizens were injured.
According to a police spokesman, Georgian Enache, “the legitimate state violence” was justified because protesters had been warned several times to leave the square.
President Klaus Iohannis, the independently-elected, center-right critic of the SPD government, strongly criticized the violence in a statement on Facebook: “I strongly condemn the brutal intervention of the gendarmerie, strongly disproportionate to the manifestations of most people in Piata Victoriei. Trying to break people’s will through a violent reaction of law enforcement is a reprehensible solution.”
The government’s turn to repression is deeply troubling. While Romania has not seen the emergence of the kinds of anti-liberal, right-wing populist movements that have assumed governmental power in neighboring Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, it has one of the most corrupt political systems in Europe, and its SPD government has used its control of the state to shield itself from public scrutiny, undermine independent corruption investigations—recently firing anti-corruption chief Laura Kövesi —and delegitimize political opposition. I commented on this only a few weeks ago in a column written in Bucharest entitled “Bucharest Reflections on Political Corruption.”
As I concluded those thoughts:
Attacks on the independent prosecutor. The extreme partisan politicization of the administrative of justice. The denunciation of independent public servants as members of a “deep state,” and the framing of investigations of official corruption, malfeasance, or obstruction of justice as efforts to “subvert the will of the people.” The declaration that manifest corruption is “purity,” that the manifestly corrupt seek to “drain the swamp” and “eliminate the rats” and that the critics of corruption who seek to defend constitutional democracy are corrupt enemies of democracy, indeed vermin, who themselves ought to be investigated, prosecuted, punished.
Does this sound familiar, American readers?
While Romania has not (yet?) experienced the rise to power of an authoritarian leader such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, the recent violence is an ominous development that accentuates recent illiberal tendencies, and that for many recalls the violence in the streets of Bucharest during the revolt that brought down Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in December 1989.
I’ve asked a number of Romanian colleagues who are scholars and public intellectuals to comment on the recent events by expanding on Facebook posts that struck me as particularly important.
Claudia Ghisoiu, a Lecturer of Sociology at University of Bucharest, writes about her experience of the demonstration and the police violence:
We were at the protest from 20.00 until 22.20, in roughly the second half of the square. No one was violent around us, no one was even particularly fired up or angry at the beginning of it all. We were scrolling on our phones and cracking some jokes among friends.
I have never been gassed before in my life. It is a very shocking experience. I took about 3 waves of tear gas and some kind of very irritating pepper spray. The third time, we saw some kind of fireworks going off above the main crowd of protesters. We just stood there gawking: ‘Are those fireworks? Why would they use fireworks right now?’ Rudolph, my boyfriend, realized what was going on and shook me by the shoulders: “That’s tear gas. Go. NOW!’ When the “fireworks” detonated among the protesters, quite close to us, people started to run for their lives screaming. I was transfixed by what was happening and remained on the spot to snap a picture with my phone. I managed to do so, but I took a huge ‘gulp’ of gas for it and I immediately I had heavy problems breathing. I was running with my head in my chest, buried in my t-shirt, but I was so confused and in pain from the gas that I was actually going round in circles. Luckily, my friend saw me and came back to help me. He lifted me half off the ground and we ran towards Buzesti Blvd. In the chaos we got separated from my boyfriend and we only saw each other again at home, a few hours later. All mobile phone data was dead, I couldn’t communicate with anyone. When I managed to look around with bleary eyes, I saw people red-faced, in tears, hypersalivating and with running noses – men, women, children, elderly. Near me, a woman was lying on the ground puking her guts out.
My boyfriend took a grenade in his back fired at him point blank.
For me and the people around me, it was very clear that groups of hooligans had been paid off to start the violence and assault the riot police in order for the latter to have the “justification” needed in order to attack the crowd of peaceful protesters and disperse them. This diversion is textbook for PSD and they have used it time and again since the Revolution of 1989.
My eyes are still red and irritated and I have a burning feeling in my chest 24 hours later. My voice is very hoarse.
Tomorrow we go back.
Camil Parvu, a Professor of Political Science at University of Bucharest, and an activist in Demos, a democratic left civic initiative , recently established as a political party that will compete in upcoming elections to the European parliament, notes:
The ruling party’s (PSD) leadership increasingly ‘eats its own propagandistic dogfood’ and develops strategies to counteract the groupthink imagined dangers it somehow paranoically constructs. The result is to create the very paroxysm they fear, i.e. self-fulfilling prophecies. The opposition is very weak and incoherent, yet the PSD acts as if a coup d’Etat is imminent and all politics is a short-term existential rush for their own legal immunization from inevitable prosecution. The party’s leaders see themselves personally as imminent victims of a conspiratorial parallel state, regard the opposition and the few state institutions they do not control as mortal enemies, and treat politics as an existential zero-sum game.
PSD never accepted, in its post-socialist history, a Weberian professionalization and independence of state bureaucracy. In this it inherits the political DNA of the Communist Party that was the state party. State institutions are there to be populated with party-affiliated personnel with no independent professional reputation to preserve and who promptly respond to party command. This explains the powerful patronage and clientelistic networks that make the party so resilient. Moreover, its current leader (Dragnea) only trusts a very limited number of faithful confidants and has put off the party’s traditional reservoir of cadres and experts. The cadres it now promotes are servile and usually profoundly incompetent. The Gendarmerie’s commanders are such figures – they aggressively and proactively acted to repress the protests that were otherwise not really going to be changing much in and of themselves. They gassed indiscriminately peaceful protesters and then violently evacuated the Victoriei square with no reason, creating innumerable injuries and a tremendous political backlash.
Recent protests in Bucharest and other important cities are relatively upper middle class and focus on generic denunciations of corruption. They have ‘voice’, in Albert Hirschman’s terms. Most protesters are urban dwellers with professional expertise who never experienced the sheer violence of the state, indiscriminate and deliberate, as they did on Friday. Their issues are rather white-collar issues of corruption and bureaucracy and political disagreement that are of a different kind from the structural violence that the state usually deploys against the most vulnerable – the minorities, the excluded, the Roma, those that were forced to emigrate or to comply. For those, such indiscriminate state violence is rather a daily experience. The urban protesters however did not experience this, and it would be interesting to see whether these events will usher in a new political vocabulary or, at least, broader opposition coalitions.
The radical political polarization can only increase, as the PSD is increasingly entrenched in its conviction that only full control of the state can prevent the mortal dangers and will push for complete legal immunization of its leaders, while the protesters increasingly deny any political legitimacy to PSD. The stalemate could also bring more political violence of a kind not experienced since the summer of 1990.
Alexandru Volacu, a Lecturer in Political Philosophy at National School of Political Science and Public Administration in Bucharest, comments:
I wasn’t there for yesterday’s protest. #muiepsd (#fuckPSD) is an idea with which I am totally on board, especially if we are talking about the January 2017 – present timeframe and about the criminal-autocratic gang made up of Dragnea and his friends. But the idea is purely expressive, not actionable in any way and, from my point of view, protests should have an umbrella of concrete demands, even if the motives and the messaging behind them may be diffuse. At the same time, today the demands are clear. Minimally, the resignation of the Minister of Interior, the Prefect of Bucharest and everyone who gave commands in what appears to be the most violent repression of a social movement in Romania during this century. Decently, the resignation of the entire government should follow. When you oversee the tear gassing of children, the firing of water cannons at protesters, the toppling of people in wheelchairs, the massive and indiscriminate attack of protesters with every available instrument, you can no longer have any claims to political legitimacy and you should immediately depart from your position.
In democracies, successful social movements are non-violent. The struggle is not against the political order in its entirety, (hopefully) no protester wants to change the political regime, so the aim cannot be tied to fighting the riot police. The power of protesters in a democracy is given by numbers, not by the number of incidents caused. In fact, the moment that orders are given to repress protests with excessive force usually betrays the desperation of the protest targets, and is the penultimate step in the resolution of the conflict. In a genuinely democratic system, it is followed by the resignation of those responsible for the repression. In a system that slides towards autocracy, the citizens subside and the use of force against them becomes normalized. With the increased risk of being maced and cudgelled, we can only now talk about actual “resistance” on the street, which should essentially be non-violent. If we want to avoid moving into the latter, authoritarian, scenario. Today we can choose whether to go and peacefully protest. It seems a little bit riskier than it was until now. But if we don’t do it, tomorrow we may not have this choice to begin with anymore.
Oana Baluta, a Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at University of Bucharest, and a regular public commentator and Demos activist, adds:
People have the right to protest and revolt against authority. On the 10th of August, more then 400 people were injured in Bucharest after the brutal intervention of gendarmes in large antigovernment protests. Liviu Dragnea and his Government turned a state institution against Romanian citizens, women, men, young or elderly, expats or not. I have friends and colleagues who were tear gassed. Journalists suffered abuses even if they were only doing their job: to inform the citizens. I am away from Bucharest, therefore I have not taken part in the demonstrations. But I have seen shocking pictures and videos with defenseless people being beaten by gendarmes. I saw the picture of a woman in a wheelchair throwing herself over her friend to prevent riot police from beating him. I saw pictures with parents and small children who were tear gassed. People believed they would attended a protest, not a “war.”
I believe that the gap between Liviu Dragnea/PSD Government and Romanian citizens has just turned into an abyss. Instead of asking for serious investigations, Liviu Dragnea, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and the president of the Social Democratic Party, is spin doctoring the crisis in a Facebook post where he accuses the opposing political parties and the President for inciting the violence. The Minister of Interior issued a public statement saying that the gendarmes respected all the legislative provisions. Viorica Dăncila, The Head of the Government seems to almost be mocking the citizens when declaring that she respects the right of citizens to publicly express their opinions.
These politicians have failed Romanian citizens. When a Government acts against its citizens it has lost legitimacy to act on behalf of the will of the people. The Social Democratic Party proves one more that it left democracy behind and is gradually turning into an authoritarian force.
Mihaela Miroiu, Professor of Political Science at the National School of Political Science and Public Administration, and a very public political commentator in Romania, tells us:
The PSD is now a manifestly authoritarian party. Someone recently asked me: what do we hope for? That the government will be shamed into leaving? No, this won’t happen, because shame requires a moral sense. And it is clear that the current rulers (Dragnea and his gang) are part of another species, lacking proper moral sense and operating according to their own taste for power A reminder: in 2015 the PSD government of Victor Ponta government resigned after its corruption provoked mass demonstrations, according to the clearly expressed formula of democracy: you cannot oppose your people. But the PSD of Dragnea has made clear its lack of respect for the elementary rules of democracy.
The PSD is an authoritarian party that seeks a monopoly on power. ALDE (the center-right Liberal-Democrat Alliance that supports the PSD government) and UDMR (the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania) are opportunistic parties, without true authoritarian inclinations. The PNL (National Liberals) never had authoritarian tendencies, and it seems to have learned the lesson about the consequences of irresponsibility and stupidity in the past elections. The USR (Save Romania Union) is growing more and more serious. Demos, a promising democratic left group, recently organized as a party. The MRI (“Romania Together”) of former Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos becomes a party in the next two months. There are alternatives. But they have yet to prove themselves.
At this point, the PSD must be politically isolated. Those in the party who do not like this mess can provoke the party’s split and take the path of a democratic party. If they don’t, it means they choose to be part of an authoritarian party. ALDE and UDMR in particular must now abandon their relationship with this political plague that is the PSD, and demonstrate that they remain in the perimeter of democracy.
The demonstrations show that many Romanian citizens and civil society groups are willing to stand up for political pluralism and liberal democracy. It is now necessary that the political parties properly represent these things, by changing the government and by beginning to restore public faith that a democratic system can work according to principles of transparency and fairness.
As I write, events continue to unfold on the streets of Bucharest, Sibiu, Cluj, and throughout Romania.
The government has severely tested its already stained legitimacy, and calls for its removal are growing. At the same time, the government, like corrupt governments everywhere, has managed to establish a base of support, particularly outside of the cities, through its patronage networks, clientelistic policies, and use of the media.
The Romanians on the street are behaving like democratic citizens, and demanding a government worthy of a democratic society. They face serious obstacles. And they are not alone. And while the police violence on the streets of Bucharest might be particularly alarming given the relatively recent history of Communism and its violent demise there, it is not only in Romania that democratic activists confront police violence. Such violence has indeed played a very important role in the history of democratic contestation in the U.S. itself. And this role has become especially vivid, and troubling, in the Age of Trump.
I write this piece on the one-year anniversary of “Charlottesville,” where white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched through the Virginia city chanting racist slogans, bearing torches, and carrying Confederate and Nazi signs and symbols, threatening minorities and ultimately doing violence that led to the murder of one peaceful counter-protestor—infamous developments made more infamous by the tortured defense of the marchers offered by Donald Trump, the aspirational fascist who lives (some of the time) at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. White supremacist groups have grown, multiplied, and flourished since Trump became President. Concerns about a repeat of last year’s violence in Charlottesville have led local police to close parts of the city and enact an overwhelming display of force. As CBS news reports, this has troubled many local activists:
Police are blocking off streets and mobilizing hundreds of officers for the anniversary of a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, alarming activists who plan to rally against the hatred and bloodshed that shocked the nation last summer. State and local authorities framed this weekend’s heightened security as a necessary precaution, but some community activists are concerned the measures could be a counterproductive overreaction. An independent investigation of last year’s rally violence, led by a former federal prosecutor, found the chaos stemmed from a passive response by law enforcement and poor preparation and coordination between state and city police.
Lisa Woolfork, a University of Virginia professor and Black Lives Matter Charlottesville organizer, said police are mounting a “huge, overwhelming show of force to compensate for last year’s inaction.” “Last year, I was afraid of the Nazis. This year, I’m afraid of the police,” Woolfork said. “This is not making anyone that I know feel safe.” Grace Aheron, an organizer for Showing Up for Racial Justice, said a “militarized police presence” doesn’t make the city safer. “I’m not looking forward to what that’s going to look like this weekend,” she said.
Recent events in Portland, Oregon suggest that such concern is not unwarranted. On August 4, police used violence there against counter-protestors who were demonstrating against a rally held by Patriot Prayer and other white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. The episode led to widespread calls for an investigation—which the department has announced—and for changes. The head of the Oregon ACLU declared: “The Portland Police Bureau’s response to protest is completely unacceptable in a free society. The repeated use of excessive force, and the targeting of demonstrators based on political beliefs are a danger to the First Amendment rights of all people. We call on the Portland Police Bureau, Mayor Wheeler, and Chief Outlaw to immediately end the use of weapons, munitions, and explosives against protesters.”
The militarization of police, the regular use of excessive force, and systematic patterns of racial profiling and racist inequities in the system of “criminal justice” have of course been at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement, as has been discussed often on the pages of Public Seminar, by Deva Woodley-Davis, Christopher Lebron, and a wide range of commentators. In the U.S., as in Romania, the struggle for civil rights and for greater democratic equality is also a struggle against the arbitrary, unjust, and unaccountable exercise of state power, by elected public officials and by police forces ill-equipped or ill-disposed to respect and to promote real democratic civility—which is consistent with and indeed sometimes requires contentious public action, and which demands that streets be placed where citizens can peacefully assemble without fear of violence.
The situation is in so many ways dispiriting. And yet citizens can make a difference.
And the recent news is not all bad. Last week Wesley Bell, an African-American lawyer, son of a police officer, and member of the Ferguson City Council, defeated Robert McCullough in the Democratic primary for chief prosecutor of Ferguson, Missouri. McCullough is the long-serving prosecutor who declined to prosecute anyone for the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager that helped to spark the BLM movement. Bell is an activist for criminal justice reform who was propelled into political office by BLM. According to the New York Times:
Mr. Bell’s victory is part of a broader movement to elect a new breed of prosecutor — candidates who will run on promises to make the criminal justice system more fair to the poor, rather than typical tough-on-crime pledges. “We really came to understand the essential role of prosecutors,” said Shaun King, a Black Lives Matter activist who started the Real Justice PAC, a group that focuses on electing reform-minded prosecutors across the country. Mr. King’s group has supported a dozen candidates across the country and helped Mr. Bell with mailings and his digital platform. “There’s this feeling that this gives us hope that the political system, with enough pressure applied, can work for us,” said Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the A.C.L.U. of Missouri.
The struggle continues.
This month is the 50th anniversary of the infamous events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in which antiwar protestors, journalist and indeed all civilians in the vicinity were met with a massive display of brute force and violent attacks by the Chicago police force under the direction of Mayor Richard Daley. In response, protestors started shouting the slogan “the whole world is watching.”
One of my most treasured record albums growing up was the 1969 debut album of the band Chicago. Called Chicago Transit Authority, it included this tune, “Someday,” inspired by the police violence of August 1968:
The band’s second album, aptly entitled Chicago II, came out a year later, and closed with a powerful tune, “It Better End Soon,” featuring the band’s talented intrumentalists, who included Terry Kath, one of the greatest rock guitarists who ever lived. Here is a video of a live performance of the tune, at the band’s legendary 1970 concert at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachussetts:
It better end soon.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bllomington.