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Catching Up on Diaspora and Violence – August 10 to 17 in Bucharest

Since I hope I’ll be writing something about the current referendum soon, I guess this is a good time to finally have a quick post about the events in August. Since just about everyone, activists included, ended up focusing on the violence and the Gendarmerie’s response on August 10 and therefore joined hands, even unintentionally, in burying the actual point and purpose of the protest, I just didn’t care enough to struggle with it anymore, but can’t quite ignore it completely, so I’ll just try to write this quick post now. Don’t expect details, and doubt any are needed anymore, but will also take the opportunity to add the personal part for August 11 and 12, after only writing a personal post about August 10 back then.

The August 10 protest had been announced months ahead and scheduled so more Romanians living abroad would be able to come, since it was supposed to be their protest, and that of those they left behind, to complain about the reasons for leaving Romania and demand changes that’d make them return. There was a longer list of demands posted in some places, some of them highly questionable, to put it mildly, and some activists did distance themselves from those, but the main point was, or should have been, that: Millions of Romanians have left and continue to leave the country, we have the second highest percentage of citizens living abroad in the world, after only Syria, and all those people don’t just leave because they want to, often leaving families and loved ones behind, but because things are too bad here.
Admittedly, there had been calls to occupy the Government building and do worse things all along and the known activists didn’t sufficiently push back against them, some even supporting certain ideas, and in the Square there were repeated calls for the men to come forward and create pressure before the gendarmes, even specifically being said at the loudspeaker that the Government building will be occupied that night, just that it’ll be done without violence. The fact that such calls weren’t drowned out right away was a problem, though there is also the fact that the mood was quite angry quite early, various problems the authorities caused for those coming to Victory Square from outside Bucharest, and outside Romania, only adding to it, so anybody trying could have become a target. Still, there were repeated calls through all channels to not use violence, that message was even projected on the surrounding buildings, and before the gendarmes moved in and used force to clear the Square a very tiny portion of those present could be said to have been in any way violent, the repeated use of tear gas by the gendarmes starting after 4 PM rarely being justified, and the extent of it, switching later on to shooting canisters and other such methods when the troublemakers likely only numbered in the dozens and were gathered in one area, probably never justified at all.
But to get back to the beginning, people started gathering in Victory Square in the morning and things were pretty calm until the afternoon, when the numbers grew and the first attempts to break through the cordon of gendarmes came, leading to the first use of tear gas. After that, the tension in one particular corner of the Square just kept increasing, but the gendarmes kept angering everyone by making a show of being fully prepared and using tear gas in that area at the slightest provocation, for example even when people swore at them or just asked them some ironic or simply uncomfortable questions. The rest of the Square was pretty much calm, but as time passed, tear gas kept affecting more and more people even when they were not only not involved but actually far from the area where there was any tension at all, and those requiring medical attention kept being carried through the crowd, the anger grew and more and more people ended up prepared to respond if needed.
There were some 100000 people there at the peak and, while plenty had left by then, when I also left, at 11 PM, after taking the last few of the many pictures I took that evening, I thought there were still enough calm and peaceful people left that it’d take some 30 more minutes before things would get really ugly, regardless of the determination of both that small group and the gendarmes to make that happen all along. It was clear that it was about to happen, but not as soon as it did, since it was almost immediately after I left that two gendarmes who had for some reason been left behind by the others were caught and beaten by a few of those violent people, while other protesters tried to rescue them and even became human shields, throwing themselves in front of the kicks and punches. At first it was said that the beaten female gendarme was in a bad condition and may end up paralyzed, but that proved not to be the case and she soon walked out of hospital on her own two feet, not that this excuses the behavior of those who attacked in any way. It was also said that the guns of the two gendarmes were stolen then, though later the theft of only one was investigated, and the culprit and the gun were found days later.
Minutes after this, the gendarmes moved in to clear the Square, supposedly after having first been told that the two gendarmes had been killed. It’s still unclear who gave what order, how, why, or exactly when, and investigations, while started, just drag on, but the end result was that the Square was quickly cleared, thousands or tens of thousands of peaceful protesters being forced to run before tear gas and even water cannons and quite a number, including journalists, even being beaten for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those who were determined to fight back, however, which by then also included quite a number who hadn’t arrived with any violent intent, kept the gendarmes busy well into the night with running battles on the surrounding streets, and caused plenty of damage in the area. About 450 people required medical attention and 70 or so were hospitalized.

By the next day, all attention was on the violence, with activists apparently forgetting all about the actual point of the protest and just focusing on making the gendarmes and those who gave the orders pay, and them, the few media sources that support the protests and even some from the medical field starting quite a mass hysteria about the substances used and the dangers they pose. People who had been affected were asked to file complaints, several hundred doing so over the coming days, and investigations were started, though that also turned into another front of the battle between the ruling coalition and the justice system and doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. The matter was brought before the European Union as well and there have been reactions and questions, including very recently, but so far that didn’t really result in anything either. The one thing it all did result in was, as I said, the fact that the real message and point of the protest was completely buried.
There was, of course, another protest the next evening as well, and I for one left at 5:30 PM, happened to spot that the broken handle of that Victory Square metro station toilet door that caused me to get stuck inside and cut my hand had simply been removed, and was there at 6 PM, though I could have arrived an hour later just as well, since not much happened at first. Or not much happened among the protesters, because my camera had quite an issue I hadn’t experienced before, as I was trying to squeeze a little more out of the used batteries I had while I had the time to switch them at will and after it turned off at one point the screen stayed off when I turned it back on, the camera turned off again when I tried to turn on the screen, and when I turned it on yet again it reported a memory card error. It correctly reported the space used on the card, but wasn’t reading any image anymore, seemed to still be able to take pictures but it wasn’t reading them, and I of course couldn’t know what it was trying to save. Removed the card and put it back a few times, blew on it, shook it and the camera, changed the batteries, nothing helped, but since I had just taken a few pictures that day I tried to format it and that worked, and it continued to work from that point, so it’s a good thing it happened so early and I didn’t really lose anything, being able to take quite a number of pictures again.
Back to the protest itself, things were calm, neither gendarmes nor protesters appearing to intend to be violent again, though plenty of protesters were prepared to some extent, with simple surgical masks, boxes of them having been brought for people who hadn’t brought their own to use, even glasses and maybe a few other things as well. Starting at 7:50 PM, there were repeated calls for everyone to sit down and preferably be quiet, but many weren’t listening, a guy immediately went forward and started shouting against the gendarmes, but the gendarmes didn’t respond and therefore nothing happened. Still, more and more people did listen to those calls, eventually, which only served to reduce any risks of violence even further.
At first I meant to leave just after the “traditional” 9 PM moment, but I was on the sidewalk in front of Antipa then and didn’t hear the anthem, so wasn’t even sure the usual moment took place, though the lights were there. So I ended up wandering around and taking more pictures, actually realizing how large the area covered by the crowd was, though the density was low in many places, estimates being of some 50000 at the peak. Someone from a TV station tried to interview me that evening, but I just refused and walked away. Before leaving, which I did a few minutes after 10 PM, staying there for another moment with the lights which happened just then, I was right in what had been the “hot zone” the previous evening and there were a handful of people who tried to provoke the gendarmes again there, but without a response nothing happened, and I see reports that they eventually just gave up and walked away. Though the numbers dropped rapidly, there were still some people in the Square well after midnight.

There were some incidents that night, the truck and trailer used by some of the more notable regulars of these protests being removed and those who tried to defend it being roughly carried away and fined. Otherwise, next evening’s protest was again peaceful, but also drew far fewer people, though still over 10000, maybe 12000. I for one left at 6:30 PM and was there at 7 PM, with the new camera. Had the old one with me as well, in case that won’t work after dark, but in the end I could make reasonable use of it, taking plenty of pictures, though there were some that were unusable due to moving subjects and a far too long exposure time, since I can’t set it manually. Left at 10 PM, before some finally decided to start a march, around 10:30 PM, only learning about it when I got back and saw the news and wondering why did they wait so long to do something which should have been done the day before, or much earlier even that day, not only when most had already left. Then again, those who tried to march didn’t get that far either, definitely nowhere near the Parliament, which seemed to be the original destination, and they returned to Victory Square after a while, as the protest was dying out.
Unfortunately for me, hurt myself that evening, my left ankle remaining a real concern even now and being something I’ll have to check out after the marathon, assuming it’ll hold then. Had spotted a guy with a new sign and went after him to take a picture, noticing the bicycle which was parked in my path but not the scooter that was behind it. Not sure whether I just hit that scooter with both feet or hit it with the right foot and that raised it and caused it to slam into my left ankle, but it really hurt. Still kept going after that guy, but once that was done I sat on a bench, checked the ankle, then took off my shoe and sock and checked the toes on my right foot too. The nail on the big toe was cracked and a bit of a bruise formed under it, and a bigger bruise formed under the nail of the next toe, though I already had one there at the time, so I guess it just got bigger. More concerning was the pain though, also in that toe but mainly the moments of pretty sharp pain in both ankles, though the right one seemed quite fine soon enough. The left one stopped hurting after a while too, but there was a bruise that took a few days to go away and a pretty noticeable swelling, plus a strange feeling that I at times feel even now. Worse, since I had stopped checking after the bruise went away and only did so again after last month’s long run, only noticed then that the swelling is actually a lump, which is still there and feels like something got moved out of place. It still holds, but something’s definitely wrong, and it’s definitely not how you want to approach your first marathon…

Back to the protests, in part also because of the ankle but definitely not only because of that, I stopped going after that, and so did most others, though I see estimates of about 3000 Monday, which got down to mere hundreds Tuesday and pretty much just the regulars after that, though there were hundreds again Friday, to mark a week since the first protest, of course in the sense of marking a week since the Gendarmerie’s violent response and still leaving anything else pretty much buried. More things happened after that, but largely having to do with the investigations, demands for resignations and some reactions from European officials and groups, all of these mainly focused on the violence, so didn’t follow and didn’t really care. It is, of course, very important for those who were directly affected, those who were beaten or otherwise injured or who required medical assistance due to the tear gas, and those responsible, on both sides, must pay, but that wasn’t the point of the protest and the activists should have made sure it doesn’t end up becoming the primary, and even the sole, focus. Yet not only that they did not, but they actually largely caused this to happen. Not implying that there was ill intent on their part, definitely don’t believe there was in any way, but it doesn’t make them any less guilty of it.

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