Learning how to protest in Romania

It has been three weeks since the protests in Romania started. For the moment they have quieted down, as bad weather is keeping a lot of protesters in their homes. The most determined of them remain to shout in the streets, especially those fighting to protect the Rosia Montana area from mining, one of the longest activism campaigns in post-communist Romania; about 30 people invaded the environment minister’s office on Tuesday. There is also a small crowd of middle-aged and elderly people, who have been organizing themselves and are present in the streets day after day.

The goals of the protests appear to be the fall of the current government and a renewal of the political class. Claudiu Craciun, a lecturer at the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration, is one of the people who has been leading the crowd in University Square, and the speech he recently made in the European Parliament presents what the people hope for. “We want to trust politicians,” he said. “We want to trust democracy. We want to trust public institutions.”

People have called upon union leaders, also, to renounce their political affiliations, end their corrupt management and start representing the people whose dues support them.

There have been some difficult times for the protests. The 15th and 19th of January were the most violent. This was when a small group of protesters started throwing rocks, bits of smashed pavement, and fireworks. The ruling politicians responded by calling the protestors different names—like ”worms,” “oxen,and “o mahala inepta si violenta,” meaning a stupid and violent mob—trying to attract the media at their side and to make the protests look ridiculous. They almost succeeded.

That is, until the riot police began to take center stage. Thinking that the media was backing them, the police turned against all of the protestors. The law states that the riot police are meant to ensure order, discipline and safety of a demonstration. If violent actions occur, they should intervene to stop the persons responsible. But this is not what happened.

Numerous videos uploaded on the Internet show the abuses that ensued. Some of them document riot police hitting women and children; others show protestors being dragged up to police wagons and beaten until they couldn’t get up anymore.

After these incidents, Bucharest began to feel like a police state. The center of the city was encircled by police wagons, checkpoints with attack dogs, and riot police carrying guns with live ammunition. To get to the protests, you had to pass through various checkpoints. Anyone looking suspicious would be stopped and searched—as I found out for myself. At one point some police officers took me off the street, led me to a tent near the protest zone, and started to search and interrogate me with verbal and physical abuse. After they videotaped me, and saw they had no excuse to take me to a precinct, I was let go. These riot police seem to be doing everything in their power to intimidate people into not joining the protests.

The situation started to change when the media turned against the police, especially after videos appeared on the Internet showing riot police targeting journalists who were on duty. Meanwhile, groups of activists began encouraging one another to protest nonviolently. They started to hand out brochures enumerating the rights of free expression they have as citizens. Given Romania’s repressive history, many people aren’t aware of this. “It’s good that people are in the streets,” says organizer Mihai Bumbes. “Now they must learn to protest.”

Several symbolic, nonviolent actions were orchestrated to show that the intentions is not to fight the police but to protest peacefully. People informed international human rights organizations of the police abuses, and Amnesty International decided to respond to their request by submitting a letter to the minister of the interior.

The riot police have suffered a serious blow to their legitimacy, as the media and much of the Romanian population looking at their behavior with fear and disgust. This constitutes a major win for Romanian human rights groups, which managed to publicize the true nature of the riot police, a state institution that only activists and certain football fans have had firsthand experience with. These groups’ efforts may lead the way for an accurate and just investigation that could compel the ministry of the interior to change its policies.

Above all, these demonstrations have sparked a change in the way Romanians understand values like solidarity, democracy, civic participation and freedom of speech—each of which are rights that they have possessed for more than 20 years but have not been accustomed to exercising. Perhaps the police will learn, too.

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