How Romania turned from shock to revolt in less than a week

Romania turned from shock to revolt in less than a week, after a tragic fire at the Colectiv club in downtown Bucharest on October 30 killed at least 46 people and left over 100 more injured. The rock band Goodbye to Gravity was launching their new album that evening, but the fireworks they used onstage quickly set fire to the former factory’s polystyrene decor and wooden frame.

Dozens of ambulances, firetrucks, police and gendarmerie wagons rushed towards the scene and began taking the injured to different hospitals in the area. While Raed Arafat, the sub-secretary of state for the Health Ministry, and Gabriel Oprea, the minister of interior affairs, were giving joint press statements from the scene, assuring everyone that the situation was under control, it became clear to the media and the public that the intervention had not gone as well as they were claiming. In reality, the ambulances and the fire department didn’t arrive on time, the hospitals were overcrowded and the equipment needed for burned victims had to be transported from cities close to the capital.

As soon as people heard about the accident, a vast solidarity network began to form. While medics and hospital staff who were not on duty that night rushed to their posts to help out, people wanting to donate blood formed lines in front of transfusion centers. Others were helping out with information about the victims, as most of them could not be identified. Still, the state of shock persisted and the next three days were declared national days of mourning by the government. Almost no cultural or entertainment events were held. Instead, people formed informal groups to see what kind of medical supplies the doctors needed, while lawyers, psychologists and surgeons from private medical facilities started offering their services free of charge for the families, friends and surviving patients. All of this was done in seemingly record time, using social media sites and not involving authorities in any way. On Sunday evening, 11,000 people, dressed in black and with candles in their hands, gathered at University Square to march silently towards the site of the tragedy in order to pray for the dead and injured. It was this grieving that would soon make way for revolt.

Monday was the last day of mourning and authorities were already detaining and questioning the club’s owners. At first glance, they seemed to be the ones most responsible for the tragedy, having bought cheap material and run the club without safety permits or legal forms for the staff. They are, at the moment, charged with murder and are awaiting trial. However, as more facts began to surface regarding the authorities’ intervention, and as the death toll kept rising, outrage took over the hearts and minds of the people.

Since civic engagement and human rights groups like Romania Curata and Militia Spirituala, were already engaged in disseminating information about the inefficiency of state institutions and corruption within Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s administration, average citizens were more than ready to take action. Furthermore, having experienced several major protests in recent years — specifically against austerity measures in 2012 and mining companies in 2013 — they didn’t need to wait for veteran activists to propose and organize demonstrations.

The first march, held on Tuesday evening, was launched by people who were not a part of the traditional activist scene. Numerous calls appeared on Facebook and people reacted quickly. At the same time, however, the government was not expecting a large number of people in the streets. Confident in their assessment of the situation, they ordered the gendarmes not to intervene in any way and the march proved to be an effective way of gathering a huge crowd — much like the 2013 anti-mining protests, which used numerous columns deployed throughout the city to grow the crowd size. At the start of Tuesday’s march, there were only 4,000 people and by the end of the day numbers rose to 25,000. Early the next day, Victor Ponta announced that he would resign from his post as prime minister, thereby taking down the whole government with him, including the now reviled Minister of Interior Gabriel Oprea. Soon after his live statement, the mayor of the district in Bucharest where the nightclub is located, Cristian Popescu Piedone, also renounced his office. The street had obtained an unexpected victory, as the three persons they considered responsible all relinquished their posts.

Social cells that don’t actively participate in the day-to-day sanctioning of political decisions — such as football supporters and teams, young corporate employees and student associations — played an active role in organizing the street protests, having already built-in affinity groups. Social media sites gave them the opportunity to organize faster and keep up with the pace of events. Grievances are still being debated and discussed on Internet platforms where everybody can contribute, amend or just support them. While some are focusing on eliminating the corruption that’s present at all levels of government, others are focusing on reducing the budget of state security institutions or the church and prioritizing the health system.

“There is no need for one person to say what the demands of the streets are,” said Romania Curata member Mihai Dragos. “They are clear and they are shouted every day in the streets. They are also formulated and released for everybody to see.”

The divide is evident, but everybody agrees that all current political parties must drastically reform or dissolve. As a result, some are trying to build on this general sentiment by inviting participants on the streets to join new political parties, offering them printed political programs and arguing that “new faces are needed in politics in order to protect the future of our children and country,” as one political activist from the newly formed Popular Party noted.

There seems to be a general sense of confusion when looking at what is happening in the square — at least for the distant observer or the lone participant. Looking closer, however, one finds that the younger generation is trying to build new forms of political engagement. Some propose the classical political party scheme, but with new values. Others focus on grassroots activism, but with greater accent on inter-group collaboration. The idea is to rally around common points of interest and force them into parliament. These may seem like minor democratic experiments, but they’re vital to a generation that wants to break with the old customs of political engagement. A banner created on the streets by the group Militia Spirituala explains this sentiment: “We have defeated you! Now we battle with ourselves.”

Looking back to 2012, it seems safe to say that Romanian society has progressed towards more democratic values and citizens have become more conscious of the crucial role they play in politics.

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