[OUTLOOK]Political failures goad protestersLast November, two farmers died during a violent rally. Taking responsibility for the regrettable incident, the commissioner-general of the National Police Agency and head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency resigned, and the entire police organization suffered a considerable shock. Now the parents of riot police and former members of the group are rallying themselves to demand peaceful rallies. Public attention is now focused on whether their demand for an end to violence will be a stimulus to change along with a retrospective on the violent protests that mark Korean society.
The parents of the riot police said that their hearts break when they see the riot police eating their meals on the streets, and the families cry together out of worry as they watch their sons on television being beaten by demonstrators. The parents are coming forward onto the streets and raising their voices because they know their sons are serving their involuntary military duty as riot police and do not deserve the criticism they receive for the clashes with protesters in the course of stopping violence.
The protesters participating in street rallies have desparate causes and expect society to pay attention to their demands. They have learned from experience that they can gain something if they raise voices and persist in their demands, and believe that a street demonstration is the most effective means of getting that attention. But violent demonstrations damage the credibility of their original claims and diminish the persuasiveness of their appeals, and ultimately, the protesters cannot get what they have asked for.
In advanced countries, the right of peaceful protest is guaranteed, but police authorities resolutely respond to illegal, violent demonstrations that break the law, such as crossing police lines. Therefore, when workers for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York City went on a strike for the first time in 25 years on December 20, there were no reported cases of violence. The transit workers held peaceful rallies and eventually ended their strike. The U.S. police are known for their strict suppression of illegal demonstrations.
In the spring of 2003, over 1,300 demonstrators were arrested in San Francisco during an anti-Iraq War protest, and the police used tear gas to suppress a demonstration against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999. In France, it is illegal for a protester to possess any kind of weapon that could potentially take a life, such as firearms or Molotov cocktails. The riot police are specially selected from career policemen, and after a training program they are placed on protest scenes. Once a suppression operation begins, they will round up all the participants.
Some people argue that violent demonstrations have to end in Korea as well. First of all, the primary responsibility to maintain peace and order is on the organization managing the rally, and in order to have a peaceful and safe event, the protesters need to have detailed discussion with the police in advance about their intentions. In the course of the discussion, the protesters and the police should make a gentlemen’s agreement, and a committee of neutral observers needs to be organized. Then, in order to respond more efficiently to violent demonstrations, the police assign professional policemen who have received systematic education and training on protest management and are equipped with a spirit of dedication and responsibility to the people to handle the tasks on the front lines in direct contact with protesters. They should be provided with safe and effective equipment and guaranteed appropriate compensation for carrying out dangerous operations. They have to be asked to respond calmly and control their emotion at the scene.
Finally, society has to address the causes of protests. Politicians must feel accountable for failing to resolve discord among the parties with conflicting interests through dialogue and compromise. They should feel guilty that the riot police have to confront protesters on the streets on their behalf and make their best efforts to come up with reasonable alternatives to police suppression of demonstrations that turn violent.
The key to a society where protesters do not face tragic deaths and the parents of riot police do not have to shed tears is in finding a mature way for the disaffected in society to present their grievances.
*The writer is a professor of police administration at Dongguk University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kwak Dae-gyung