[VIEWPOINT]Protect our police during protestsOn Wednesday, about 70,000 farmers and workers opposing a free trade agreement between Korea and the United States held protest rallies in 13 big cities across the country. Because the protesters attempted to violently storm municipal and provincial offices, injuries and property damage occurred. In the course of the rallies, some protesters wielded bamboo canes and some threw rocks and cans, damaging some government office buildings and facilities. Between January and October this year, there have been more than 8,500 rallies nationwide, and, according to estimates, more than 2 million protesters participated. Forty-one of them were illegal, violent demonstrations.
According to the police statistics, 711 policemen have been injured in the course of putting down the demonstrations, and 94 percent of the injured police were either riot police or men serving their mandatory military service as policemen. The number of police injuries increased by 28 percent compared to the same period last year, showing that some demonstrations are turning violent and extreme again. In the recent clash, the protesters are suspected to have planned violent rallies as part of their systematic preparations. A violent demonstration is bound to result in human and material damage. Countless metal pipes were carried at a farmers’ rally in November of last year, and some demonstrators made armored carts with industrial metal pipes at the rally at an Ulsan plant.
Intentional violence increasingly causes injuries to police. Whether intentional or accidental, violence cannot be tolerated. No matter how noble the ideals and causes might be, violent demonstrations have to be firmly denounced.
The government shares considerable responsibility for the situation. Needless to say, the government has made efforts to establish a peaceful demonstration culture.
In order not to provoke the demonstrators, the police have refrained from using tear gas. They also establish a police line to induce the protesters to stage peaceful rallies. However, the government behaves in a very confusing way when it has to strictly enforce the law. Last May in Pyeongtaek, the prime minister committed the ridiculous mistake of making a statement calling both the police and the demonstrators to take a step back.
When the government treats the legitimate action of law enforcement the same as the violence of illegal protesters, and accuses and reprimands the police, it limits the power of the law enforcers. Some police executives who were faithful to their duties have been reprimanded, demoted or forced to resign. What have we gained from such measures? The duty of the government is to protect the citizens and let them live peacefully and prosperously. I would like to ask whether the administration is fulfilling its duty and is willing to defend the law and order of the country.
The public power must not be abused, but it is also a problem when it is not exercised when it should be. What will the government say to the policemen injured while putting down the violent demonstrations and to the parents of the injured policemen?
Where are the rights of the policemen who are fulfilling their mandatory military service to the nation through the police? The highest person in charge of the police needs to promptly come up with a plan to protect the riot police. It is unthinkable in a developed nation that the police are constantly injured by demonstrators’ violence. For reinforcement of public power and the safety of the police, the police should seek a way to keep their forces apart from the demonstrators.
While the police are currently using tactics to build a wall using cars, it is not effective when protesters set them on fire. Sprinkler trucks are limited in use, since sprinkling water at high pressure can result in injuries. Tactics that depend mainly on police forces inevitably lead to bodily contact. The police have little means to defend themselves against long bamboo canes and pikes. Instead of taking pride in the reduced use of tear gas as an achievement, the authorities should review a comprehensive plan for the effective and restrictive use of tear gas solution by spraying at close range, or mixing the solution in the sprinkler truck to minimize damage to civilians.
Many countries have adopted the restrictive use of tear gas, and it can be the second-best alternative to respond to violent demonstrations and protect the riot police.
*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by JoongAng Daily Staff.
by Hong Doo-seung