Monday, December 02, 2013

Law-enforcement matters: the 972 protest incidents

Saturday’s protest should have been strictly about the debate over the legalization of same-sex unions. But the repeated infractions by the Alliance, and the inability of law enforcement to step in, have made it a much wider issue

I’ve already described what happened during the large protest against same-sex marriage organized on Saturday by the contradictorily named “Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance,” and will not do so again here. However, one aspect of the protest that warrants further exploration is the behavior of the Alliance’s “security” detail and the inaction of police at the scene.

It is evident that the organizers of the protest, which attracted anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people from mostly Christian groups, were hoping that media would focus their coverage on the main event, a flashy affair involving talks — monologues, as there was no room for dialogue — as well as dances, and songs. Based on foreign coverage, they were successful, as their reports and accompanying photos centered almost exclusively on that aspect of the event.

Civilians block civilians
However, some of us witnessed acts on the peripheries that rose serious questions about the organizers and the state’s ability to safeguard the rights of all of its citizens. While the Alliance has since accused reporters like me of unduly magnifying the “isolated” incidents, the frequency with which they occurred, along with signs of careful orchestration and premeditation, point to something more worrisome.

The so-called “isolated” incidents took place early on outside the National Library, at the main site of the protest, and on Zhongshan Road near National Taiwan University Hospital. In every one of them, civilian members of the Alliance bearing a special red armband (糾察隊), chased, blocked and surrounded dozens of supporters of same-sex unions, locking arms and forming lines or circles around them to prevent their movement. In many instances, several men surrounded a single female protester.

'Security' lines up outside the National Library
There were hundreds of them, with leaders using electronic communication to liaise with other “security” staff and, when necessary, to call for reinforcement. The process by which the personnel were selected remains a mystery, so there is no way for us to know whether all staff was qualified for the job. Moreover, the great majority of the “security” personnel wore baseball caps as well as surgical masks, which made it nearly impossible to identify them. When challenged, all of them would remain silent.

I’ve been to several dozen protests in the past 18 months, and most of them had personnel who bore clear identification and whose responsibility it was to ensure orderly protests and prevent their members from getting into trouble with police, get hit by traffic, or littering. In other words, their sole responsibility was to contain their own people.

A civilian is prevented access on Zhongshan Road
The Alliance’s “security” staff, however, went well beyond that remit and assumed the role of police officers by going after people who did not belong in their group. Faced with criticism, organizers have argued that the Alliance had secured the right to protest in the area and that its “security” staff were merely ensuring that outsiders didn’t crash their party. In fact, according to the Alliance, they had received information prior to November 30 that “some people” were planning to cause disturbances during the protest. Of course, where that information came from, whether it was credible, and the identity of the would-be troublemakers, have not been made public. Given the lies and fabrications to which the Alliance has resorted to make its case against same-sex unions in past weeks, it is difficult to take its claims about the alleged disturbances seriously.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that as groups of Alliance “security” guards hounded, blocked, and surrounded people in a public space, dozens of police officers looked on and did absolutely nothing. Early in the protest, however, Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officers were seen filming a small gathering of supporters of same-sex unions on the steps of the National Library with their hand-held cameras. Their failure to intervene when, on dozens of occasions, a minority was denied its freedom of movement on a public road by civilians who were breaking the law was an abdication of responsibility for which the National Police Administration must be made accountable.

Only law-enforcement officers, who are accountable to government agencies and ultimately to the public, have the right — and training — to block people from accessing certain areas. Granted, there are abuses, but at least when they occur we know whom to turn to with our complaints. But no: they stood by, looked on, and allowed civilians from a religious organization to target people from a minority. Surely, if the problem was one of numbers, police at the scene could have called for backup. After all, the action was taking place in a part of town where several government agencies, including the Presidential Office, are located.

Cop looks on, does nothing
A greater irony was the fact that several of the police officers present had, in earlier protests, not hesitated to remove civilians or to deny them access to certain areas. In fact, as a dozen men pushed down and surrounded a scrawny boy in the middle of the crowd, one senior cop was standing nearby and did nothing. On July 18, that very same cop had pushed this writer with force during a protest in front of the Presidential Office against forced demolitions in Dapu, Miaoli County, and screamed at him that he should leave the scene because “this is not your country.” It was okay for him, in a moment of anger, surely, to issue such xenophobic comments, but when it came to protecting civilians from his own country against groups of individuals who infringed upon his freedom of movement, he did absolutely nothing.

One overarching principle in democratic systems is that law-enforcement agencies act under clear and predictable rules of engagement. Lines are clearly drawn, and whenever those lines are crossed, transgressors know what to expect. When enforcement becomes unpredictable, instability ensues. (Interestingly, randomness is also an instrument used by law enforcement agencies in authoritarian systems to keep opponents guessing.) Selective intervention, furthermore, invites speculation about the politicization of law enforcement. Was the state siding with the Alliance? Was it discriminating against homosexuals? Probably not; but Saturday’s victims need answers.

Saturday’s protest should have been strictly about the debate over the legalization of same-sex unions. But the repeated infractions by the Alliance, and the inability of law enforcement to step in, have made it a much wider issue. (Photos by the author)

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