I started writing this post about 3 weeks ago, when I was physically assaulted by Korean NGO motherfuckers for trying to help a lady friend return a pair of shoes she had bought just a few hours before, when we left the store as a big protest started.
I sat on the post, since I was too angry to be anything other than the "angry anti-NGO loser protester foreigner guy" in the post. And even though my assault was proof positive of just how deluded and violent most front-line protesters are – as well as how they're the ones who instigate fights with the generally restrained riot police, which is a big switch from the draconian days of the democracy movement a few decades ago – I just didn't feet like getting into it, baby.
But then I saw this:
You, dude. I generally sympathize with the fight against "The Man" wherever you are, but throwing shit at people? Man, Korean protesters suuuuure know how to make even their theoretically possibly political allies hate them – because they're hateful fucking people.
And why did Newsis blur their faces out? Christ, Korean media – get a fucking spine. I doubt a protester who was in the midst of creating a political and newsworthy act can sue a newspaper and say his reputation is harmed because of a picture that wasn't printed in the "public interest." It's not like this is paparazzi of two lovers through a love motel window – this is news, dude.
Throwing shit at people? Dag. That's almost as bad as jumping the random foreigner who made the mistake of going to the wrong department store on the wrong damn day.
Read on, although it's one of my signature "long ones." Sorry, kids – although I try to sweeten it up with pictures. Actually, I do think the experience was a weird kind of hilarious. The last thing I expected to be doing that day was tussling with a bunch of clueless idiots who think that physical violence is the way to deal with the one or two people who snuck past their ill-defined "picket line."
Perhaps if they engendered any respect for their cause through proper behavior in their protesting – and were smart enough not to hit the police and not the CIVILIANS, of whom they are theoretically comprised, most average working people would have sympathy for them; as it is, the only people who give two shits about protests in Korea are actually the people protesting and being screwed over at the time.
As it is, when your politics make you prone to jump any passersby who don't happen to agree with you, you just become those annoying protest people no one cares about.
Hey, when I was protesting along with the TA's and other clerical staff back at Berkeley and the campus was effectively and administratively shut down, we didn't jump or even curse at students and staff who dared pass the picket lines; save that shit for the police, if you're gonna get violent, dudes.
------------- THE POST (started 3 weeks ago) -------------
Yesterday was one of the weirdest Sundays ever in Korea. Part of it, you can read about in the news, actually.
How did this come to pass? What the hell is going on here? Well, it all started as a lazy Sunday...
I woke up with few plans. Got up about 11, rolled out of bed; ahem, I mean rolled up my bed and put it in the closet; and had an appointment to do a little exercise and get some lunch. So me and a lady friend threw around a frisbee (her first time, but she did a great job) and went to do a little shopping. The agenda?
- a name card case (yes, I finally made some)
- a laser pointer to entertain my crazy cat
- a shower head, since mine had broken in a fall from its holder
Now, I hate department stores, since they're crowded and overpriced (at least to me). I know they hold all the nice items in society, but most of the things I buy don't have designer labels, but LED displays and other blinking lights. But my friend insisted that perhaps they would have nice name card cases and that she could get some shopping done as well.
I responded that we could get ALL of our needs satisfied at Yongsan, since they have not only electronics for the laser pointer, E-mart for the shower head, and yes; a new department store that...
A stern smile; yes, they have those; nixed my suggestion. It sounded like just another excuse to go to Yongsan, which it...ahem...was. So, even though we had gotten a late start, we were going to the department store first, then eat, then eventually go see Hot Fuzz.
So we taxi down to the New Core Outlet near the Express Bus Terminal and proceed to wander around. Our lady friend spied a laptop bag she liked and proceeded to try before deciding to look around before making the buy, and we wandered around a bit. Then she spied the shoe sale.
Nine West, Steve Madden, Calvin Klein;real brands, all for just a few man-wons apiece. Well, they're the original American prices, just without the crazy import taxes and department store markup, which makes a pair of American $79 shoes that would go for $250 in a Korean department store $79 and a great deal in a Korean outlet store. She was in shoe heaven, and I was pretty bored.
So I flitted about, looking at this and that, and then floated back to the shoe section, where she was trying on stuff, and was asked for suggestions. I scanned the entire size 245 section and confidently said, "The blue ones are nice." She thought they were quite cute, but a bit high; I thought these Steve Madden pumps to be the only thing that really stood out from the mostly trendy lot.
She decided against them (I made a note that she would probably regret it, but didn't want to push her into buying them and then blaming me for regretting that) and she got a pair of decently cute shoes I hadn't seen and we were back to buy the laptop bag. As she was buying, I noticed a much cooler laptop bag – my photo eyes are exact; and suggested she take a look at that one. She did, previous purchase was canceled, and everyone busied themselves cancelling previous purchase, getting cash from the other register, and other various things.
I decided to wait near the entrance, where the small group of riot police – a pretty familiar sight in Korea and something of which I had barely taken notice when we came in – had gathered into a small army outside of all of the entrances. And there had been protesters, but they were mostly ajumma and young women, and I guessed from the signs that they were workers who were promised some kind of job protection but hadn't gotten it and were protesting about either the store's stance on it, or their treatment by the store.
Does this protest look dangerous to you?
Whatever. There are protesters everywhere, and I stopped liking them a long time ago. I've been known to stand on a few picket lines myself, twice when the graduate TA's went on strike at Berkeley, once for a "takeover" of my undergraduate University Hall. Pretty small potatoes, all, but I also respected the picket lines of some other strikes, especially one that involved a hunger strike conducted by undergraduates that involved some pretty fucked up police action by the university cops, involving pain holds and clubs. And that was the Berkeley university police;not even the normal cops. Ouch.
So I have sympathy for people who put their asses on the line, protest non-violently, and focus their cause into reasonable action. "Civil disobedience" has two meaning for me, not just the one.
Korean protesters, on the other hand; the ones who wear the red headband with "단결투쟁" written on it and are generally mean, verbally abusive, and throw things at the riot police, who are now mostly kids doing their military duty, and not the hardcore military corps and hired thugs who gassed, beat, and even shot movement protesters back in the 80's; I can't stand.
Why? Me, a hefty lefty who is "liberal" to the core and has a Berzerkely degree in Ethnic Studies (a department founded through campus protest) to boot?
Because they're just plain rude and hold citizens hostage as their main strategy; their strategy is one of being as irritating as possible, as opposed to putting their "bodies on the gears of the machinery" or whatever 60's rhetoric you'd like to use.
See, the red headband people who besieged the National Health Insurance Building in my area generally never even showed up for the protests. That's what irked me, back when they were "protesting" in 2002-2003, and preventing anyone in the neighborhood from getting any sleep. They blared revolutionary music and slogans from 6 in the morning; even, and especially, on Sundays; and when you'd pass by, instead of the hordes of angry protesters whom you'd thought you'd see, it was one guy in a van with a loudspeaker trained on the building.
Where were the protesters? Probably sleeping.
Same with the red headband people outside the Korea Exchange Bank in Myeongdong. Blaring slogans and music, cheering crowds, but no people. And we had to endure listening to their noise assault all day. The technique seems to be to be so annoying to everyone in the area that people get angry at the offending organization, rather than at the protesters. But I think that's bogus.
And as someone who's filmed and photographed many, many protests since 2002, I can say that, without any exception I've personally witnessed, it's the protesters who start the violence, who are generally violent. I don't know about outside of Seoul, but the major protests I've seen in Seoul generally go like:
- formal demonstration proceedings
- yelling of slogans and the protesters starting to push against the wall of cops
- the cops lining up and holding their line around the embassy, building, or store
- the protesters starting to push and shove in unison
- cops holding the line and definitely NOT hitting anyone and actually trying to calm people down
- a few, more violent protesters cursing and then taking a swipe at riot police then, leading a surge through a break in the line
- then the cops push back harder as they lose ground, all hell breaks loose at a few points in the line, a cop loses it and gets into a tussle or hits a protester
- then the entire line yells "police brutality" and somebody loses it (note the "Braveheart" expression on the man's face as he surges towards the cops trying to deal with another violent protestor
- most of the time, unless it's the US Embassy, the protesters eventually get their way, since I think the Seoul City Government doesn't want video and pictures of the police getting down and dirty on Korean citizens, who are mostly just normal, working people in their 30's and 40's (and not Molotov cocktail-throwing college students advocating the overthrow of the government, which is actually something I can respect a bit more, since they're at least honest about their means and goals)
And that's exactly how things were going down, and as a photographer with equipment at the ready, when the bottled water started flying, I was taking out my big flash and getting ready. All the major media was there, with still and video camera people, and generally, photographers are considered invisible when it comes to demonstrations, pretty much neutral parties.
During 2002-2003, I shot freely amidst even the most anti-American protests, with "Fucking USA" blaring in the background and burning American flags. SNAP SNAP. Never had a single problem. I didn't like them, nor care for their methods personally, but no one ever fucked with me, and I maintained a quiet neutrality. When I'm in the zone, I'm not American, or anti-protestor, or anything. I just take pictures. SNAP SNAP.
So, I'm standing in an evil Starbucks actually just waiting to leave, but since the heat was starting to be ON, I was snapping a few shots of the protesters outside the door, along with some KBS dudes and other professional photographers, when this one punk kid materializes out of the crowd and starts fucking with me.
Actually, I'm a little surprised, since even as a foreign photographer, no one's ever come right at me or broken the unspoken line between the media and the political act going on; they are there to make a point, the media is there to cover it. That's one part of the reason they're out there, and a reason no one fucks with the photographers.
So it was a little like watching a movie and the characters suddenly looking straight at the camera and saying, "Hey, you!" I was surprised, because here was suddenly this kid yelling at me, getting in my face about taking "his" picture. While the KBS and other dudes were snapping away with big zoom lenses and whatnot. I'm thinking, "Dude – why you fucking with me?" and "Waitaminnit – isn't this a protest?"
But my response was simply, "What?" I was still making sense of this. He said that I didn't have a right to take his picture, that his "right to his face" was being violated, to stop taking pictures. As the entire Korean news media was snapping and rolling away. So I was annoyed, mostly because I wasn't taking pictures because this idiot was talking to me, and responded in disbelief and irritation that this was a political event, it was a news event, and if he was concerned about "초상권침해" then he could sue me after the event.
And WTF? With the entire Korean press corps going SNAP SNAP SNAP around me and the building and half the protesters playing it up for them, I couldn't digest who the fuck this kid was. Was he a Starbucks worker who didn't want me photographing while in the store? Was I misunderstanding something? Was he a customer whom I was confusing with a protester? He didn't have a red headband thingie, I noticed.
Anyway, then he asked me who I was. Annoyed that I was even being made to speak with this fool and breaking the line I maintain between me and my subjects, I snarkily said, "I'm shooting for me! So what?" Then he asked me if I was a cop (yeah, the Korean police is hiring Samoan foreign photographers now), and why the fuck I was shooting; which is just about the dumbest question you could ask, as violent protest is breaking out all around the building.
He was one of the protesters, and when I had told basically told him to go fuck himself, he went outside and started having them take pictures of me. Cool – so I made exaggerated gestures of taking pictures of the people taking pictures of me. And they were taking pictures of me taking pictures of them taking pictures of me.
Ho HO! Two can play that game! So I took more pictures of them taking pictures of me taking pictures of them taking pictures of me. Then I gave them the finger – I had lost any inkling of photojournalistic objectivity here, and was, indeed, just in the building to help my friend buy shoes and a bag (they didn't have any name card cases); I'm a little sorry about that in principle, although on the personal level, the finger is the least of what I'd like to give that kid.
Man – the "Fucking USA" and burning the American flag and even racist images of "black dogs" and "Korean whores" (a picture of a black GI simply standing with a Korean woman) didn't get to me, but this one punk kid did.
The caption in Korean (taken from antimigun.org) read "Wanted - race-mixer" and most of the "commentary" on the site's bulletin boards (to which I wrote and complained about the racism, but remained up for months until I stopped checking) had something to do with her being a "slut" for having sex with a "black dog" or "black nigger dog" or some other variation. I'm sure the people who write that, or passively approved it, are the same people some of my "liberal" compariots call "friends" as they argue with me that I should have sympathy for these NGO people. It's funny that the same NGO's that liberally used "미국놈" and even racist epithets to refer to Americans (I heard them at the protests, I was there, so nobody can tell me they didn't or refer to edited transcripts) suddenly got all friendly with the international anti-war people (a lot of whom were Canadian and American, much to the professional NGO protestors' chagrin) when they started showing up in March for the anti-war stuff. Suddenly they were "our American friends" in the struggle and "compatriots;" Sheesh – at least have enough self-respect to keep track of whom you ostensibly hate. I'm sure the anti-war movement leaders were never shown pictures of the "I hate America" "education" being given Korean schoolchildren.
Anyway, I forgot about him, shot about 10 minutes of riot police going at it with the protesters, then things calmed down enough to leave the store and go to Black Angus for some steak. Yeah!
Games with signs that say "I hate America" and shooting at images of Bush is the best way to foster "globalization" in any national education system. Yay, Korean Teachers' Union! (Not my picture, by the way, but from news files I saved from 2002.)
All forgotten, just another day getting yelled at in Korea. Subway, bus, store, bar – it's not like I'm not used to getting yelled at for doing things like quietly look at my iPod, daring to take the subway, or simply walk down the street with a Korean female; I've been yelled at a million times before and I've always managed to avoid big trouble.
Also not my picture, but from files saved from 2002-2003. Note that AMERICANS are being barred entry – not American soldiers, as if that's even fair – but at least it would be somewhat...logical?
I've gotten into a yelling match before, but I've just learned to outbluster the blusterer. Still never escalated into fisticuffs, although that credit usually goes to me, not the drunk guy who'd like nothing other than to take a swing at me. So this incident rated pretty low on what Will Smith called the "Weird Shit-o-Meter." Nothing to get flustered over. See it every day.
So, during dinner, the lady friend said she needed to go back and get the blue shoes. I was fine with that, since the whole affair seemed to have died down, to the point that neither of us was even thinking about the protest anymore, which seemed to have died down as we were leaving, anyway. Heck, even the police had been going home. I vaguely remember there being some ajummas sitting in front of the doorways when I left, but that's about it. Didn't even think about it.
Well, we return to the store and we try to go in one of the open doors, past which you could see the store being very obviously open for business. There were a whole bunch of ajummas sitting in front of it, but it seemed pretty easy to walk through.
They immediately started up, saying that the building was closed.
Which was an obvious lie. I guess I wasn't even thinking that they were going to actually try and prevent entry. And it irritated me that they were lying. So we said that the store was obviously open and we were going in; so one ajumma comes up to to lady friend – as if I hadn't just had a conversation with her in Korean – and tried to tell her to explain this all to me; problem was, we both understood that she was lying through her teeth and actually insulting our intelligence. Since we were obviously intent on getting into the store, she directed us to the back door and said we "could probably get in that way." Cool, ajumma. Hooked up, right?
So we go to the back door, which was indeed, quite sparsely populated with fools in red vests and headbands. And there were a few ajumma arguing with one of them, which was effectively distracting the group; and there were just like 6-7 people around the entrance, but nothing like a clear line or anything. Just a group of protesters arguing with some flustered ajumma.
Cool – it would be easy to just walk up and not even talk to them, since they were occupied, anyway, so I lead the way with my patented slip-and-slink move and the lady friend follows. We're in! No problems, no confrontations.
Then this sanctimonious bitch – sorry, but that's all I can think to call her – comes up, all of like 21 years old or whatever, and starts yelling "You can't come in here!"
Of course, I ignore her ass and walk past her. Who's she? Da police? She's just another person, just like me. She has no right to stop me or anyone else from entering. So then, she lays hands on me.
So I'm like "Get your hands off me!" because she's all grabbing me and trying to physically push me back. Since I have what's called self-control and maturity, I didn't start no shit, especially with a girl; I just wanted her to get her hands off me.
At which point, she's yelling "He's trying to come in! Get him! Get him!" and seriously – like 5-6 dudes jump me. I'm serious – they JUMP me and try to take me to the ground.
I have $1200 in camera equipment in my hand, a laptop in my backpack, as well as about $2000 worth of accessories in flash, another lens, and other various photo stuffs in that bag. Now, they're grabbing on the bag (which held up really well, in retrospect) on both straps, the bag itself, as well as on both my arms, while one dude is wrapping his arms around my stomach, trying to lift me off my feet.
So – at that point, I could have done several things:
– use my very heavy camera as a single-use and very expensive bludgeon against the closest attacker's head
– used my variously free left land (I'm a righty) to uppercut the guy trying to wrestle my to the ground and get him off me
– drop the camera and put said guy in a choke hold and withstand all blows, turtle style, and promise to squeeze his larynx until either a) I lost consciousness from them hitting me (which they hadn't started to do yet, but was anticipating they might), b) or they backed off and I used him as a hostage, since there was no way I was winning against 5-6 guys, since I'm not, however much I'd like to believe I am, a ninja
Yes, these thoughts went through my mind, and I succumbed to none of them, although I kept the last as an option if they starting hitting, which, when 5 dudes gang up on 1 dude, constitutes a threat to my life, the way I see it – but I didn't have to, since I had one other option – very LOUD indignance.
See, all my years in Korea did amount to something useful.
So, I went into Indignant Anger Mode™, developed, tested, and patented by angry Korean ajussis and overbearing Korean moms since time began with bears, tigers, and garlic in caves on this peninsula.
I started yelling, "Why are you touching me? How can you touch me?" at the top of my lungs in Korean, along with, "This is illegal! You are criminals! You can't touch me! You are all criminals!"
That's the best Korean I could muster, given how angry and tense I was, and anyone who speaks a second language knows how easily one's language ability leaves you in such moments of intense emotion, fear, or anger. Given the volatility of the moment, that was fucking Nobel Prize-worthy literary prose I was coming up with.
In the midst of the tussle, a young protester girl had quietly come up and softly taken my camera from me, obviously to make sure it didn't get broken, so I could sense from the beginning that there were some people amongst this group who must have thought this whole thing was ridiculous and that I was just a dude coming into the store, not some representative of the Establishment they fancied themselves fighting against; that's one thing that kept my head calm, or was a sign that I possessed a calm head.
Somehow, the whole thing was surreal in that yes, I was angry, but also kind of was beside myself and analyzing the whole thing somewhat objectively as the situation was playing out. I was thinking they were dumb-ass, punk kids, I was thinking they were just being overzealous and taking somebody's "No one comes in under ANY circumstances!" a bit too far, and even as I had a clear shot at this skinny kid who had deluded himself into thinking he was lifting me off my feet, I didn't try and knock him out.
Yes, part of it was also fear that this would escalate the situation and result in me giving them an excuse to send me to the hospital or worse, so my logic was also somewhat based in self-preservation as much as high-minded motives to keep things chilled below any point of no return; yet, I also didn't feel these guys were bad people – just very fucking deluded, annoying, and taking this shit WAY too far.
Anyway, back to the yelling. Presently, the yelling is working, and a couple girls come over and tell their boys to chill out. One of them was the sanctimonious bitch, and I was about to give her some credit when she was like, "Why are you trying to get in here?" like she was the po-po.
I was still angry, and this was the attitude that had gotten her butt-boys on my ass in the first place, so I was responded with a very loud, "Who are you? Do you work here? (zing! - hehe, I guess not anymore, otherwise she wouldn't be in the red headband – cruel thought, I know) This is illegal! You don't have the right to touch me!"
So she gets this shocked and indignant look on her face, rolls her eyes, and rejoinders with, "Why you using panmal with me?"
Yeah. I was using the impolite, informal form of Korean. So sue me. "After you jump and manhandle and nearly knock me on my ass, that's waaaay past polite, bitch."
Or so I wish I could have said in just that kind of snarky way in Korean. As it was, I marveled for a moment at the seriously inflated sense of aggrievement that causes these people to actually believe that them taunting, spitting, and then hitting riot police isn't going to make one of them snap and hit back, at which point they'll yell "Police brutality."
And for those of you who want to go all Martin Luther the King, Jr. on me, please. That's one of the reasons the CRM succeeded – the suppression of the public use of violence in the movement, which is what garnered the sympathy of not just the rest of the nation, but the rest of the world. Had black protesters been regularly been seen assaulting police and guardsmen at the time – which, given the violent circumstances of the racist-ass Southern establishment at the time, would have been perfectly reasonable and understandable, and was a mode of protest some Black political leaders used, and somewhat effectively, e.g. the Black Panthers, who used violence more rhetorically than actually – no one would have given the movement any support.
Anyway, my point is, in the Korean context – this ain't Kwangju and it's not 1980 under a military dictatorship, although Korean protest movement styles really haven't figured that out. No one has sympathy for people who are effectively assholes.
Especially people who throw shit at other people getting paid by the hour, working up in Lotte Department Store. No one deserves to get shit thrown in their face working the meat counter – go raid the main offices and throw shit on some guy who actually makes the decisions, not the little guy.
Same principle with me. Why you jumping somebody who obviously ain't working for The Man in da sto', ain't the po-po, and ain't even Korean? Idiots.
Anyway, after everyone on the entire ground floor had gathered for the scene and dispersed back to their empty counters, I walked in, panting heavily – fighting is exhausting, and I'm out of shape, to boot – and still flowing with the first real adrenalin rush I had had since getting into a fight with Brian Wolf in 8th grade, or my girlfriend in college had an accident on the interstate highway and skidded us into a railing.
I don't get flustered like that often, and the coming down afterwards is quite nearly overwhelming. All I could do was focus on the task at hand, which was amazingly and ironically simple – we went to the counter, I got the shoes off the shelf, and asked, "These are the ones, right?"
EVERYONE on the floor was looking at me with a seeming mix of, "What the Sam Hell?" or "That's one crazy motherfucking foreigner" or "Now, that's the kind of man I need – fighting through crowds to take me shopping!"
In general, the crowd of workers seemed quite impressed even while they were as surrealed out as I was. "All that over some shoes?!" is what everybody involved seemed to be asking. That had to be the question people were asking. What other question could possibly be crossing anyone's mind, who had just seen that scene? Wow.
The lady ringing us up seemed to be holding back a smirk as she quickly wrapped up the sale after I ker-chunked the shoes on the counter and asked, "얼마예요?" We took our ridiculous little plastic bag of shoes and walked out the door with the ajummas, who looked genuinely shocked yet amused that we had gotten in.
The whole walking out part made it worth it, in a silly way – it was very end-of-Pulp-Fiction anti-climactic, and although I hadn't just cooly disarmed two amateur stickup fools, held on to my mob boss's valuable stash, and retrieved my wallet from the stickup man's trash bag that said "Big Bad Motherfucker" on it, well, it felt pretty close, given the fact that this was still a pretty wild run-in to have in a department store.
So, I felt one part stupid, one part silly, and one part "Big Bad Motherfucker." 'Cause we got what we came for:
We ended that surreal evening by seeing two more real bad motherfuckers on the big screen, in the movie Hot Fuzz, which absolutely was both the funniest and most fun action flick I'd seen in years.
That night, I was happy to find that the incident hadn't actually bothered me much; I wondered if it was just me getting older, or me getting used to the surreality that defines life in Korea, but you seem to stop noticing the longer you're here.
In the end, I was happy to realize that I wasn't really angry or begrudging at all; I hadn't tipped over to clichéd point of becoming the "anti-Korea expat", which seems to be something some people fall into and that you see sometimes after bad things happen to good people you know here – "Fucking Korea," or some such.
Naw, I was just happy nothing happened, I had used my brain to defuse the situation, and that I had had the wherewithal to do that in the first place. We both watched Hot Fuzz and left feeling like the "bad motherfuckers" we had just seen in the movie.
'Cause we came, we exchanged, and we conquered.
'Cause we left with the shoes.