There’s a code I follow when I’m on the streets, reporting on protests.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s Belfast or Bangkok, Barcelona or Bahrain, there are certain steps I take to keep myself safe should violence break out.
Watch the protests from the side of the street, preferably near a side street that you can use as an escape route if things go wrong. And if they do, stay low, stay to the side, and don’t hang around trying to see a melee unfold.
Modern tear gases are most foul, penetrate your eyes, nose and mouth quickly, bringing the most violent mucus onsets almost instantly. Above all, resist the need to put water on your face. Use milk instead.
With each death on the streets, the arguments become all the more entrenched, more embittered, more polarised. These demonstrators on the streets of countless cities may each have their disparate causes, but the cost remains priceless. Sticks and stones break bones. Names do hurt. And hate begets hate.
And when things go south, they do so very quickly. Police in visors and waving batons hit out at anyone that moves and anyone who doesn’t.
Trust me, having covered protests on three continents over the past 35 years, the “stay low, stay to the side and move fast” survival technique works.
Protests too follow an inevitable format — the chanting, the provocations, the throwing of bricks and sticks, then police forming behind shields, the tear gas, the running street battle.
Anger and resentment
These are the scenes playing out today in Hong Kong, in places across India, in France, across Iraq and in Algeria. Around the world, there is a fury on the streets — deep-seated anti-establishment anger fuelled by a variety of grievances and causes. The persistent people power is undeterred.
In May I found myself in Hong Kong, the former British territory racked by six months of bloody and violent protests sparked by a since-cancelled extradition law that became a touchstone for demonstrators. Back then, three weeks before the protests began in earnest, there were signs that this confrontation would be long. The legislate there was sealed off, police were in no mood to talk to curious foreign visitors, and the police vans had been fitted with wire meshing for the inevitable conflict to come.
Social media plays its part too in stoking the palpable hatred on the streets, Twitter is the tool of the intolerant and the indignant — allowing those intent on escalating protests to gather and organise at the touch of a thumb.
During these days of protests, tyres become the currency of the malcontent. They are carefully set across streets in layers — and the more diligent of demonstrators will use gas canisters with blow torches to quickly set these ablaze. The choking black smoke provides cover and a screen for more to organise and vent their fury in a concerted fashion. Whatever the cause, environment ranks very low once tyre fires are set.
Fists of the furious
In Baghdad, the US embassy was recently besieged and attempts were made to storm it. Whatever the outcome, such escalation of violence can never be a wise move.
In Algeria, demonstrators have been on the streets for most of these past 12 months. President Abdelmadjid Tebboune named Abdelaziz Djerad, a university professor and former diplomat as prime minister in an attempt to de-escalate the protests that have already resulted in toppling Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April after two decades in power.
In France, striking seems to be a national sport. There, in a country blessed with a progressive social system, President Emmanuel Macron is attempting to reform French pension laws. In recent years the retirement age has been raised from 60 to 62, and President Macron wants to introduce more reforms that would award points for the number of years worked. Trains haven’t run since before Christmas, holiday plans for millions were disrupted, and once children return to classes after the break, they may finds teachers joining the transport workers on the picket lines.
Common grievances and belief
The gilet jaunes — the yellow jackets — are still protesting in French towns and cities a year on. They have no common leadership, no agreed agenda — just common grievances and a belief that together than can change things. And every week they gather and protest, burn tyres and taunt officialdom.
And for the past three weeks, the very soul of India seems to be at stake in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Dozens have been killed, hundreds arrested in violent protests. Civil rights group say the law, which offers amnesty to non-Muslim immigrants only, discriminates against Muslims.
The debate, however, is now choked by tear gas of the police. And with each death on the streets, the arguments become all the more entrenched, more embittered, more polarised. These demonstrators on the streets of countless cities may each have their disparate causes, but the cost remains priceless. Sticks and stones break bones. Names do hurt. And hate begets hate.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe