18 Tir: Fight the Power
by TARA MAHTAFAR in Tehran
10 Jul 2009 13:24
Cartoon caption: The people are ahead of Mousavi. "Wait for me to catch up with you," he says.
The city was revved up for 18 Tir. Emails had been circulating all week, outlining ten demonstration routes across Tehran. The emails called on people to "be present" on the streets, even in their cars, if they feared going on foot, expressing solidarity by honking and obstructing security maneuvers by jamming the roads. Locations in provincial capitals were included too; the day was slated for a nationwide event.
Yesterday's protests differed from previous ones in two ways. First, they were organized entirely online, lending credence to purported theories of a "cyber-revolution." Second, more significantly, the turnout sprung from the people themselves; it was not prompted by a call from opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. In fact, an open invitation posted to opposition websites bid him to join them. In elegant script on an electronic invite card, Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohammad Khatami were all three requested to join the people "in peaceful marches to honor the tenth anniversary of the student martyrs of June 9, 1999," in effect signalling that the movement has surpassed its figurehead. It was steering along on an organic course without leadership from above. Thus unmediated, turnout would be a critical measure of how far Iranians were prepared to stand up to the regime on their own.
Thursday afternoon, we headed out in a caravan of three cars for Vanak Square, armed with water bottles and green surgical masks. (Long marches have taught us to avert thirst; filming by Intelligence agents cautioned protection of identity.) At 4:30 p.m., Vanak was dead. Policemen idled on four corners of the square, and a line of buses, apparently intended to transport captured "rioters," were parked to the side. There were no people though; even the usual pedestrian flow was absent. Our spirits flagged a bit, seeing deserted a scene we expected to be swarming.
"Iranians are always late," one friend joked. "They'll show up by 6-ish."
The consensus was to go downtown (cell phones, surprisingly, were working). As we progressed down Valiasr Avenue, signs of life began to emerge. Pockets of people -- interestingly, women considerably outnumbered men -- trickled down the sidewalks. We could tell they were one of us, so to speak, by the telltale signs of water bottles and surgical masks. It's interesting to see how fast these things become trends, suddenly and as if by silent consensus.
We parked near Enghelab Street and joined the water-and-mask-carrying crowd now streaming in larger, denser numbers toward Tehran University. Women still composed the majority.
On Enghelab, pepper spray forced the crowd, sputtering and gasping, to turn back. "Up the other way!" people bellowed. My friends and I, arms linked in pairs, followed our fellow protesters onto Vesal Ave, the nearest cross street. More people had poured in from both sides. We were now more than 2000 strong, filling an entire side of the avenue. Emboldened, we whooped and broke out in applause. "Arms up!" came the next cry. We raised our hands and flashed the V sign. Oncoming traffic blared their car horns and waved Vs back. Even the police, who were too few to stop us, seemed excited. I caught several of them smiling at us.
We marched northward, turning onto another avenue, heading toward Valiasr. The 'silence' etiquette of past marches had given way to full-throated chanting. A popular call-and-answer rhymed Mousavi's first name with that of the epic hero of Ashura: "Ya Hossein!" went half the crowd, and "Mir Hossein!" called the other half. Another chant was in effect the equivalent of holding out an olive-branch: "Police [our] friends, protect us!" And a new, alarmingly radical slogan, venturing beyond the vote dispute, attacked Ayatollah Khamenei's son, who is rumored to become the next Supreme Leader: "Mojtaba, you'll die before you're Leader!"
Chanting, our throng wound its way into Valiasr like a thick snake. I was hoarse, sweaty, and elated. After Enghelab, Valiasr is Tehran's next big hot spot. Unfortunately the Special Guard (yegan vijeh) had anticipated this.
Whizzing screeches, dense white smoke and the now-familiar stench of teargas descended upon us.
Running half-blind, we scattered into side alleys. Smokers lit cigarettes, puffed on them hurriedly, and blew out smoke into each other's eyes. It was once odd to have a total stranger's mouth suddenly inches away, helping dispel the burning sting. But the odd has become standard.
It was about 6:30 p.m. when we returned to our cars. On the way home, we realized the Basij had been called in. Dozens of motorbikes rushed past us on various streets: camouflage fatigues, shielded helmets or bareheaded, clubs in hand. I repressed an urge to floor the gas pedal and ram into them. Instead, I yelled out the window as the last of them were passing (they're known to attack people in cars too): "Animals!"
At least there is a savage pleasure in letting them know what you think.
* * *
18 Tir lived up to expectations, as I learned later that night at a friend's housewarming. Everyone had stories to tell from protests and clashes at different areas across the capital: Haft-e-Tir (central), Gisha (west), Sadat-Abad (northwest), Pasdaran (east), Amir-Abad (Tehran University dormitories), and even Vanak (north). It seemed the peak hours had been from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Like in our experience, they appear to have started calmly in the presence of ordinary police, and descended into violence when Guards and Basij moved in halfway through. Protesters fought back by lighting fire barricades; plumes of black smoke were seen rising over Enqelab.
Those who stayed on after we turned back reported that protesters who were dispersed would regroup a few streets over with other crowds. Apparently, the new "multiple route" strategy worked. Decentralized protests threw security forces off-guard and forced them to break ranks to cover all areas. It also allowed people to disband and re-band randomly -- kind of like "protest-hopping," if you like. There was even a general consensus that people felt bolder now, that they'd be out again next time.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau