The Morning After
by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran
19 Jun 2010 18:50
Birth of a popular uprising.
I knew that a shockwave would sweep the country when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory in the presidential election was announced. Practically everyone who had voted Green for Mir Hossein Mousavi was under the naive, though noble illusion that he would be declared the winner. Many people had not stayed up the night of June 12 and thus did not immediately learn of the big surprise. After weeks of catharsis and jubilation on the part of millions who had grown confident in victory, there would inevitably be a powerful reaction to the discovery of defeat. But what kind of reaction?
Someone called. It was 9 a.m. Mousavi's central headquarters had been raided. A huge force, including dozens of special riot police on motor bikes, was assembling at the Interior Ministry building on Fatemi Avenue. "They have some kind of space suit on," blared the voice on the other end of the line. "What? Space suits? What the hell are you talking about?" I asked incredulously. It was the first time anybody had seen the fearsome Special Units cops with their strange anti-riot gear and roaring bikes on the streets of the capital. Iran would see a lot of these ferocious-looking men in the months to come.
The first question that struck me was why the Interior Ministry building? Why not the Parliament or the National Radio and TV complex or the president's headquarters? The answer wasn't hard to figure out. It was inside the hermetically sealed "vote-counting chamber" within the Ministry building that millions of citizens' votes were vacated on the evening of June 12. As was later revealed, even Interior Minister Sadegh Mahsouli himself was not allowed entry to the room that day -- though Kamran Daneshjoo, now minister of science, research, and technology, was present the entire time.
At 11 a.m., there were no outward signs of protest or outrage. Everyone was benumbed, as when one has just heard shocking news. The mind takes time to process it. That's what was going on. The people I saw on the streets or reached on the phone were simply speechless.
After numbness comes anger or grief. But which? That was probably the big question on the minds of the perpetrators of one of the biggest frauds in history that morning.
By 1 p.m., there were still no reports of disturbances or even a spillover from the last few weeks -- cars honking loudly, people chanting slogans, hands flashing the "V" sign. None of that. An eerie quiet pervaded the streets of Tehran.
Something told me to head to Vanak Square instead of the Interior Ministry building. My instincts were in good form because that was where the first mass protest gathering in Iran's recent history took shape. It was 1:30 when I arrived at the square. Around three thousand people had spontaneously come together. Among them were perhaps five hundred regular NAJA personnel. They didn't do anything. Neither did the rest of those who had gathered.
I had read about the behavior of crowds, the way a crowd acts like a unitary organism with a mind of its own. I wasn't to be disappointed. The crowd surged and moved downtown toward Vali Asr Square with no leadership or prodding from anyone. As it moved, it grew, with people joining in from different directions. Some along the sides of the route cheered. Many more looked bewildered at this first manifestation of public will in decades.
Near Tavanir, a bus full of soldiers drove up from south. It came to a stop about 30 yards from the crowd, which halted as well. I was about midway in between. And then something strange happened. A NAJA officer stepped forward. Instead of ordering the soldiers to charge the crowd, he directed the driver to make a U-turn. That was easy to do since half the street was totally free of cars -- the side the crowd was marching on. Still it was impressive how quickly the bus driver maneuvered the large vehicle into a 180-degree turn. The soldiers were not attacking and dispersing the crowd. They were retreating! The crowd, which had doubled in size en route from Vanak Square, cheered wildly. A few people threw light objects at the bus.
I had an appointment to make at the Africa movie house; it was easy to do since there was no traffic on our side of Valiasr. I decided to head over quickly to the nearby Interior Ministry building to check things out. There they were, the space-suited cops with their bikes and dozens and dozens of plainclothes types milling about. Fatemi was emptied of cars.
I rushed to the Africa theater to make my appointment. It must have been around 3:45. I
finished up my meeting quickly so I could be there when the police confronted the protesters. I stopped a taxi-bike on Vali Asr, jumped into the back seat (without haggling over the rate for once), and asked to be taken toward Beheshti. My driver was an adroit bicyclist. He maneuvered his way expertly through the atrocious traffic and in no time got me south of Motahari (formerly Abasabad). This was the first place that the two sides threw stones at each other.
I got off the bike and ran up on the sidewalk in search of the space-suited cops and the surging crowd I had left behind. Sure enough a clash, the first of its kind, erupted just yards from where I was: a couple of hundred security forces, armed to the teeth, along with their vigilante hangers-on one on side and the crowd of ordinary citizens on the other. This was at the juncture of Vali Asr and Motahari. I ran into a store where about a dozen others huddled. The owner closed the shutter and we peered through the cracks. It was
like watching a movie, except it was very real. The roaring bikes -- the first time we had seen them used en masse -- created an intense scene.
At first, the crowd on the north side of Motahari withdrew in the face of the advancing goons. But some in the front ranks stood their ground and threw stones at the bikers. In turn, some of the police dismounted and threw stones at the people. From our vantage point in the store, what we noticed was the bravery of a few indomitable souls -- including more than a few young girls -- who didn't turn back. The entire street was completely emptied of pedestrians and cars. This was around 4:30, near the peak of rush hour. I figured several thousand were watching this unforgettable episode -- some from the jammed stores, some from the surrounding high rises, some from the cars stopped on the side streets, and of course the rest of the protesting crowd who were seeking shelter in the vicinity.
There was a series of to-and-fros between the cops and the four dozen or so brave protesters who had stood their ground. To our amazement, the goons eventually halted and beat a hasty retreat. There was a spontaneous roar of applause from our store.
The store owner lifted the shutter and we stepped out one by one, kissing and thanking him profusely for his kindness. I walked up to the north side without pausing. It was a strange scene to behold. Hundreds of cars were parked in the middle of Motahari as their former occupants stood and watched the goings-on. Hundreds of people walked around in a state half elated, half befuddled. Stones, thousands of them it seemed, littered the ground.
Suddenly, without warning, dozens of baton-wielding NAJA special forces charged us from one of the side streets. Some in the crowd ran, but others again stood their ground. It was
mano a mano. Those odd-looking space suits were designed to repulse strikes to the body, and they appeared to be very effective. On top of that and their combat training, the NAJA special forces tended to be large, burly types. Still, the crowd was able to apply a beating to several of them. As they once again retreated, thousands of people in the high rises and among the parked cars booed them loudly.
The victory was short-lived. Backup arrived from south of Vali Asr: more NAJA personnel on foot, plus the vigilantes. It was time to get out of there. Along with many others, I ran as fast as I could -- first north and then east to one of the side streets between Beheshti and Motahari. But the security detachment had grown very large. No matter where one ran,
there were policemen and vigilantes who had been directed to use violence liberally.
I dashed through an open door, one of many I saw that day. It turned out to be a clinic. At least 50 people had taken shelter within the vestibule. The entrance was closed behind me. We watched police march in formation across the full breadth of the street, indiscriminately beating anyone who got close to them -- albeit not terribly brutally as yet.
At one point, two workers on a bike approached and sheepishly asked if they could pass by. They were immediately set upon by four of the cops. A solitary woman in a black chador walked past them up to the clinic and rang the bell. She was let in. I told her she was very brave not to worry about being beaten. She was about 30. "This is such a joke," she said haughtily. Referring to the protesters, she continued, "Bunch of stupid sissies making noise is nothing to stop me from going about my business today."
Once the cops had marched past the clinic, I stepped out, despite expressions of concern from those around me. On the street, I joined a handful of others who had been hiding out in nearby homes and offices. We had scarcely walked a few meters before we were charged by another group of cops. Time to run again. We ran all the way to the street's end at Mirza Shirazi. Traffic was jammed there and everyone looked at us, protesters and cops, with mouths agape.
Until then, I had thought those of us who hadn't dispersed amounted to no more than a few hundred protesters. But at the intersection of Motahari and Mirza Shirazi, and everywhere I turned, I saw many like myself, braving the cops. There must have been at least ten thousand people on Motahari.
Bonfires burned every few yards. Hundreds of riot-control cops marched in formation, trying to clear the intersections and extinguish the fires. The fight seemed more even now. Still, while we were fortified by the sight of so many others like ourselves, we still felt very vulnerable as fierce-looking police clubbed people freely.
Then something changed the equation, something I'll never forget. As we were trying to flee the cops assigned to our corner of Motahari, we noticed a gigantic fire perhaps 10 meters high building on the horizon. "What is it?" people asked each other. Even the policemen turned around to look at it. Suddenly the explanation reached us. "It is a burning bus," everyone repeated.
In no time, protesters near my location stopped a city bus -- one of those long, accordion ones -- and asked the driver whether it was publicly or privately owned. The commuters inside couldn't care less what the answer was, and exited forthwith. Within minutes, it went up in a giant ball of flame. The same thing happened at every other juncture we could see on Motahari. The burning buses immediately changed the balance of forces on the streets. We no longer felt so vulnerable and the cops largely withdrew from the scene.
It was undeniable: This was no run-of-the-mill riot, but a grand social upheaval on the scale of a revolution. The government could not hush up this nascent movement. That day, there were thousands of dramas, large and small. Here's one I saw that has stuck in my memory.
As the protesters set fire to the accordion bus, I noticed a fortyish-looking man meticulously taking pictures of each of the 25 or 30 people involved. He would come within a few feet of a particular person, do his job, then move on to the next. As everyone was caught up in the moment, none of his photographic subjects noticed what he was up to.
I knew immediately that he was a fundamentalist. He had all the trademarks: a well-trimmed beard, long buttoned-up sleeves, ironed pants, and white socks with black shoes. This realization created a grave dilemma for me. If I warned the protesters of what he was doing, he might have been instantly lynched -- each picture, if it found its way to the authorities, was a potential death sentence for each man and woman burning that bus. If I didn't do anything, he would surely turn in the pictures, with dire consequences.
Providence relieved me of my moral dilemma. Someone else got wind of what he was doing, and he was swiftly surrounded by three dozen protesters, a mass citizen's arrest. He was not lynched or even beaten, but many shouted angrily at him. He was held by some of the protesters, but remarkably, he wouldn't let go of his camera. They really had to twist his elbow before he dropped it. Still I saw the fear of death in his eyes. His mien was white as chalk. Yes, if you are interested in getting people killed, you would expect retribution of a similar kind. But why wouldn't he let go of the damn camera?
As the burning bus grew into a huge conflagration just meters away, the protesters debated what to do with him. After 15 minutes of deliberation -- an ad hoc people's tribunal -- he was released. This was truly amazing. A revolution was born that was unlike any other I had known of. Not one among the very young protesters wanted to inflict physical pain on the man, let alone string him up. The contrast with the 1979 Revolution and its bloody cycles of revenge was glaring.
There was another significant aspect to what I had seen: the utter abandon with which the fundamentalist had gone about his grisly act. Far from evidence of individual stupidity, it revealed how ill-prepared these people were for the birth of the democratic movement. Like the chador-clad woman in the clinic, he thought he was invincible and dealing with a
bunch of stupid sissies -- hence his brazen nonchalance. As I recall the events of that day, it is this man who symbolizes a regime long fed on a diet of self-delusion, singularly unable to see its own defects and the people's rising power.
Hamid Farokhnia, who writes under a pen name, is a staff writer at Iran Labor Report and covers the capital for Tehran Bureau.
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