A Riot Over Beef Hurt My Face
This photo was taken by my half-brother Benjamin Caldwell Acree. He was looting a police bus as I was getting beaten.
Hello. This is me in the In Jae University Hospital in South Korea.
There is a puncture wound on my cheek, seven stitches on the inside of my mouth, and another seven on the outside. I also have a dislocated shoulder with ligament damage and a concussion. I got these injuries when I was blindsided by a riot shield while changing a roll of film in my camera.
The protests all started a few months ago. On February 25, the people of South Korea elected Lee Myung-bak as president. Mr. Lee had previously been mayor of Seoul and on the board of Hyundai, and before the election he had been prosecuted multiple times for charges of corruption, embezzlement, land speculation, and campaign-finance infringement. He was elected with the lowest voter turn-out in South Korean history. One of his first political moves was to approve the KORUS FTA, a free-trade agreement with the US. This included the reintroduction of US beef to South Korean markets, which had been banned since the outbreak of mad cow disease in 2003.
After this his approval rating dropped to an average of 28 percent, hitting its lowest point at around 12 percent. Then the protests began. The protests centered on the import of US beef, but that’s more of a jumping-off point for general complaints about President Lee’s social and economic policies. The protests have been happening pretty much every night since the FTA was signed.
I went to one of the first protests out of curiosity and have been going ever since. These shots are a selection from the last two months.
Initially the protests were candlelit vigils. I think I was there the first time they actually marched. They wanted to go to the president’s house and directly voice their disapproval. The government set up roadblocks with buses and riot police. The protesters sat down on the street. The police declared it illegal and rushed the sitters. The pictures of the old woman are from that night. So I guess it was violent right at the beginning.
I got hurt about a month and a half into the protests. The mood had grown really bad: The protesters were angry that nothing was changing in spite of their efforts, and the police were tired of being out all night, every night. Earlier in the day demonstrators wrecked three water cannons the police had foolishly left right next to the main gathering place without any real guards. They smashed and looted them. That night, when the police shot at them with water cannons, the protesters had the ability to fire back. There was a stand-off for some time while tempers worsened.
I didn’t see what exactly happened to this guy. His arm was broken, but I’m not sure how.
Around midnight about 600 police rushed the crowd from a side street, pouring through a small opening in the line of buses that had been set up to contain the crowds. They were swinging their batons and shields at anything and everything in their way. As far as I know there was no warning. They cleared most of the street except for maybe 70 people who got cut off in the middle. About 30 riot police were caught in that crowd too and there was a huge fight. The riot police lost, badly. They ended up huddling in a mass, being beaten and dragged away one at a time. But then a second wave of police came, and that’s when my head got smashed in.
Historically, the South Korean police have a reputation for violence. In 1980, during massive national protests for democratic reform, the military riot police violently suppressed an uprising in Kwangju, a town in the south of the peninsula. They killed an estimated 170 people, arbitrarily beating up anyone they came across. Although the regimes have changed over time, the Korean police have been notoriously violent toward any type of opposition. This is the main reason so many people are still protesting. They feel that President Lee’s policies are too similar to those of previous, non-democratic leaders.
I’m certainly on the side of the protesters. The Korean people have a right to demonstrate. It is a democracy, after all. The police were regularly excessive. On one occasion I was almost hit with an open bottle of piss that they threw at the crowd. It sounds ridiculous, but keep in mind military service is mandatory in Korea, so the riot police are just 17- to 24-year-old guys, not a crack force of career law enforcers. There is really low discipline in their ranks. I saw them fighting among themselves while they were supposed to be fighting demonstrators—actually physically fighting, not arguing.
At times it seemed like some of them didn’t give a fuck about what they were doing. Throwing pipes at the protesters from over buses, beating a girl who was curled up and hiding under a bus, hitting me in the face with a shield. They were pretty out of control. It was a bit like a government-sanctioned army of angry teenagers looking for a fight.
The police, however, were pretty good to photographers, at least initially. Early on I could go behind their lines and take photos without any problem. But as the protests continued they became less friendly. One photographer took a picture of an officer who had sharpened the bottom of his shield; his camera got smashed and he was beaten and arrested. I also saw a news cameraman get hit with a baton while standing on a small ladder.
The protests are still going on. It’s not clear if or when they will be resolved. Fewer people are on the streets now, but there have been labor strikes, and religious organizations are getting involved. I think the rallies will become more low-key and guerrilla. Unless President Lee does something to calm the people, they will erupt again. Next time I’m totally staying out of it though because I still get splitting headaches.