The Lessons of the Seoul Protests

I just got back from Seoul, where I was covering the impeachment of President Park Geun-Hye. You can see my reports from there on the December 9th and 12th episodes of Vice News Tonight on HBO Go or HBO Now, including my interview with Lee Jae-Myung, the populist candidate who is surging up the polls.

Wanted to quickly chime in on this:

I’ve been covering protests for the past two or so years. In that time, I’ve noticed that most people expect that the severity of the injustice and the outpouring of people onto the street will be roughly proportional. They, for example, will wonder why the mistrial in the Walter Scott case didn’t lead to mass demonstrations in Charleston or why marches for Tamir Rice in Cleveland felt more muted than they did in Charlotte, Ferguson and Milwaukee. This sort of calculation relies on a linear and context-free vision of protest. It assumes that if there is a spark and tinder, an explosion will take place every single time that tinder is lit.

But protest, especially mass protest like we saw in Seoul, rarely follows such clean logic. The distinctions between which cities will get thousands of people in the streets and which ones will not, almost always defy prediction. After Charlotte and Milwaukee, for example, I looked into similarities between those two cities and found that they had two of the most segregated school systems in the country. This seemed like a promising place to start some inquiry. But most of the political scientists and sociologists who have studied civil disobedience from a data standpoint have concluded that the traditional underlying factors that we usually associate with public unrest, whether income or racial inequality, don’t really have as much as a determinative factor as we might assume. (The analysis here is fascinating, if somewhat abrasively written…) This doesn’t, of course, mean that inequality doesn’t have any effect, but more that a mass protest has several other hurdles to clear before it gets going.

The most important of those factors is infrastructure, both geographical and cultural. The Seoul protests happened because the country has a densely packed population and its lengthy history of civil unrest. There are roughly 25 million people in the Seoul metropolitan area. Those individuals are all connected by an efficient mass transit system. If you wanted join the call for the impeachment of Park Geun-Hye, you could hop on a train, chant for a few hours and then get back to your bed at a reasonable hour. When you arrived at the action, you would find a wide city square that could actually fit hundreds of thousands of protesters and couldn’t be strategically barricaded and re-routed by police trained in crowd control.

These spaces don’t really exist in the United States — the closest we can come is Union Square in New York City, which, while being large enough to carry hundreds of thousands of protesters, instantly clogs up crowds once you walk down any of the streets or avenues. Anyone who has attended a march at Union Square knows how quickly crowds get split up and then funneled into disparate parts of the city by police. The National Mall in Washington, DC presents a similar problem

Some context from David Hill, who is one of my favorite writers, and a veteran organizer.

The history of public dissent in Korea is detailed, in part, in this article by Susan Chira in the New York Times.

Protest is an engrained part of the culture in Korea and getting arrested or fighting with police used to be seen as a rite of passage. (My father, who went to college in Seoul during the Korea’s involvement in Vietnam War, lights up when he tells war stories about throwing bottles at the gyungchal) All these actions build up infrastructure — everyone knows where to go and once they get there, know what to do. There are stations to pass out hundreds of thousands of candles, each one with drip cup attached. There are sound stages set up for protest leaders and singers to help lead the crowd. When things get violent, as they frequently have in Korea’s past, there are plenty of older people who can teach students how to avoid arrest and how to stay frosty when the cops charge in with batons. Experience matters and outside of the Black Lives Matter marches of the past two years, Americans — especially young Americans — just don’t have much of it.

This weekend, I tweeted some of these same observations and concluded that the protests that will rise up around Trump’s inauguration would never look anything like the Seoul protests. The problem, I thought, was mostly a logistical one. But I also think there might also be a limit to the American imagination here, which is a bit odd, given how often we see photographs of the hundreds of thousands who marched on Washington in 1963. Presidential terms mostly feel non-negotiable — rather than thinking of them as something to fight and bring to an end, we tend to think of them as something to wait out and endure. And while it seems possible that there might be a handful of people who would gather in the hopes of influencing the electoral college or whatever, it was almost impossible for me to envision much more than what’s already been happening — a few thousand people waving signs in front of Trump Tower as the media inside the lobby gawks at the line of cabinet hopefuls as they walk into the black marble elevators.

And yet — if nothing else — the Seoul protests have at least provided a visual reference for what might be possible and while that might not lead to millions of people in the streets calling for the impeachment of the President, the stunning images of Seoul and the eventual result — the ouster of Park Geun-Hye— could eventually lead to something that Princeton “Sovietologist” Mark Beissinger calls the “power of example.”

from Beissinger’s paper: Structure and Example in Modern Political Phenomena

The rise of modular democratic revolution in the post-communist states thus confounded expert predictions and public expectations alike — not the first time this has happened in this part of the world. Those analysts who were skeptical about the possibilities for revolution in the post-communist region were perhaps not so far off the mark. Taken individually, the structural conditions for revolutionary success in each of these countries could be seen as lacking in certain respects. But analysts failed to take into consideration the power of example. My argument is that within modular phenomena the influence of example can substitute to some extent for structural disadvantage, allowing some groups that might be less structurally advantaged to engage in successful action by riding the influence of the prior example of others.

I generally hate funneling every thought about protests through social media, but there’s little choice these days, given how much its used both as an organizing tool and as political theater. If you read through Beissinger’s paper (TW: dense academic language), you’ll see all the spots where ‘the Internet’ might supercharge the process of example and emulation and lead to something as visually contagious as Hong Kong’s Umbrella Protests.

An organizer who wants to put together a mass protest against Trump faces a multitude of problems — aside from city layout and transportation, there’s also the historic problem that no American president has ever been impeached based purely on the fact that half the country thinks he’s a threat to the Republic and a creep, to boot. 1.7 million for the inauguration might be impossible and 200,000 even seems like a stretch, but the example of Seoul at least provides a seed for what might be coming in the next four years.