How million-strong candlelight demonstrations are being organized

Posted on : 2016-12-06 16:01 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Committee meets for hours every week to organize safe and cohesive demonstrations, reviewing proposals
Demonstrators turn off all lights for one minute
Demonstrators turn off all lights for one minute

At 6:59 pm on Dec. 3, the crowds of protesters at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul were focused on the performance by Han Yeong-ae, but Kim Ji-ho, 44, glanced nervously at his watch. Kim, a member of the demonstration planning team, was worried that they would miss the “one-minute blackout” planned for 7 pm, which was the highlight of the sixth nationwide rally taking place that day.

7 pm was also a significant time since it symbolized the need to find out what President Park Geun-hye was doing during the seven hours after the Sewol ferry sank, on Apr. 16, 2014. Han Yeong-ae’s performance came to an end just 50 seconds before 7 pm, and Kim breathed a sigh of relief. “Delays in the previous events and speeches meant that there was barely enough time for Han Yeong-ae to perform. Last week, someone brought a cow close to the stage, and it was a real challenge to make a path for them to get away,” Kim said with a chuckle.

One of the reasons that more than a million people have been able to participate in safe yet meaningful candlelight protests in downtown Seoul each week is because of the hundreds of staff working in the rallies. Since Oct. 29, six large rallies have been hosted by a group of around 1,600 civic groups called the Emergency Public Campaign for the Resignation of President Park Geun-hye.

“Each Wednesday, members of our operating committee, which is composed of the leaders of various organizations, meet for between three and five hours. When you have a million protesters, you also have a million proposals, so we review and debate those proposals and eventually decide on what to do during the demonstration,” said Ahn Jin-geol, secretary general for People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and a member of the campaign’s standing committee.

When protesters started asking why they were always marching toward the Blue House, a march was held in the opposite direction, and one time the march began from four different locations in Seoul. In consideration of the opinion that there were too many performances, the organizers allotted much more time to spontaneous remarks during the rally on Dec. 3.

The decisions made by the operating committee are then implemented on the ground by the “situation room,” which is composed of ten or so teams, including the demonstration planning team and the policy planning team. Since the candlelight concert on the plaza, called the “Step Down Show,” takes place every Friday, work begins on setting up the stage at 9 pm on Thursday and wraps up before Friday morning. After the rehearsals and the demonstration on Saturday, the crew starts tearing down the stage after midnight, which takes another four or five hours. To maximize the number of people who can see the stage and minimize the blind spots, four large fixed screens and 11 mobile screens were set up on Dec. 3. During the main demonstration, there are more than 100 workers on site from a company in charge of technical matters. There are also more than 150 staff from the campaign present at all times to ensure that no one is hurt and that no children go missing. On Dec. 3, more than 130 volunteers wearing reflective vests were handing out candles, giving instructions and maintaining order.

The organizers are doing their best to manage not only the logistics but also more sensitive issues. They ask people who have requested a chance to speak to refrain from hate speech and from comments that are derogatory to minorities. There was a controversy about the cancellation of a performance by DJ DOC just one day before the fifth nationwide rally on Nov. 26. “Since we’re trying to pay attention to the views of minorities and the underprivileged, we have no choice but to look into points where there are clear differences of opinion,” said Park Byeong-woo, joint director of the campaign’s situation room.

Each time a protest is held, more than 7 million won (US$6,000) is spent on everything from lunches for the volunteers to setting up the stage. The organizers collect money during the demonstration as well as accepting donations via bank transfers. Information about how to donate is posted on the campaign’s website.

Since the vote on the motion for impeachment is scheduled to take place on Dec. 9, the campaign plans to release a specific plan for protests at the National Assembly by Dec. 6 at the latest. The plan will take into account various suggestions that protesters have made.

“A lot of people think we should have a sit-in at the National Assembly or the Saenuri Party headquarters [both located in Seoul’s Yeouido neighborhood,” said a source at the campaign. During the nationwide rally that will be held at Gwanghwamun Square on Dec. 10, the organizers are planning to call for President Park’s immediate resignation regardless of whether the motion for impeachment is passed or rejected.

By Kim Ji-hoon and Park Su-ji, staff reporters

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