Currently, these spectacles usually take the form of so-called flash mobs or guerrilla demonstrations, instantaneously appearing and just as quickly vanishing. They are by no means easy to execute safely, requiring as they do all the careful planning and choreography of a magic act or grand illusion. What’s more, they necessitate an exceptionally high degree of co-ordination and trust: the life of each participant is in the hands of the others.
A few days ago, in one of the cities in the country’s heartland, such a demonstration occurred, one whose operational details were explained to me afterward. To protect the security of the organizers, I’ll confine myself to information that is already generally known to the police and the military. One should also note that these demonstrations are constantly evolving, always in flux, reviewed, tailored and improved upon according to circumstances on the ground.
Planning for a guerrilla demonstration begins long before it is carried out, and requires the commitment of many people. First up is the choice of location. This decision is based primarily upon safety concerns. Of late, the military has attempted to out-think the demonstrators by stationing soldiers and police, often dressed as civilians and with weapons concealed beneath their clothing or in a backpack, in places presumed likely for a protest. At times snipers are hidden on rooftops or in upper-floor apartments.
One potential primary site is chosen, along with three or four alternates, in case on the day of the protest the location has to be changed on the spur of the moment. Each site is given a code name—a number, a colour or some catchy word. To reduce the risk of information leaking out to the military, that name is not released to participants until the day, or even mere hours, before the demonstration.
Once the primary and backup sites have been selected, significant surveillance is undertaken by local volunteer security teams in each locale. It is their responsibility to get a feel for the “rhythm” of the area, to identify the usual military routes and, crucially, all the possible ways of escape. Because mistakes can result in the arrest or death of one’s companions, many hours are consumed carefully assessing each location.
After the final site has been determined, additional surveillance is carried out in the days just before the demonstration to ensure that no changes have occurred in the immediate neighbourhood. Choices for the various routes and means of transport leading into the area are mapped out for the individual participants, so that soldiers and police will not be tipped off by small groups of people travelling together.
While the organizers fine-tune these arrangements, the protesters are busy preparing personal placards, large vinyl banners, masks, disguises and other items that they’ll need. All these things are carefully packed in small bags in such a way that they will not draw anyone’s attention along the way to their destination, but can be rapidly deployed once the protest begins.
Early on the day of the demonstration, the first to be positioned are the scouts, whose job it is to watch all the perimeter roads for any indication of soldiers in the area, and to stay in constant contact by phone with the lead organizers. Should the scouts identify any unexplained changes or circumstances that might render the site too precarious, the leaders will quickly choose an alternate location where other scouts have already been stationed.
If the site is judged to be safe, the participants are notified. They then begin to travel alone or in pairs toward the area via the predetermined routes. Timing is critical, so that everyone arrives on site at more or less the same moment. As the kickoff call goes out from the leaders, everyone rushes forward simultaneously while extracting their placards, banners, flags, megaphones, cameras and other vital equipment. They head off down the preselected road shouting slogans and singing songs of protest.
It is not uncommon for passersby to join in, while the residents of adjacent apartments express their gratitude and admiration by applauding the marchers’ bravery and encouraging them onward. Observers well above street level keep an eye out for soldiers entering the area. Typically, at the front of the demonstration are two or three photographers whose job it is to shoot photos and videos that will be uploaded later to social media sites. Because of the brevity of the marches, sharing the videos is of great importance: they give others the courage to join future demonstrations or to organize their own protests.
As the demonstration unfolds, the scouts on the perimeter roads are on the lookout for military or police vehicles, and for civilian vehicles that contain security forces either in or out of uniform—a challenging task. The soldiers will invariably arrive, and as soon as they are spotted a warning is passed to the on-site demonstration leaders who will put out an urgent alarm. The protesters instantly scatter, running to safety in all directions, some escaping into a waiting car, others ducking into a nearby shop or restaurant, or seeking shelter in an unlocked apartment building. Wherever they go, in less than 30 seconds they will have all disappeared, purposely abandoning their signs and other paraphernalia in the road as souvenirs for onlookers or to be gathered up and destroyed by the military.
Viewing videos of these demonstrations is almost as stressful as I imagine it would be to participate. Whenever I watch I’m transfixed, hoping that the protesters aren’t pushing their luck. Sometimes they can successfully march for many minutes before having to disperse. In my mind I’m telling them to run, shouting the same, while also knowing that they’ll continue onward until the word is given to flee. When they do, it’s as if they suddenly evaporate and, poof, they’re gone.
My day might begin with tears, but they too vanish when I see these protesters bravely marching, demanding the return of their freedom to speak, their freedom to choose. One cannot help but marvel at their resilience, their brazen courage, their refusal to be silent, their insistence on their rights—no matter the cost.