“Listen you f**ks,” the man wearing military style pants and boots yelled at dozens of young male and female activists gathered in front of the environment ministry for anti-corruption protests last Wednesday (Sept. 16). He was advancing fast toward the crowd of #youstink activists, as a few police standing around looked on. “Anyone of you curses (Parliament speaker) Berri again and we will come down on you!”
“You are filming!? Stop filming you punk,” another of the men roared toward the end of the clip below, his eyes overcome with rage as he thrust his finger toward a cameraman.
Watch the video here:
Moments later chairs and tables began flying toward the crowd, as the men ruthlessly punched and kicked everyone in sight. Women are screaming, one falls to the ground. Others begin running and ducking. “They called us animals and whores,” one young woman complains, as she runs for cover.
Then projectiles began raining down. At first they were small rocks and bottles but then large pieces of concrete came twirling through the sky, launched indiscriminately at the crowd of peaceful protestors, many of them already on hunger strike.
See the video here:
Here are some stills from the video. At first people didn’t even realize what was happening:
Then the concrete blocks started landing. One collided with the asphalt just a few feet away from where I was shooting:
And just a few inches from a man’s leg and head:
After several incoming volleys, one of the young boy protestors throws a couple of bottles and smaller rocks back. Amid the chaos, other protestors confront him, accusing him of being “one of them”. But even as the young men argue, the blocks come raining down:
And everyone runs for cover:
The irony here is that during this wanton violence, dozens of heavily armored riot police were just standing only a few feet away at the entrance of the environment ministry, armed with shields and sticks . At about 1:30, I pan briefly in their direction. And other videos have emerged of the people literally begging the riot police to intervene. Yet only a handful of regular officers are begrudgingly sent over.
Even when a few police do arrive, they seem to do nothing to stop one of the violent men who continues to throw pieces of concrete at the men and women protestors:
The officers are literally standing next to the man in black as he winds up to throw more rocks:
So who were these men, ready to destroy dozens of people they did not even know? There was about 10 or 15 of them. They were largely middle-aged, clean shaven, button shirts and shiny sneakers. These were not the so-called “infiltrators” the young unruly protestors who broke glass and lit fires downtown, those claimed to be conspirators by many in the ruling class, eager to cast doubt on the movement. Many of those kids were understandably frustrated after police beatings and shootings of previous days and directed their anger toward the security forces, not the fellow protestors. They came from the slums, wearing ratty or cheap clothes and barely in their teens–none that I saw seemed to be over 20. On the other hand, those who attacked the protestors well groomed and dressed and appeared to be in their 30s and 40s if not older.
Amal movement, the party headed by Parliament Speaker Berri, has denied any involvement in the day’s events. Interestingly the television channel that supports the movement–NBN TV–did not cover any of the violence directly in its newscast, merely summarizing that clashes were sparked by the cursing and defamation of Mr. Berri. This is because minutes before the men came to attack the protestors, one of the activists had told a reporter with NBN that its patron would be the next target of the call for resignations. (The activists have already called for the resignations of the interior and environmental ministers for police brutality and failure to prevent the garbage crisis.)
Thus in NBN’s subsequent newscast, this clip is played repeatedly, followed by cherry-picked moments of confrontation between activists and police. No actual cursing of Speaker Berri is played–only a call for his resignation.
As the images run on screen, the scripts read by reporters and anchors demonize the protestors as uncouth, uncivilized and immoral trouble-makers. The visibly angry NBN anchor then takes aim at Al Jadeed TV, (one of the few channels that has taken the side of the activists) and basically calls it a propaganda machine churning out hatred and sectarianism headed by a shady businessman. It’s no wonder considering some activists interviewed by the channel have been freely attacking senior Lebanese politicians, including Speaker Berri, over the state of corruption and chaos in the country.
But there is no footage of the fist fights and rock throwing of these men. “The police intervened and restored the situation to normal,” the NBN anchor reads nonchalantly from the teleprompter, no mention of the launching of projectiles that could have easily sent many to the hospital or worse.
Yet in reality, as noted earlier, the riot police waited several minutes before intervening. Even though there were dozens of riot police in full gear standing only a few meters away, they barely budge as civilians are being beaten and targeted by concrete blocks being thrown by the mysterious men.
It was only after much of the damage has been done, the tents used by hunger-strikers destroyed, people beaten and rocks thrown savagely at the crowd that the riot police finally deploy, as seen in this video:
The police even made a couple of arrests. Here is one of them:
Many began to ask: why did they police wait around so long? Earlier in the day, police did not hesitate to rough up protestors and arrest some 40, many activist organizers with no justification. Most were released a few hours later. One, activist Aly Sleem, told me police had shoved him in a van, pushed his face into the floor and began threatening him with military prison or being sent to Syria. They drove him around in circles for two hours, claiming he had received foreign funding and had attacked police, both of which had no basis.
Here is my interview with Aly, shortly after he was released later on the same evening:
Were the men who attacked the activists also abducted, driven around and threatened by police or did they get off easier?
The story doesn’t end there. Four days later on Sept. 20, a group of some of the same men once again violently assaulted the protestors.
It all began when one of the activists held a banner denouncing corruption with the faces of some of the most powerful politicians. These included Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri. Beside this, the activist– middle-aged man wearing a bright vest–also held a picture of Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah and the late Imam Mousa Sadr, dubbing the two as “symbols of respectability.”
Within minutes of raising the banner, two men run up to the activist. One says “Don’t you ever raise Nasrallah’s photo!” Ironically the activist was praising Nasrallah in comparison to other politicians. And yet he was hauled away as other partisan men began to fight those protestors who tried to intervene.
I ended this clip when one of the violent men wearing a black shirt and black hat is seen roaring wildly at those around him, sending many running. He then spots myself and a few other cameraman and begins lunging toward us. I put my phone down and then watched him walk passed me and punch, throw against a wall and then kick and beat two cameramen to the ground.
Suffice to say, there was very little filming after that, but thanks to the drone footage by Al Jadeed, we can see the rest of the fight continued in the clip below. Eventually the activist is dragged by his neck, his clothes ripped off and then beaten repeatedly by hand; then beaten repeatedly over the head with the megaphone he was holding.
After the activist is beaten, he is seen walking away from what appears to be a cordon of men who were keeping police out. The drone camera then follows the now bear-chested activist as he walks toward a few police officers to explain what happened. One officer waives him off as if telling him to get lost. (Literally adding insult to injury, the protestor is now being sued by Speaker Berri for defamation over his banner)
Later in the video above, we can see the violent men fall into a march formation, their numbers grow to about 30 as some join from the crowd. I notice several familiar faces from the previous attack at the environment ministry, including the man who kept throwing rocks at protestors despite the police presence. I watched as the men would stand around separately as if they didn’t know each other, circulate and then eventually join up together. Once again, the riot police stand idly as the men pass defiantly in front of them.
They then began marching aggressively through the crowd, roughing up protestors and chanting loudly: “Berri comes after God” and “the revolution can have my dick.”
Thus the vulgar language, the rage in their eyes, and the willingness to commit fatal acts of violence seemed to be very similar tactics. The men appeared to be part of a group, trained in how to operate discreetly in a crowd: fall into formation in a moment’s notice and then disperse back again and melt into anonymity. There appear to be clear roles and objectives as only a few of the men engage in acts of violence while others weave through the crowd or stand close to the action without getting directly involved, seemingly to provide back up. There is often what appears to be a ring leader in his 40s/50s keeping the men in line, seen at the end of the Al Jadeed drone clip. Are we to believe these men gathered spontaneously? That they are a random sample of friends or neighbors?
And what about NBN TV and Amal’s version of events where no violence happens and the party has nothing do with the men attacking protestors?
Local broadcaster Al Jadeed did some investigating. It turns out two of the most violent characters on both days are indeed very close if not members of the party, according to this report:
Yet why are only two men investigated? What about the many others who were throwing punches or rocks at the crowd?
And what about the role of the police? Were they genuinely intimidated by these mystery men? How could the police take on thousands of peaceful protestors, arresting, tear-gassing and assualting dozens over recent weeks, and yet barely lift a finger to stop less than 10 or 20 men? Many were left wondering: which side are the police on?
Once again, who are these men? If Amal denies they are members, why are they so angry that someone cursed their leader or even simply called for his resignation? Could the men simply be average citizens who admire Speaker Berri? Then again, how many average men just sitting at home would feel they need to walk to a protest and physically harm as many people possible, with no ulterior incentive?
All this raises important questions about the future of the #youstink protest movement in Lebanon, which has undertaken several unprecedented acts of civil disobedience over recent weeks. But can leaders of political parties be questioned without retribution in violence? How many groups of men sitting at home today are willing to harm or even kill anyone who insults or even questions their leader? How will the protest movement deal with these individuals? What motivates their rage? Are they victims of the civil war themselves, suffering perhaps from PTSD? How can one reconcile with the reality that so many in Lebanon are still dealing with the war and or employed by its post-war political apparatus? What strategies of resistance to the state can activists take in Lebanon without inviting violence from party loyalists?
Finally, will such violence and indiscriminate arrests by police dampen the protest movement? Or will more people be even more motivated to stand up for their right to speak out?
After the police arrests and beatings by party loyalists on September 20th, later that evening thousands of non-violent activists still showed up. They defiantly filled the streets leading to parliament. They did not resort to violence, they simply sat on the floor and raised their hands until riot police finally relented.
"Hands up, move forward, this is our parliament!" say activists over megaphone, facing police line #Beirut #Youstink pic.twitter.com/Ghhgf8JM8C
— Habib Battah (@habib_b) September 20, 2015
Electric atmosphere as thousands gather on main street leading to parliament after riot police step aside #Beirut pic.twitter.com/nubh7uqZli
— Habib Battah (@habib_b) September 20, 2015
“From this point on, every square is owned by the people,” shouted activist Assaad Thebian over a megaphone, surrounded by a sea of protestors.
“Today is a historic day, ” he added. “Today we have a future and we have hope. Today we announce a new political party, the party of the Lebanese people!”
The crowd roared. Then later sang patriotic songs and danced together. The feeling was electric that night. Now more than a week later, many will be watching what the movement does next and how it will cope with those violent individuals who do not want to see it succeed.