2016 has sucked. And Christmas 2016…wasn’t wonderful. I’m going to leave it at that, just as an explanation why I found myself lying awake in bed at 5 a.m. on December 26th with no urge to do anything but distract myself. The day just happened to be the very day that the marriage equality bills were set for review in the Legislature, and two large protests, for and against, were set to begin in the vicinity that morning. So I decided to go take a look before heading into work.
I took the subway to NTU Hospital Station (I would have named the station after the park but I’m weird like that), so I approached the Legislature, as I usually had during the Sunflower protest, from the west. This meant I first encountered the anti-equality protest site. As before, they were doing their best to resemble a Klu Klux Klan rally, uniformly dressed in white, mostly wearing masks and sunglasses, and reluctant to be photographed. I couldn’t help but wonder what the point of showing up was if you didn’t want anyone to see you: The shame’s baked right in! I decided to make my way into the crowd to see if there was anything interesting or (especially) bizarre. I could feel disapproving stares, but thankfully nobody stopped me, and I didn’t speak to anyone. The guy on stage was spouting anti-democratic rhetoric, lies, insults and outright slander that I won’t bother repeating. A man in red was talking with police, and another man, tall and bearded, silently lifted sandbags into a truck alongside the sweaty driver. I had no idea at the time what the sandbags were for.
Members of the Christian clergy were again quite visible among the leadership; men holding inaccurate pie charts that would make a statistician wince talked to the media (no, 50.75% is not actually 3/4 of the pie). The crowd, while mostly middle-aged people, seemed to be seething like an angry toddler. A couple of protesters, bizarrely, wore aboriginal garb, the only note of color in the scene besides the man in red.
The police had formed an empty no-man’s land between the protests, so I had to walk around the block and up Linsen to get into the pro-equality protest site, which had only one entrance (the anti-equality site was open at one end). The mood there couldn’t have been more different from the first site; young, spirited, optimistic, creative. Never have I seen such a clear distinguishment between Taiwan’s sordid, authoritarian past and its democratic, diverse future. The broadcasts of the speeches on stage included a sign-language interpretation. Nobody wore masks, unless you counted the guy dressed in an animal costume. It was a welcoming scene.
Behind the stage, facing the no-man’s land where only a handful of police stood in the street, a group of mostly bears stood three-deep, the first row standing at parade rest, the two lines behind them seated. Every so often they would rotate the lines. When I asked, one of them told me that they were all volunteers, to be on hand in case the anti-equality mob decided to attack. They would be there as long as they had to be, they said.
Such fears were not unjustified; as I left the area to go to work (bumping into Larry Tsung, an old co-worker from my newspaper days in the subway), the anti-equality crowd began an assault on the Legislature, throwing smoke bombs and rushing the wall, attacking police in the process. I saw photos on the news sites of both the man in red and the tall, bearded man leading the charge. Over a hundred people were detained, most of them incredulous at the reaction. “The law means nothing to me!” one middle-aged woman protested, “I only answer to God!” I wonder if she would like what she saw if she Googled that.
When I got back to the area in the afternoon after work, the subway station was flooded with pro-equality protesters heading home. When I reached the site, I was told that the bills had passed the readings in the Legislature, and the next step would be in April. They’d won the day, it seemed, and everyone seemed very happy at the news. I wondered what the reaction was at the anti-equality camp, and decided to walk west along Zhongxiao to take a look. A group of organizers at the subway exit were advising against this. “Please take the subway from here,” they were telling protesters, the message being: It isn’t safe. Those people are dangerous and will hurt you.
When I got to the anti-equality site, hardly anyone was around. It was a bit dystopian; the loudspeaker was playing sounds of an outraged crowd, but the sound was cutting in and out like a recording left on too long. Large screens glowered down on empty asphalt littered with trash. Someone got on the PA and said, “We will fight this to the end! Everyone, head to the Presidential Office!” I texted my friend J. Michael Cole, telling him where they were headed.
“I’m already here,” he texted back. Of course he was.
I had to leave, but the videos and stories that have made their way out of the protest in front of the Presidential Office have been dismaying; actual media reporters and other observers have been harassed, harangued, assaulted, and removed “for their safety”. The crowd seems to squarely blame the DPP for their loss, oblivious to the fact that some of the bills and support come from the KMT and KMT legislators. Then again, I would have liked to have seen more condemnation on the DPP side of the DPP legislators who have made attempts to thwart the process with their bogus “separate but equal” propositions. That aspect goes both ways, but there is clearly no moral equivalence here.
In any case, we’ll have to wait and see what happens. Of course there are larger issues at hand, both in Taiwan and worldwide. But it seems to me that this is a watershed moment, a tipping point. What we do next is important, because odds are that we won’t be coming back from whichever road we take from here.