On the evening of March 18, 2014, an extraordinary thing happened: Students took over Taiwan’s national parliament building, the Legislative Yuan.
If this had occurred in, say, American, Great Britain, Japan or any number of other countries, including China, it would have been instant worldwide headline news. Students take over Congress? Parliament? The Diet? The National People’s Congress? Impossible! Incredible! Of course, something similar happened in Wisconsin, in the publicly accessible part of the building, but that was huge news at the time, and any students making such an attempt on the governmental bodies in many if not all of those countries’ national capitals would likely be attacked and sent to prison, if not worse.
But here in Taiwan, they did it. But there was barely a ripple, as we’re talking about the media black hole that is Taiwan. We had the world’s tallest building for months before anyone noticed, and even when they did, the mention was wrapped in language implying that it didn’t matter as buildings are built all the time and something taller will be along soon. Correspondingly, it took weeks for the media to respond to this story, and even then it was of course wrenched firmly below the fold.
I walked over to the Legislature in Taipei the morning after the students had occupied it late the night before. The front facing courtyard on Zhongshan South Road to the west was the site of a largely hard-core pro-independence faction of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rally, complete with the requisite green color, simulated “national anthems” being broadcast over a portable loudspeaker, and other independence paraphernalia lined up before a gaggle of policemen protecting the door to the building. On the south side of the Legislature, another line of police and several hundred meters of barbed wire provided a backdrop for a protest site for various concerns on Jinan Road. People spoke to the crowd on the street about other concerns such as the nuclear waste storage problem and aboriginal rights, before coming back to the subject at hand, i.e. why the students had taken over the Legislature in the first place.
There are many sources for details on this, but in a nutshell, the ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), and the main opposition party, the DPP, had been going through the Trade in Services Agreement with China that the government hopes to implement. The pact was actually signed on July 21st of last year, but the DPP was fighting the KMT at each pass, using every tactic to block the agreement from being reviewed, and the KMT had simply declared the review “over.” Anything put it to a vote in the Legislature is more or less equal to passing it due to the KMT’s superior numbers there. Proponents say economic integration is necessary to keep Taiwan from being isolated, while others fear that giving China too much say in such matters would erode Taiwan’s economic independence and eventually our political status as well.
People were surprised at the KMT’s tactic; students were enraged, and as news of the action spread on Facebook and other social media, they converged on the Legislature, and, well, took it over. The handful of police guarding the building were quickly surprised and overwhelmed as the students infiltrated the building, and after a brief bit of fighting and a few injuries, hundreds of students had taken over the Legislative Chambers of the nation.
I walked to the Northeast gate of the Legislature, where another crowd of protesters occupied the parking lot and the sidewalk. The weather was fine, warm and sunny. I was able to walk into the parking lot with no problem, right up to the front door of the building, where a line of police stood. According to Taiwan’s laws, foreign visitors participating in protests could be in danger of deportation as a result of “not doing what their visa says they’re here for” or something similar, but as I have been a Taiwanese citizen for two decades, I wasn’t concerned with deportation. Arrest, of course, was another matter; some documentarians had reportedly already been taken in for questioning for their activities in recording the actions. But things looked safe enough for the moment, so I continued, taking photos of the protesters and the groups of policemen who were standing quietly behind shields.
“Would you like to go up?” one of the protesters asked, correctly interpreting my thoughts as I stared at the ladder they were using to climb up to the roof of the portico over the entrance. I nodded and hauled myself up after the student, one of their well-organized system of gatekeepers, gave the ok. On the portico roof, I climbed up another ladder and observed the crowd below. Behind me was yet another ladder over the gap between the portico and the building’s second-floor windows. This was apparently how many of the students accessed the place.
“Could I have a look inside?” I asked, and when approval was given, I found that today was not the best day to have brought my badminton equipment, which hindered my climbing the next ladder over the gap and squeezing into the open window as Republic of China Flags flew upside-down overhead. Inside the breezeway, I put my stuff down and walked over to see the makeshift “press rooms”, full of students staring at laptops and discussing strategies. Beyond were stairwells crammed with furniture, including chairs and tables, huge portraits of Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen, topped with a black bust of Sun Yat-sen staring down the stairs at any approaching invaders. Some of the students played drums while sitting on the coat check counter, and a few reporters sat on the balcony. I thought I saw lawyer Robin Winkler, a former American who became a Taiwanese citizen a few years ago, giving an interview at the end of the second-story hallway.
The students had firm control of the upper floor of the Legislature as well as the chamber, so I was a little surprised when I ventured down the staircase after squeezing past the barrier to find the lobby full of police. Many lounged around on chairs, glancing at me incuriously before returning to their phones, but a unit stood in formation in the middle of the lobby, between the outer doors and the doors to the chamber, which were blocked from within. They took little notice of me, and I walked over to the one accessible door on the south side of the chambers, guarded by students, and into the chambers itself.
It was a familiar sight, though I’d never been inside; it is the site of many a televised Legislative fight that is to many people the face of Taiwanese politics and the butt of many a joke. The scene was changed now, however, the podium and desks draped with the students’ signs and placards, slogans and a large sign declaring how many hours they’d been in control of the Legislature. People were speaking on the floor, political figures from the DPP as well as sympathetic professors, while students texted, lay asleep in the corners, or guarded the huge piles of furniture piled in front of all the other doors. Up on the second-floor balcony a couple of cameras watched and provided a live feed to the outside world.
“Are you concerned about losing focus on your message by including so many different topics? Aren’t you risking losing support you might otherwise have by pushing less popular matters?” I asked a DPP legislator, Hsu Tain-tsai, who had just handed me his card. He might have thought I was a foreign reporter, and I did nothing to dissuade him of that notion. He shook his head.
“We want to include all kinds of subjects, it’s a healthy discussion,” he told me. He’d started the conversation in Taiwanese, but switched to Mandarin not long afterwards. Afterward, I walked around, taking photos, chatting with students.
It was all rather familiar. Twenty-four years before, almost to the day, I’d attended another student protest in Taipei. I was a student at Tunghai University in Taichung at the time, and I traveled up to the capital with some of my fellow students, all Taiwanese, for the Wild Lily Protest of 1990. It was just a few months after Tiananmen, and the crumbling remains of our school’s version of the Goddess of Democracy still adorned our campus. The square in front of CKS Hall, between the opera house and the music hall, was filled with two distinct protests: In front of the music hall was the DPP protest, while the students occupied the area in front of the opera hall. I stayed there for several days, sleeping on the rough stones and eating wax apples donated by local farmers, taking photos with my Pentax K1000 and listening to speeches haranguing then-premier Hau Bei-tsun and the National Assembly and calling for direct elections. It was a great opportunity to better understand Taiwan’s political situation as well as its people and its spirit.
Some of the students leaders from the Wild Lily Protest went on to become major government players, such as Lin Chia-lung, Duan Yi-kang and others, and it was entirely possible that some of the students leaders from the Legislature Occupation may do so as well in the future; they did seem quite well organized, and, though festooned with slogans and littered with sleeping figures, the Legislature has seen more violence from actual legislators than from the students this time around. These students have never lived under martial law; most of them were born after I arrived in Taiwan a quarter century ago. Perhaps every generation needs something like this, I thought, but as the first generation to never have experienced martial law, and with the end of military conscription approaching, serious changes in Taiwanese society are inevitable.
The crowds of protesters had grown exponentially by that night, overflowing surrounding streets. I heard stories of threatening motorcyclists brandishing weapons and curses, but I didn’t see this myself.
The weather the next day had changed drastically, becoming wet and cold. No doubt this made things more comfortable inside the chambers, where they were relying on the sporadic use of electric fans to cool themselves, but the number of protesters dropped dramatically, and the police didn’t fail to notice this, adjusting their numbers appropriately. Students handed bags of garbage out the second-story windows to police on the first floor, who handed it to other students to dispose of. The entire scene was orderly, if not exactly neat.
This time, I wasn’t invited up the ladder. The guards had a list of people they would let in, and a long line of people wanting to enter snaked through the courtyard. I had no journalist accreditation, but I did have a small book of my photography I’d just printed out, so I handed it to the woman guarding the ladder, saying, “I’m a photographer, and I’d like to get some shots to record what’s going on inside.” She thumbed through the book, called over another student on the roof, and then let me climb up.
The piles of furniture in the stairwells had grown, and I hoped there would be no emergencies such as a fire or earthquake that would necessitate a quick exit. The authorities had been exceedingly lenient, not only in not attacking the students, but even keeping the water and electricity on. Someone at a very high level had instructed this to happen, I felt. Of course this person was the president of the Legislature, Wang Jin-pyng.
“You can go down to the chambers, but unless there’s a legislator around to protect you, the police might stop you from coming back up,” one of the students told me. He had been there since the beginning, and confirmed that they’d planned this all along, though some people had claimed that the students had never thought they’d get this far. “Who knows what will happen tonight? Tomorrow’s the deadline for the vote. The police will have to come at some point to clear us out so the lawmakers can vote.”
“If they come here at all. They might convene elsewhere and get it over with before anyone realizes it,” I said. They knew this.
“Do you think President Ma will show up?” I asked. It was one of their demands, but the students laughed and shook their heads.
“There’s no way he’ll come.”
The second-floor balcony was now crowded with cameras, and many more reporters were roaming the floor of the chambers, which was festooned with even more slogans and caricatures of various politicians on the dais. The main figure in these was President Ma.
There was a commotion near one of the staircases. When I walked over, several students were handing the giant portraits of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek down from the pile to people downstairs. Apparently someone had asked them to do so, as the portraits are quite valuable, and they didn’t want them damaged. “Go find some tables or something to support the barrier,” one of the students ordered. Other students obeyed promptly; the chain of command seemed clear to everyone involved.
I ventured over the barrier just as a Western freelancer arrived through the window, making my way downstairs though the texting police. Legislator Hsu was still on the floor, talking with people. More reports, more older people and activists had arrived since the day before. Speeches continued on the floor, calls for resistance. The more impassioned the speech, the better the response, but the speakers’ voices were growing hoarse.
I talked with some more students, who seemed impressed that I’d joined the Wild Lily Protest, which to them must have seemed like an ancient legend. They asked me about our relations with the police, with the then-fledgling DPP, etc.
“I don’t support the ROC at all,” one older man, obviously not a student, told me proudly in the chamber, later on. “I refuse to pay any taxes at all! I don’t pay my utilities either!”
When I left this time, I didn’t climb back up and out through the window, but instead surreptitiously joined a group of important-looking people who were passing through the hallway, and I managed to get out without any trouble. Not that the police looked like they would have given me any. Indeed, I wondered if the students were being lulled into a false sense of security by the constant presence of the lounging, texting officers.
The next day, March 21, was the deadline the students had set for the president and/or the Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng to show up and apologize. That day, Ma and Wang were supposed to get together to discuss how to deal with the issue, and I doubt meeting with the students was even on the agenda. However, Wang, whom Ma had tried to have thrown out of the party just months before, snubbed Ma’s calls. It must have felt good, I thought, to say, “Who is that on the phone? Oh, the president? Tell him I’m not speaking to him.”
As I walked over to the Legislature, barbed-wire barriers were being set up around the Presidential Office, as there were rumors that the students would try to besiege it if their demands weren’t met. Policemen manned most corners. The weather was still cool, but at least it wasn’t raining. I could hear the shouting and speeches coming all the way from the Legislature, but when I approached this time, the scene was vastly different. Hundreds of grizzled old people, all wearing the same green vests, green headbands and holding travel bags and green folding chairs, had appeared, along with DPP stands and trucks, spreading from their original spot on Zhongshan North Road in towards the Legislature on both sides. The students had closed off the Legislature as so many DPP people wanted in, and were only letting medical people and accredited reporters inside. I also saw a lot more Westerners around than I had the past couple of days.
I considered trying to get in again, but the change of the scene outside seemed more interesting, and besides, there were already many capable photojournalists inside, including my friend and former co-worker Dave Smith. Outside, I could see people spray-painting Max Igan’s slogan: “When Tyranny Becomes Law, Rebellion Becomes Duty” in Chinese on the white tiles of the building. People were handing out sunflowers, which were coming to be known as the symbol of the Legislative occupation. “What is the deal with the sunflowers?” Dave texted me that afternoon. Phone reception was horrible due to the sheer amount of people in the area, all using their phones to communicate.
I skirted the Legislature, going around the west side and to the south as I took some photos of various protest activities. All of the various protests were now dominated by older DPP people, and none other than Su Zhen-chang was haranguing the crowd from a large truck on Jinan Road, warning them in his usual harsh tones how the KMT would beat them and play nasty tricks, and, incredibly, actually stumping for DPP candidates in the next election. I’d heard the speech before. The DPP’s rhetoric and that of the students seemed to diverge with respect to their different audiences: One older, having experienced the White Terror and martial law, less educated and not as enthusiastic these days, hoping to gain revenge for the wrongs done to them over the course of decades; and one younger, energetic, well educated and full of hopes to improving things for themselves and the nation in the future. From the start I feared that the students’ message would be overtaken by that of the DPP’s long list of grievances, but they are the future, and they will only become more and more influential as they come into their own.
That night, sure enough, the student portion of the protest surged ahead as the old DPP supporters tired and went home. I did as well, and spent Saturday away from the protests, though I kept the ustream feed on at home so I could keep up with what was going on. Premier Jiang Yi-hua met with the students at the Legislature, but he didn’t make much progress as Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, the two leaders of the protest, played good cop/bad cop during the talks. It seemed that more students were calling for the complete scrapping of the trade deal rather than simply insisting on due process, as they had before.
On Sunday, I returned to the Legislature. The president had given a press conference in support of the trade deal, and basically brushed off the student’s demands. This came as a surprise to no one. I kept wondering where Wang Jin-pyng was and what he was planning. Was he planning just the right moment, when everything looks bad, when he could appear and “save the day”?
Far fewer protesters surrounded the front courtyard on Zhongshan, where old men were leading the crowd in stretching exercises while the police looked on, smiling. The individual protests on Jinan Road were also far less populated than they had been. The speakers were telling the crowd, “They call us violent! Well, if they’re calling us that, then that’s what we should be!” The crowd seemed confused at the message, which didn’t make any sense to me. I wondered if the student leaders would have approved of that message, which I’d been hearing more and more over the last couple of days.
At the Legislature itself, the nature of the crowd had changed as well. Many Western faces were apparent, including that of Lynn Miles, who famously burned his U.S. passport in front of AIT years back. Some of the foreigners were even wearing headbands and looking around seriously. Again, the speeches in the courtyard were more excited and filled with passion. There weren’t quite as many people sitting in the street as before, and I wondered where everyone had gone. The tone of the protest had changed, there was an ugly current running through the atmosphere I couldn’t place.
I went out to Banqiao in the afternoon, and when I got back to town in the evening, I saw that a group, led not by Lin or Chen, but instead by another fellow, Wei Yang, had gone over to the Executive Yuan, calling on people to join them in storming it. These protesters seemed different from the ones who occupied the Legislature, and I wondered if it was coordinated. As the movement became more popular, more outside parties would want in on the action; I wouldn’t have been surprised if the student leaders were under a great deal of pressure to escalate matters. The Legislature was Wang Jin-pyng’s domain, but the Executive Yuan was another matter; Premier Jiang was solidly against the protesters, and his hard-core response to that could have influenced the response to the entire student movement. I even heard speculation that the Executive Yuan break-in might have been orchestrated for this very purpose.
Riot police were called in during the night, and they cleared out the protesters, who had cut phone lines and computer lines throughout the Executive Yuan’s offices and even stolen items from the offices, I was told by people who work there. The press made a huge deal about the students eating the premier’s snacks, which became a national joke when a government official pointed to a picture of a sunflower and called it a bunch of bananas.
The riot police at the Executive Yuan, however, were no joke; tempers were running high on both sides, and they used brute force and water cannons. Many people were hurt in the process. It made me wonder if the students had thought the police standing by at the Legislature weren’t doing so because they’d been order to but out of the goodness of their hearts. If so, they’d certainly been disabused of that idea; the police do as they’re ordered, and while Wang Jin-pyng and Mayor Hau Lung-bin were on their side, they were relatively safe, as, luckily for the students, both had grudges against President Ma.
It wasn’t surprising that emotions ran high, as it seemed there was an element who arrived later on the scene of the Legislature occupation that wasn’t happy with the peaceful, organized nature of it all. In fact, people I knew were posting calls to action on Facebook, telling the students to embrace violence. For some reason, many of these people were foreigners and overseas Taiwanese, while my local Facebook friends were decidedly less strident.
There was certainly a larger foreign presence at the protests each day. When I went over on Monday night, a foreign man even handed me an advertisement for his tea house, telling me I could “learn about Chinese culture.”
Speakers on Jinan Road were calling out in Mandarin: “Go Students!”
“Go!” yelled the students.
“Go Ma Ying-jeou!”
Silence, then some laughter.
“It seems that Ma Ying-jeou is out of fuel,” the speaker said (“Go!” in Chinese is “jia you” or “add fuel”). “What does that make him? It makes him the Malaysian airplane, dead in the water!” There were some cheers, but I felt this to be in poor taste.
The pro-independence protest on Zhongshan Road was sparsely attended. Only a few older men sat under the tents listening to the Taiwanese speech. Around the corner and down on Qingdao Road, the Student Protest was largely unchanged. Again, I opted to stay out of the chambers, though I was becoming a little curious to see how things inside were going. “Don’t listen to the lies of the media!” one speaker was saying. “Ma must step down!” They were adding this to their demands more and more, I noticed.
I walked to the Executive Yuan, which was barricaded off. Police strolled around among a few reporters. People stared from inside buses that were passing on Zhongxiao East Road. The incident at the Executive Yuan wasn’t entirely beneficial to the students’ image, though it certainly didn’t help that of the authorities either.
Some DPP legislators got together and “passed” a resolution to send the agreement back for review, but the gesture was largely symbolic without the ruling party legislators. For its part, the KMT did say it would agree to a line-by-line review, but it insisted on the deal going down unaltered in the end, and that the protesters wanted a law requiring all such legislation be reviewed by a separate mechanism beforehand. Some wanted the premier to step down, as well as the president.
On Tuesday, President Ma agreed to talk with Lin Fei-fan, the leader of the students at the Legislature, supposedly without conditions, but they didn’t manage to actually meet. Things calmed down after the debacle at the Executive Yuan, while people blamed each other right and left. The student leaders kept an eagle eye on the news and responded quickly to all of the developments, positive and negative.
There were fewer people at the protest site on Wednesday afternoon. I walked across to the still-sparsely attended TI protest, and only then realized that they were located just across the street from the Children’s Hospital. I hoped that the constant speeches and music pouring out of the loudspeakers hadn’t affected the kids there.
There were plenty of children at the protests as well, many being looked after by their grandparents while their parents worked during the day. “His daddy will be here tonight after work,” one grandfather, sporting a yellow protest headband just like the one on his grandson’s head, told me. “Here, give uncle a kiss!” The little boy, too young to talk or have any comprehension of what was going on there, kissed me on the cheek. He then made a fist in the style of the TI protesters.
The Legislature courtyard was easily accessed now, much more easily than it had been since I’d started going there a week before, on the first full day of the occupation. Access was still controlled, and protesters were singing in front of the police line, which seemed diminished and almost perfunctory. The ground was covered with cardboard protesters had sat on, and piles of blankets were stacked on the sidewalks. “These generators were made and imported from Germany!” one speaker was shouting.
That night, some of the crowd returned to the courtyard, but not in the numbers they’d had before. The speakers were calling out the same slogans and even messing them up once or twice. “Send back the trade deal! Send back democracy!” occasionally replaced “Save democracy!” The protesters responded, but not as enthusiastically. It is difficult to keep people engaged for such a long time, I supposed.
I wanted to ask about entering the Chambers on Thursday at lunchtime, but the student representatives that had been attending the ladder spot weren’t around, so I asked one of the plentiful Presbyterian Church people, who seemed to be in charge, what was up. They told me the air was going bad inside, and they were keeping numbers down. Indeed, I saw that large orange hoses had been connected to the upper-floor windows.
There was a much larger Presbyterian presence than there had been previously. Or else, someone was handing out Presbyterian vests to everyone, but in the heat it didn’t seem a particularly comfortable item to wear. I walked around the parking lot, which was much emptier again at noon, and then around to the Jinan Road protest, which was the same. I saw several photographers positioning sunflowers on the barricades for pictures. One was even adjusting one in front of a sleeping student protester. I took a shot of him doing so, and he grinned sheepishly.
The speeches in both places were becoming rather repetitive, necessarily. The Presidential Office had said repeatedly that the president was willing to meet with the students, with the media present and recording the meeting. The students I talked to now seemed less welcoming, less enthusiastic, more wary and cynical. The protest was taking its toll, but on the other hand they seemed more pragmatic and mature than they had just a week ago. Many of the students in the parking lot had never actually been inside the chamber.
It had been over a week now. The Wild Lily protest only lasted six days, I think, though I could be wrong as I wasn’t there from the very beginning.
There were even fewer people in and around the protest site when I visited on Friday afternoon. No one was making speeches on Jinan Road, and I didn’t even see many Presbyterians, though a couple of priests were still sitting on the arcade outside the Legislature. Upon seeing people wearing the “Anti-Trade Pact” T-shirts, I repressed an urge to see if they were made in China. I was certain they weren’t; that would have been too much. The TI speakers were still going on Zhongshan. What is it with trend of DPP speakers having raspy voices? I wondered.
“It’s been quiet these past couple of days,” one of the student protest organizers told me as we sat in front of where the ladder would be if anyone came outside from the chambers. “People are bored, and we’re showing movies at night on the big screens, with the sound off, of course; people have been complaining about the noise.” I wondered if anyone was complaining about the smoke from the burning of books authored by Premier Jiang. Book burning in general is not something I agree with, but burning things is a common theme on Taiwan’s streets, with the burning of everything from oil for two-stroke scooter engines to metallic-edged paper to appease ghosts twice a month.
I asked about the increasing appearance of foreigners at the protest. “Yes, some of them wanted to get inside, but when we told them it wasn’t possible until people came out, they got angry and cursed at us. We felt awful because we couldn’t communicate well enough in English. One of them called us pieces of shit for not letting him in right away.” She pointed at a fragile-looking trellis on the adjourning building. “Some people were trying to climb up that, but it’s really dangerous; those pieces are hollow, so we covered it up.”
She said that they’d also caught some plainclothes policemen trying to get in. “We opened up one guy’s bag, and he had wiretapping equipment and badges and everything. We asked if he was a policeman, and he just nodded, embarrassed.” It made me wonder if those obvious plainclothes police could be decoys for the ones who weren’t so obvious, and she nodded. “Yeah, it could be. But we just do what we can.”
Concerning the growing mountains of supplies on the streets, she said, “People keep sending food and stuff. We have a washing machine and a fridge inside people gave us. We have too many lunchboxes to eat, and so we hand them out to the police and street people. Sometimes the street people turn around and sell them, which we don’t approve of, of course.”
“Are you going to the protest in front of the Presidential Office on Sunday?” I asked, but nobody there could afford to leave the Legislature unmanned.
“It’s the weekend, so people should be free,” she said. Unlike the Executive Yuan action, which took everyone by surprise, this one is being planned, with permits applied for. She was unclear on what would happen if the permits weren’t approved in time. The section of Katagelan Avenue in front of the Presidential Office was barricaded.
When I went back in the evening, I noticed that the ROC flags at the top, which had been turned upside-down by the students, were now gone. “We aren’t, strictly speaking, in control of the top floor,” one student told me when I’d managed to get inside again.
A young man was playing a guitar on the stairs, and some students were gathered around a table in the 2nd-floor room watching the news on TV. The bust of Sun Yat-sen had been taken from the pile of furniture blocking the staircase and placed on the coatroom counter next to a water dispenser because, as one students said, “He was freaking people out.” I managed to check one of the Anti-trade-pace T-shirts to see where it was made: Bangladesh. As we spoke some of the students were rearranging the pile of furniture blocking the stairs so that it would be easier to get from one side to the other without compromising its defensive nature. I crawled under and walked to the other room, where students were accessing their computers, playing music, and smoking.
Downstairs in the chambers, a few foreign reporters were taking photos. One of them shot me as I was talking with someone, for what reason I couldn’t fathom. Some notes supporting the protesters had been pasted in an orderly fashion on the wall, from students outside. Some were from Hong Kong.
When I asked about what would happen if the government didn’t give in to their demands, the students said they’d just stay. The place was beginning to feel a bit like a frat house, and some, including Chen Wei-ting, even talked about staying until next year. I found that unlikely, and tried to remind them that Wang Jin-pyng was venting against the president, but once he felt it would serve his purposes, he could very well order their removal, and the police would do their jobs. A “protest against the protest” was going to take place the next day, supposedly led by the families of the police involved. I would have found that pretty embarrassing if I were a cop, personally, but something told me the counter-protest was being supported by other groups, political groups. The students found the concept ludicrous.
The students made statements that Sunday’s massive protest could be avoided if the president made “good-will gestures,” but by late Saturday night, they said the protest would go on.
When I arrived on Sunday morning, half of 2/28 Park, where I usually practiced tai-chi, was cordoned off, as well as the MRT entrance. I had to go around, and met my group by the Chinese pagodas. As we practiced, the crowd kept growing, many people wearing black shirts in protest, as well as headbands, many with the Taiwan Solidarity Union logo.
After lunch nearby, I went back to the park, where police were cordoning off a bit more; I managed to get a photo of the 2/28 Memorial with police tape and barbed wire surrounding it before the circle from which I was photographing became part of the closed area.
I met Michael Cole again; I’d been meeting him here and there as he provided extensive coverage of the whole student movement; he was trying to find a way to get close to the center of the protests, but because the crowds were so dense, he couldn’t and was looking for another way. I ventured out towards Zhongshan South Road, but the crowds were enormous, so I went back through the park to Chongqing South Road. The buildings were throwing some nice light onto a corner where people were busy having their photos taken standing next to the police guarding the barricades. After some time there, I walked down Hengyang Road to Taoyuan Street and down a couple of blocks, where I finagled my way through the barricade and walked through the restricted zone alongside the Presidential Office. It was eerily silent, like a Twilight Zone episode with the last man on earth, except for the occasional Military police or police officer, and one guy sweeping the street. I could barely hear the speeches and shouts of the protest in the background.
In front of the Presidential Office were more policemen. Vans, water cannons and piles of equipment bags lay around the road and parks in front. I went through another barricade, over around the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which sat behind barbed wire, and behind it to rejoin the protests on Chongqing, which was swamped with protesters. Estimates ranged from a little over 100,000 to 500,000, with the most objective sources claiming about 350,000. In any case, it was a record-breaking turnout.
I crossed over to CKS Hall, where the panda exhibit is still going on, wondering if there might be any kind of conflict between the two groups, but they blended seamlessly together, with several headband-wearing protesters taking in the view of hundreds of panda statues inside, and even posing for photos with them. I stood in the spot where I’d sat for several days during the Wild Lily Protests almost a quarter of a century before, and wondered what I would have thought of the situation had I suddenly been transported through time to 2014.
One of my tai-chi brothers predicted that the Legislature occupation would be best served to end that day, if the government gave up enough that the students felt they could leave without losing face. But the next day, the student leaders, emboldened by the huge success of the previous day’s rally, said they would continue the occupation until their demands were met.
There were usually fewer people around the protests in the afternoons, but there seemed even fewer than usual when I approached the Legislature on Monday. Oddly, I was able to walk in the front door, past the police, with the students’ invitation. Inside, the length of the occupation was beginning to show, despite the occupiers’ valiant efforts. Tape outlines of people who had been shoved to the floor during the original action had been placed on the carpet, including the outline of two feet behind the podium. A woman from a group called “One Story” approached me, asking if I was a reporter and wanting to interview me, having seen me around there nearly every day. I said I wasn’t a reporter, merely an independent photographer, and suggested she interview Michael.
I circled the chamber, taking in details like the boxes of drinks, rows of sleeping bags, piles of rope under the desks amid broken chair legs, a girl’s feet sticking out of one of the piles of furniture blocking the doors, swimming goggles in case the police gassed the chamber. I talked with a fellow from Malaysia who had also given up his original citizenship to become Taiwanese. A biochemistry major, he was interested in journalism and people’s stories as well. His original position at the protest was “Door #6 Guard” but now he was part of the story project as well.
While I was there, a disabled man was helped back into his wheelchair from his position sitting on the floor and interviewed while encircled with the cameras and microphones of the media. I got a nasty look when my camera’s shutter went off too close to one of the microphones, so I withdrew. Nearby, a group of black-clad student protesters held a huddled discussion.
I hoped the students had an exit plan. I asked some of them about the dangers of smoking inside the building, but they said they didn’t have a tight grip on the action of the students upstairs, who were semi-autonomous. Another worry was that some well-known gangsters like Chang An-le, aka the “White Wolf”, had called on “people” to take back the Legislature and threatened to “occupy” the home of Lin Fei-fan. Lin had always played second fiddle to Chen Wei-ting, the other student leader, but Lin, who was doing his post-graduate degree at the ripe old age of 26, was coming into his own at this action with his more reasonable tone.
There were again fewer students that evening, it seemed. One of the students in charge of security said, “We’re not afraid; we have a ‘Big Dog’ who will protect us!” The students who were there were watching a Japanese movie on big screens with the sound on this time. Monks wrapped in ROC flags were hogging the space in front of the portico where all the media cameras had been set up, and asking passers-by to take their pictures with the flags.
The next day was April 1st, the day certain parties had designated to “re-take” the Legislature, and as I left I wondered how much longer the students would be able to hold out. When I walked over that afternoon, police lines had been set up around the Legislature, across Qingdao, Jinan and Zhenjiang Roads. The entrance to the courtyard of the Legislature was lined with police, some in riot gear. They seemed to be leaving the students alone.
I walked north by the Sheraton to Zhongxiao East Road, where a group of pro-pact protesters had gathered. Many were waving flags, but it wasn’t a terribly large group. They were being egged on by people on top of a van. The speeches were classic haranguing in the old blue/green vein. I made my way past them, past the Executive Yuan, lined with police, to the intersection with Zhongshan, where some reporters were gathered. I saw my Swiss friend Daniel Ulrich there. We’d first met inside the chambers on the second day of the occupation, and he’d been covering the protest ever since. We were watching a guy wave a large flag on the corner when a dozen reporters suddenly came pelting past us towards Zhongshan, where a black SUV had just come to a stop. It was quickly surrounded by reporters and cameras as none other than Chang An-le, aka the White Wolf himself, got out. “I got the license number!” one reporter crowed out to his colleague. The group moved slowly towards Chang’s followers on Zhongxiao, while an aerial camera hovered above. Daniel managed to squeeze into the huddle to get a shot of Chang, but I stayed away, more amused by the antics of the reporters than anything.
The police (and, I assumed, “Big Dog”) did an admirable job of keeping the two groups of protesters apart, basically all afternoon while Chang lashed the crowd with withering criticism of the students dripping with condescension. The crowd on the students’ side held signs reading, “Gangsters go home!” Eventually, they did. But nobody knew when, if, or how they could return.
The next day, I listened to the TI protest’s broadcasted songs that they were playing every day as I crossed Zhongshan South Road. Basic lyrics in Taiwanese, reading “China is China, Taiwan is Taiwan, each side one country…” etc. The tune was modeled after old KMT military music, as if that would lend it an air of legitimacy.
At the Legislature, I saw some familiar faces, badminton friends who were sitting in the parking lot. We chatted for a bit, and then I went over to talk to the students at the main desk again. “We’ve been here too long,” one of them told me glumly. “And we haven’t really done anything.”
“Haven’t done anything?” I said, surprised. “Everyone knows about the trade pact because of you, half a million people marched in support of your goals, and you even forced the White Wolf to show his hand and become a national laughingstock. That’s not nothing,” I said. I asked if they were considering their exit plan, and he nodded without revealing details. We also talked about how the students are helping the nation get past the traditional blue/green divide, which in my opinion was the most valuable thing the student could hope to accomplish, more important than individual issues such as the trade pact itself. It was possible that a party founded in the spirit of the Sunflower protests could become more popular than either the KMT or the DPP.
As I walked around to the Jinan Road protest site, it occurred to me that the protest had become a kind of small city, with more tents set up due to sudden showers. One group of tents was the kitchen, some others were clinics, or massage parlors, recycling, or childcare. It was all remarkably well run, and regardless of what you may have thought of the students’ goals or motivations, there was no denying that they were well organized, and the atmosphere was optimistic and forward-looking, in contrast to that of the White Wolf’s supporters, who radiated fear and aggression.
When I went back that evening, I noticed that the TI protest site was nearly deserted. Only a few people sat idly on some of the green stools, as the mock anthems played softly from the speakers. The rows of policemen at the door to the compound remained.
On Jinan Road, the students were holding group meetings on various subjects, in and out of tents. It seemed that, while most of the older DPP supporters had left, some of them had mixed in with the students, possibly recognizing that their brand of political protest was the tune of the day.
At the student protest in the courtyard, a couple of women were complaining about the Chen Shui-bian documentary playing on the large screens. A foreigner was talking with a couple of the students in English. “What do you call these?” he asked, holding up his card. “Business cards, right? I am so glad to hear you call them that, I hear people get it wrong all the time here! ‘Cause business isn’t necessarily really business, you know?” He had been in Taiwan for five years, he said, and said he was really into the students’ cause. I stood a bit apart, wondering why he wasn’t even trying to speak Chinese to them. When he saw me, he asked, “Are you a photographer? Or do you just like to take pictures?”
“I just like to take pictures,” I said. He was there again when I came around the next day, but nobody was talking to him; he sat on the pavement listening to music on his mobile phone. There were only three students left at the tent by the ladder, but there were still crowds outside on Qingdao Road.
I’d heard reports of suspicious increases in police presence, but I hadn’t seen any myself until I turned the corner onto Jinan Road, where sleeping cops with riot gear bags lined the side of the 7-Eleven. Further on, a line of policemen stood protecting a lane leading out of one of the buildings, and men were dismantling a few tents that had been set up in the front yard of an expensive-looking apartment building. I wondered if students had tried to take over the area and been refused by the building’s residents, or if the police had orders against further spreading of the protest “city”. Just past the line of police was a man directing traffic and pedestrians away from the cops, and beyond him, by a pedestrian countdown light that hadn’t been heeded in weeks, a mother was bidding her husband good-bye as he left their tent, upon which she took her children inside. It was all quite domestic, and surreal against the background of policemen with riot shields.
When I walked through Jinan Road that night, the police were gone, and I didn’t see the foreign guy at the desk. I then learned that some of the protesters from the Zhongshan South Road protest had lain down on the street in front of cars carrying legislators trying to gain access to the complex to meet and discuss the trade pact. The TV showed a shouting middle-aged woman sitting in the street as policemen tried to pull her up. I saw her later in the chamber; she didn’t seem much happier there.
“That should have been us,” one of the student protesters told me when we were talking about the action in front of the Legislature later. “Why should it be them doing things like that, while we sit here doing nothing?” He shook his head. The action had somewhat galvanized the pro-TI group, and when I walked by a speech was actually being made in Mandarin to the people who had shown up, something I’d never heard there before. The rhetoric was much the same.
A young man was speaking to a group on Qingdao Road about his experience with gum disease: “I treated it myself, I was careful with what I ate, and I brushed,” he was saying. It was a speech about self-reliance. The students were on guard against the White Wolf or his “children” making disturbances. I met my friend Tobie Openshaw in the courtyard; he was talking about making a book of photos and stories about the occupation and wanted to know if I would like to contribute. I also met a Portuguese documentarian, Jose Fernandez, who was an artist in residence at the Taipei Artist Village just down the road. He had a small video camera and was making a project on the protest.
Up the ladders again, another climb through the window. I knew that I’d be busy during the Tomb-sweeping holiday, so I wanted to get another look inside beforehand. The second-floor quarters were finally becoming quite messy, and stinky as well. The people coming in were searched more thoroughly this time, and the students were shorter with everyone than they’d been before. The sign under the portrait of Sun Yat-sen read 418 hours. Would they have a celebration at 500 hours? I asked one of the protesters, who mentioned that Chen Wei-ting was planning to stay at least until elections in the fall.
I chatted with an older man who had also been at the Wild Lily Protest. He seemed confident that just sticking around was a good plan. All the government had to do was give them something, or the students could name something the government could do, and it could end peacefully, having made its impact, before they lost public approval. But I had no idea what they were thinking, and it seemed many of the students were in the dark as well. Many in the chamber hadn’t even accessed news, and didn’t know about that afternoon’s incident, which I found odd as most of them were staring intently at their mobile devices.
Rumors spread on Friday night that the police would attempt to remove the students, but the police denied it, and nothing happened.
I was in Hsinchu during the three-day tomb-sweeping holiday, but I heard on the news that Wang Jin-pyng had finally decided that it was his time to shine, and he entered the Legislature to great applause and promised the students that the review they were demanding would happen before the service pact was decided. The KMT responded with a resounding “Wait, what?” Discussions were ongoing on whether and when to implement the review. On Monday morning, the students took pictures of themselves displaying the victory sign in front of the placard declaring they’d been there for 500 hours. But then again, Taiwanese students make the victory sign for just about anyone with a camera.
On Monday evening, the student leaders announced that they would officially end their protest at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April the 10th. Though some students seemed relieved, it didn’t sit entirely well with some other students I talked to. “We should stay longer, ideally,” one told me. “The media is playing it like we’re defeated or something. Even Chen Wei-ting’s speech was lame. He should have made more demands, showed more spirit.” They knew that there was much more to do, but there was an edge of bitterness in their voices. Many of them were staying to help put things back as they were as much as possible. I wondered if the more computer-savvy students would infiltrate any of the Legislature’s systems, but I was sure they’d check for that kind of thing. Another concern was just exactly how the government would go after the students once the action was over.
A line of policemen stood again in front of the luxury apartment building on Jinan Road, one of them texting on his phone behind his riot shield. A couple of students were making a prepared speech to them. The stage had been taken over by a gaggle of singing Presbyterians, insisting that it was “ok if you’re not a Christian, we love you anyway.”
The TI speakers had returned to using Taiwanese, but the protest was as under populated as it had been before their action blocking the legislators. In front of the Legislature on Qingdao Road, a small girl was singing a song called “Sunflower” to the crowd as her mother held an umbrella over her head in the rain, while her father played backup music. Her voice was mesmerizing, and even the police manning the barricades smiled upon hearing it. Behind the stage, water was being passed into the Chamber, but some of the long-term occupants were already leaving. There was a sense of ending, and I wondered if many people would miss the festive, hopeful atmosphere, the groups, the discussions, the interaction. I met the man from the Wild Lily protest I talked to on Thursday on his way out, heading down Qingdao Road in the opposite direction, towards the train station. “I’ve been here 21 days,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s enough, especially for someone my age. I’m going home.” Outside in the parking lot, some of the protesters were packing up their soggy tents into backpacks as the police looked on, as ever, from the windows. A large sunflower model had been set up where the monks had been sitting. A student passing the line of police stopped and bowed deeply to them before continuing on his way.
As I walked towards Zhongxiao East Road, away from the dwindling crowd, the little girl began singing, “Never Look Back,” one of my favorite songs from my youth, as protesters blew on recently inked headbands to dry the lettering.
“Lin Fei-fan has not only occupied the Legislature, he has occupied my heart!” read one sign I passed on Qingdao Road on Tuesday afternoon. “Even if he has decided to vacate the Legislature, he will never vacate my heart!” It was sunny and warm, in contrast to previous days, and out in front of the side entrance courtyard, an anti-nuclear song was playing. Some people were packing up their things, but many were still around.
Inside, I learned that some people had protested the students’ plan to leave. “Civic groups” had claimed that if the students left, they would take over the Legislature on their own. I doubted if society would have the same levels of tolerance for them. “Some of the TI people don’t want us to leave either,” one of the students explained to me out under the portico. “They think that it’s unfair that they paid for all this, and now we’re just leaving.”
“Paid for what?” I asked. “The Legislature isn’t theirs to pay for, surely?” He waved his hands at the tents, scaffolding and screens.
“They paid for this stuff. They supplied permits. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
“Surely you could have, just on a different scale,” I said. I’d assumed all the stuff had been donated by various individuals. But he shook his head.
“They’re also miffed that we won’t let them into the chamber to push their TI agenda.”
The plan seemed to be to spend the next couple of days fixing the building and repairing most of the damage. The students had brought in volunteer electricians, carpenters and plumbers to try to undo all the damage. This was being paid for with donations. “They donated to our cause, and if that cause meant breaking a few doors, it also means repairing those doors as well,” the student said, philosophically. He had just returned from having a scraping massage at the massage tent. The row of police still stood on Jinan Road, while a man addressed a group about the subsequent steps they needed to take to institute the reforms they thought necessary.
A lone student stood in a line for noodles on Qingdao Road the next afternoon when I returned. The rest of the people in line were old men; a speech in Mandarin was being given at the TI tent on Zhongshan Road. An older woman on the road was trying to hand out Taiwan Independence pamphlets, but nobody seemed interested. Pairs of policemen walked up and down the streets. I counted as many as 17 satellite TV vans parked there.
The loudspeakers were playing punk music featuring Mandarin lyrics, so I stopped by the DJ set up to ask about it. There I met a fellow who knew me from the Black Island concert the Muddy Basin Ramblers had done in Nangang a while back. He taught music with a ukulele.
At the security stand in the courtyard, one of the girls ran up saying that people were posing as students and asking for money at one of the entries on Linsen Road. “Not again!” another student said. They went to investigate. Everything in the courtyard was neater than before, and students were busy cleaning up the interior as well. I talked with “Double”, a student was going to perform the next day, the last day of the protest, at a hip-hop party. He was into Matzka, my favorite band in Taiwan, but he felt Zhang Zhen-yue was passé.
A couple of guys showed up to help with the reconstruction inside, and they were shepherded away. More older people with cameras were showing up, as well as reporter teams. “Tomorrow there will be even more,” one of the students said. I asked him if he was concerned about students being persecuted by the authorities afterwards. “We will take all the responsibility,” he said. “Some students were afraid and wanted to wear masks, but I can’t wear a mask. Anyone who wants to know who I am will find out anyway.”
“Beware of thieves!” a young man was calling along Jinan Road, where the line of police still stood. The students knew that opportunists of all stripes could have been planning their moves before the end of the occupation the next day. “Maybe you should leave a suncake on each of their desks, as a memento,” I suggested.
Students were gathered in circles that evening, in tents and out on the surface of Jinan and Qingdao Roads. The TI base was, for a change, crowded with people, the speaker shouting, “Fuck your mother! Fuck your mother!” As I walked down Jinan Road, I thought I smelled a familiar odor that reminded me of after-gig parties.
Emotion was high, as it was the last night of the protest. The students were leaving the Legislature, ending their occupation the next day at 6 p.m. The scene was festive, though I noticed fewer students out guiding foot traffic and the like. An older TI guy approached the students at the desk in the courtyard, complaining that it was “a shame” that they had to leave. “You should stay and fight!” he said. “Stay until the new year! Don’t let all this…” He gestured around him grandly, “…go to waste!” The students thanked him for his opinion. A mobile phone on the desk lit up with the word “Daddy” and was promptly snatched up by one of the tougher-looking guys. “I’m ok, Dad,” he murmured into the phone. “I’ll be home later. We’re fine here, we’ll be fine.”
I asked if there was a plan of retreat, whether they’d communicated with the police, but nobody seemed clear, and said they were awaiting orders from on high.
Students were busy cleaning up when I arrived on the last day of the protest, Thursday, May 10. It was a bright, windy day, as if a typhoon were approaching, though it seemed far too early in the year for that. Out on Qingdao Road an old man was speaking. “Never underestimate the power of resistance!” he was saying. “I’ve been resisting since I was in the first grade, and I’m still here!” In the courtyard, I asked some of the students where they were going after everything wrapped up at 6 p.m.
“Going? I’m going home, to sleep!” one man said, looking at me as if I were crazy for asking. I stepped inside the chamber for a short time to watch the cleaning, but found a far more interesting scene outside. A group of tough-looking men, many tattooed some with masks, goggles, and bandannas. They reminded me not a little of the group of paintball soldiers we’d enlisted to help us film our movie.
In fact, the leader of this motley gang was none other than “Big Dog,” aka the individual whom the students had said would protect them against those who wanted to hurt them over the past few weeks. When I talked to Big Dog, he revealed that he is in fact also into movie-making, and he showed me some very impressive clips featuring stunts and pyrotechnics that he and his group had worked on. He even knew Eddie, one of our local stuntmen on the movie.
But Big Dog didn’t have a lot of time to talk shop; the students had news that another group intended to occupy the Legislature when the students left, and it was no surprise that it was the pro-independence group who resented their leaving, who had paid for their tents and supported them, but whose message was being largely ignore in favor of that of the students.
Most of Big Dog’s men, one of whom I heard called “EMT” (for emergency medical training, I assumed), were not students; there were, however, largely ex-military, and Big Dog himself was an ex-paratrooper. The largest was huge and covered in tattoos, with his shaved head and fireman’s boots, he presented a most intimidating appearance. “Some people easily mistake us for thugs hired by various political groups,” Big Dog told me. “But we are not affiliated with any party. We heard that people were threatening the students, so we came to provide our services.” The group had also helped out during the flag protests during the visit of a Chinese official a few years before, as they’d been upset that the police were not letting people carry flags. It turned out that the upside-down flags on top of the Legislature had been taken down by Big Dog’s people. “It was sending the wrong message,” he told me. I suspected the flags were at that moment folded neatly in Big Dog’s living room, to be given back to the Legislature after the conclusion of the protests.
“They’re starting to come in,” someone said on one of the walkie-talkies the students used to communicate. They meant the pro-TI people, and sure enough, older men wearing headbands began to wander into the courtyard. After some strategy discussions, some of Big Dog’s men went up the ladders to the second story, pulling the ladders up after them, and the others spread out to other points. The students on the second floor had elected to evacuate at four o’clock, two hours earlier than the ones in the chamber. Already the tubes and fans set up to blow fresh air into the chamber were being dismantled and handed down from the roof.
I walked around to Jinan Road, where students were passing boxes hand-to-hand, and a crane was helping lift things as people packed up. They were going to have one last hurrah before they left, and several more TV trucks were parked there, in addition to the 15 or so on Qingdao Road, for the students would be exiting there. I didn’t know how many students were actually inside at that point, but only 20 or so of them had actually been there the entire time, the rest coming and going for various reasons. The police lined up were now wearing vests that looked to be fairly bullet-proof, and they sweated in the hot sun. Several more police buses arrived on Zhongshan South Road. The churchyard on the corner was filled with empty sleeping bags, while the TI bastion in front was filled with protesters, in contrast to its usual emptiness.
The afternoon proceeded smoothly until an old man tried to bring in a bunch of drinks into the Legislature. Everyone was trying to clean up, so the students didn’t allow it, and the old man, who had been drinking, got upset, spilling the drinks everywhere and trying to force his way through. Big Dog’s largest men rushed over, and one of them put the man in a headlock, whereupon he promptly fainted. I wasn’t sure if he simply didn’t know his own strength, or the man was already about to pass out.
Walking up Qingdao Road to the courtyard just before 6 p.m., I passed a dog with both the DPP flag and the ROC flag in its collar. An elderly man took exception to this, yelling in Taiwanese, “That’s just WRONG!” as he pointed to the mutt, who took no notice as various passersby took its picture.
Police were already on the roof of the Legislature where I’d climbed up so many times over the last few weeks. Occasionally they would throw down coils of wires that had connected the cameras and computers inside to the outside world, making the building resemble a ship casting off its moorings. Most of the tents were being dismantled, but the crowd was growing rapidly. A broadcast from Jinan Road was being projected on the screens, with various speeches. Big Dog sent some of his men to the gates on Jinan Road and other places to head off any potential trouble, as cops lined up outside under the portico. The last of the students had left the Legislature, heading out to Jinan Road, where they joined the rally already in progress. I suspected many of them simply wanted a hot shower and a nice soft bed.
The police stood behind shields, but otherwise didn’t seem geared up for rioting. Some of the students had heard of a plan by the TI people to rush in as the students left, but the police might have been clued in, as they made sure nothing of the sort could happen. On the night the students had first taken the Legislature, there were only a couple dozen police on the site, and nobody inside. Students had overwhelmed them, climbed up a car to the top of the portico, slipped inside as I had, and simply taken over. There was little chance of that now. The students in the courtyard would stay until 8 or 9. 10:00 p.m. was when the police would clear the area entirely, they said. I was hungry, but I turned down their offers of boxed meals on principle; I hadn’t taken anything of theirs the entire time, and now was not the time to start.
I made my way through the crowds, over to Jinan Road, but as I emerged from an alley, it seemed as if the crowd was a river flowing towards the stage as the MCs told people to move up and let more people in. “Occupation is not a crime!” they chanted. I walked the other way, over to Linsen South Road, where I found one of Big Dog’s men standing guard on a corner. We chatted a bit, and he said he had little idea what the politics of the situation were, just that he felt the students needed protection.
Some time before 9 p.m., Big Dog showed up with the rest of his EMT crew. “It’s time to wrap up,” he told me. “The police have everything under control, and people are starting to go home.” He pointed to the busy sidewalks as people headed towards the subway station. I asked him where they were off to now. “We’re going to Ximending and sing Karaoke, want to come?” I said maybe next time. They left, and I walked around a bit more, somehow reluctant to leave the site, but eventually my hunger got the best of me, and I walked away from the speeches and singing for some food.
Most of the protesters were gone by 11 p.m. The Jinan Road and Qingdao Road sites were cleaned up. Not surprisingly, the TI protesters in the courtyard in front of the Legislature on Zhongshan were a bit more truculent. They were the ones who had urged the students to stay; they’d maintained a tent there for years, barely manned at all, seemingly by a single homeless person; they’d paid for a lot of the students’ protest infrastructure and supplied permits, and they had had to sit by and watch their cause gain little attention while the entire nation sat riveted to the students’ protests and deliberations. In the wee hours of the morning, the police said they wouldn’t force the remaining protesters out, but instead “persuade” them to leave. By 9:30, however, they resorted to physically removing the protesters from the site. Fortunately, no water cannons were employed this time, though scuffles ensued when the protesters struggled with policemen trying to carry them physically out of the compound.
A small group of protesters remained outside the main gates on Zhongshan South Road when I walked over on Friday afternoon. It was a brilliant day, as hot as if summer had arrived. I didn’t recognize any of the protesters there. One of them, a portly woman, shouted at the police lined up on stools just inside the gate. “You must return to us what is rightfully ours!” she shouted through a handheld loudspeaker. “I’m happy with my job, are you happy with yours?” The others milled listlessly around murmuring, “Down with the trade pact.” Some lay asleep on the sidewalk. There were nearly as many reporters there as protesters, and they rushed over whenever anyone said anything. The woman ran out of things to say, and the reporters put down their heavy cameras to rest out of the midday sun.
I left the gate and walked over to Qingdao Road, which was completely blocked off, then around to the parking lot where I’d spent so much of my time over the last few weeks. The police were taking no chances; the entire intersection was surrounded by barricades, manned by police lines. Far away, it seemed, I could see that the protesters’ revolutionary slogans had been washed off the building’s exterior. No flags flew there, however; perhaps someone had “forgotten” to return them. Police were only letting Legislative employees through the barricades, but aside from a couple of homeless men cursing each other softly as they lay on the street in a drunken tangle, hardly anyone else was around. It was a jarringly different scene from that of the night before.
Over on Jinan Road, traffic had resumed, and all of the flowers, placards, posters and messages had been removed from the barricades. Only the slightest of evidence scattered here and there, things such as a solar blanket, or a sunflower cutout, or a protective talisman, lay on the ground beneath the iron structures. It was hard to imagine that a small city had once sprung up there.
Police were taking down barricades in other parts of the city, now that the “threat” had apparently disappeared. I was sure the student leaders were meeting elsewhere, and making plans, but the Legislative action was over, for now. I felt oddly purposeless as I walked down the empty streets, after spending all my spare time at the protests for nearly a month.
But the Legislature would never be the same, not just for me, but for many people throughout Taiwan. It had gone from being another faceless government building to not only the site of a historic movement that would influence the nation’s future, but a shared experience that will influence us both as individuals and as a society. Perhaps it would be the time historians would point to and say, “This is when Taiwanese finally got past the old blue/green/local/mainlander /Minnan/Mandarin divide and starting thinking about their future in practical terms.”
On my way home I passed a student walking the other way. I spotted the top of the protest slogan, “Don’t give in,” a play on the Chinese abbreviation for the trade pact, peeking out of his jacket. He caught my glance and nodded.
One can hope.