I don't get too closely involved in protests because they're rarely about me, and my voice wouldn't add anything useful. Instead I just quietly raise the head count by one, and stay to the side taking pictures, which I offer on here with minimum commentary. Sometimes I use my experience to write articles later, such as this one and this one, but definitely not this one.
In this particular case, also, I've felt like I don't have a leg to stand on, due to widespread outrage over how my newspaper has been covering the George Floyd protests (which is mostly a matter of making poor choices over what wire stories and cartoons to run). It's been a frustrating but educational week at work.
When I heard Ji-hoon, frontman of Huqueymsaw and former member of a number of other bands, was organising a Black Lives Matter event, I was apprehensive, for all the usual reasons. I knew I'd end up going, but I couldn't ignore the merits of some of the accusations against it.
On top of that, he was getting deluged by anti-BLM people, and he essentially went viral, something I don't think he was prepared for.
And then a bizarre claim began circulating, based on a screencap of an Instagram message by someone claiming "my boyfriend was stationed as a police officer who regulated protests at city hall during his military service." It accuses him of putting on events to scam people out of money, as well as warning that the event is illegal for E-2 visa holders, and mentioning it is on Korea's Memorial Day, "which will do more harm than good."
The image circulated widely, being shared into online conversations and getting discussions locked down and deleted. Suddenly people were seeing that message everywhere, and it seemed like suddenly a ton of people were making accusations against him (when it was all just one accusation amplified). You'd hear things like "Everyone's saying he's a scammer." Whoever made that message, for whatever purpose deceptive or legitimate, was very successful.
As one nine-tailed friend told me, "it seemed like people had a death grip on this vague accusation," and another environmentally unfriendly friend said, "why take secondhand, unverified accusations from a fucking cop." Whatever the police have to say about a longtime political activist should be irrelevant.
As best I can tell, if Ji-hoon does have a history of irregularities, it would be known among activists and the punk scene. Coincidentally, I just published a book in which I contributed an article making prominent mention of Ji-hoon, who in 2014 had a punk compilation made to raise funds to cover his legal defences after an arrest.
There was mass confusion between Ji-hoon and friends, racist Koreans, people with legitimate gripes, and this disinformation campaign. Ji-hoon must have been under tremendous pressure, as happens when people go viral for unpleasant reasons. So I started intervening, taking the position that while there are a lot of legitimate problems with this event, the main one was unverifiable, but people should keep asking questions otherwise.
Ultimately, a newly created Black Lives Matter Korea Instagram account released a statement that lines up very closely with my own conclusions. Regarding point 2, they say they "have not been able to verify the allegations." And regarding recommendation 3, I have also been recommending caution to others and not endorsing the event for foreigners to attend, while making different choices for myself based on familiarity with the people, ideologies, and laws involved.
I know of three other related events that were scheduled on June 5 and 6. There's this one which sounds more like a press event and it was too early Friday morning for me to attend, this one that was postponed, and this virtual one where you buy merch and upload pictures June 6 at noon (they were originally going to have an in-person photo shoot in the morning but decided against it).
When I expressed my concern about COVID-19 and the police at Ji-hoon's event, an African American friend offered me these words:
"Wound up in the semiotics and the practicalities of protest is the fact that you're making a bet, taking a risk, with your body and putting that on the line, whether violence is expected or not. You're voting with your feet and taking time out of your life to be there, and I think that's going to be more powerful in person then virtually."
I think maybe that explains what motivates people to protest while there is still the very serious threat of the pandemic (especially in the US). When confrontation heats up, racial injustice becomes a more serious existential threat than this virus killing hundreds of thousands.
So I showed up, always staying on the move and resisting the frequent invitation to shake people's hands. The crowd wasn't very large; I overheard someone doing a head count reach 130. Most of the participants were Korean, with a few foreigners. There may have been up to a dozen black people there, and of them a fair number were nonparticipants who wanted to see it through but not give their endorsement.
So I made an effort to hear what black people had to say, considering for this occasion their opinions should count for more than the rest of ours. This event wasn't just about supporting black people, but how to support them. All the rest of us can and should do is show solidarity, amplify their message, clear a platform for them, and audit our own perceptions. And this was happening, even if it was on the sidelines rather than coming through the main loudspeakers.
The event ended peacefully and the crowd dispersed slowly, with many likely going off for food and drinks. Did it change the situation? Not really. If anything it showed how inconsequential the participants are.
One black guy who had complaints went up to Ji-hoon after the crowd had dispersed and gave him a big hug, talked a little bit, gave him another big hug (which Yi-sang ran over to photograph this time), and then walked away not noticing Ji-hoon's very sudden, very brief burst of tears that may have only been noticed by me.