Humans and Rats

2015 Street Protests in Bucharest

It’s a nice autumn, with rainy days scattered between hot ones. I find, from TV, that there will be a protest against the Minister of Internal Affairs, Gabriel Oprea. While he was traveling with a police escort, in the night, on heavy rain, the police officer Gabriel Gigină fell with the motorcycle in a hole on a street in Bucharest and died.

I take the photo camera, the lens I use when I don’t want to stay in the crowd (28-300mm) and get out of the house. I take the subway to the University, where the only one protester is for the moment a girl with a banner that reads “Je suis Gabriel Gigină”. It’s full of gendarmes, police and media. On adjacent streets there are civilians that are trying look like they are there by chance. From time to time I see them communicating.

Slowly, people gather in the square, a relatively small group. Some carry megaphones and quickly take control. At one time we leave for the Revolution Square, accompanied by gendarmes. Here a break is taken. A chain of policemen was already arranged, many of them filming with video cameras the demonstrators. Gabriel Oprea’s resignation is demanded. From here we get on Balcescu Boulevard and go to Romana Square, and from there we move towards Victoria Square, where the group is already much bigger.

I shoot several frames and hit off with the group on Calea Victoriei. It was a peaceful protest. I look around and think about what is happening.

Marchers demand the resignation of Gabriel Oprea, using the argument of the illegality or illegitimacy of the official escort and the fact that he didn’t leave the car to make sure everything is okay. Press and television are moving between the legal and the emotional aspect of the event. The internet seems to be the place where people are assembling themselves, mainly around some bloggers or journalists whose views are taken over by the press, either for support or to be demolished. Overnight appear websites with journalistic profiles with at least doubtful credibility. On the street, the protest seems to be left to its fate, whoever has the megaphone takes over the crowd.

Ten days later, in the club Colectiv from Bucharest occurs the worst fire in the history of Romania. At the time in which I’m rewriting this text there are 46 dead people and dozens wounded in critical condition. I’m not from Bucharest, I heard from the internet about the disaster and that people got out on the streets again. It is a revolution against the whole system, the main culprit being perceived as the political class. There are arrested the three owners of the club where the fire took place, the mayor of the 4th Sector where the fire took place, Cristian Popescu Piedone and the prime minister Victor Ponta resigns, and with him the entire government is falling, including Gabriel Oprea.

It’s an interesting revolution against the system as a whole, represented by the political class. The direct people at fault, the club owners are blamed, but somehow they are understood by the world. The Romanian system is one of the most anti-entrepreneurial systems in Europe, and the ISU authorization, which would have been required so that the club could operate legally, is missing in many schools and hospitals in Romania.

The investigations and controls start, but have a predictable outcome: the system is so sophisticated, so designed just for its own survival that one can’t possibly be legal. It is practically impossible to follow all the rules in Romania. And any attempt is extremely expensive.

I found out that somebody I knew died in the fire, some of the frames of a documentary made by me and available on this website are due to this person.

Two days after the fire I posted on Facebook:


 

“I feel that the rebellion doesn’t make sense now, immediately after the fire, when it’s time for peace. I feel that this society, with which I can’t avoid to connect, acts contrary than my senses tell me it should be done: riots when it’s time for silence, then quietly solaces when it should rebel.

Something inside me tells me that the way society reacts, like a fire that lights up quickly and goes out in the same way, never leaves behind anything but ashes, coldness and oblivion. I feel that society will burn, symbolically, just as those men burned: fast and meaningless.

I feel I’ve already written too much, I only want peace in my memory about a man I once knew, man who died in the fire. “


 

Wednesday, at 22.30, I decide to get out on the streets again. I’m not sure I want to take refuge in my peace.

I’m grabbing my camera and a 14-24mm lens and get out of the house, while on the TV that I leave open behind me, a reporter yells into the microphone, trying to cover the uproar of the crowd, something around 25,000 people.

I reach Unirii square in five minutes, I park quickly and go on foot towards the University square. I’m among the few ones that go in that direction, most of them flowing in the opposite direction. When I arrive, the square is full, but the number is much less than 25,000 people. I take some shots and start walking towards Victoria Square, thinking that the crowd has taken on the old route towards the Government. Pretty soon, at the Revolution Square, I hear that, in fact, the crowd has set out to the Parliament. I know that on TV it’s speculated that large numbers of people are on the streets, I even hear 35,000 in the capital. Between University square and the government, it’s just me and a few strays.

It’s already midnight and at University Square, a group keeps the crowd alert. I comfort myself that I was a parrot and I missed the protest. In front of me, a journalist from the Intact Group wants to record something. A few guys address her:

– Where are you from, the Antena TV?

– Fuck you, man!

One of the protesters picks on the little cameraman, who carries a large and heavy camera and tells him to take off, because  the camera light pisses him off. Some of his colleagues circle the two journalists, surrounding them quickly. The blonde with the microphone stares into the eyes of her colleague clenching her teeth. He is pretending to check a jack. They both step a few steps to the side. They also feel that the gang wants some scandal. One from the mob comes to me and asks me if I’m from the Antena TV. I let him repeat the question three times until I look at him and I respond short: no. He smells of alcohol and his eyes are glazed.

Soon, the group of leaders, armed with megaphones and vuvuzelas decide the following location: Colectiv Club. The mob leaves in a hurried march. They are not many, but the streets are roaring from the chants. They seem to have training. After Unirii Square, a gendarme changes their direction, directing them on the Dambovita quay. Some con the gendarme and go forward to Tineretului, but change mind fast, because they are not followed by the group. They go back in the front of the crowd and change the slogan:

– Ro-ma-ni-a, police state, police state, police state.

Their slogans are creative, have rhyme, and contest almost anything. I’m almost humming a few. On the Dâmboviţa pier the rats came out to walk. I say to myself that rats are the most romantic creatures in the capital, I think I’ll go out one evening to shoot them. Just when I think of some rat shots for a video, on the street in front of me I see one dead, probably killed by a car. I take a picture of it.

– Cri-mi-nals! Cri-mi-nals! Cri-mi-nals!, the mob shouts furiously.

We are entering some dark alleys and arrive in front of the club. There are many people and it’s complete silence. The group I came with remains still. I find a place from which to photograph, in the area where there are some TV crews.

At one command, everyone kneels and prays in unison. It’s a strange vibration in the air, given by the echo of voices bouncing into the walls of the surrounding buildings. The world has divided in two, on one side are those who were already in the square when we arrived, on the other side there’s the group, at the entrance into the square, that I joined at the University, standing in the lights of the tv crew.

– Who does not jump has no value, suggests someone next to me.

– No, dude, it’s not working. Who doesn’t jump, doesn’t want change!

– Who doesn’t jump, doesn’t want change, who doesn’t jump, doesn’t want change!

– Co-lec-tiv! Co-lec-tiv! Co-lec-tiv!

It’s fascinating how quickly they synchronize one to each other, not only verbally but also in the gestures and the leaps they make. I’m saying to myself again that they must be trained.

– Quiet!

– Quiet! Shut up, dude!

– Down!

Somebody remains standing.

– Doooown!

– Down mother fucker, are you deaf?

– Yo dick, get on your  knees, don’t you hear, can’t you see that they are all on their knees?

– Huoooooo! Huooooooo!

– Huuooooo!

– Our Father, who art in heaven. hallowed be Thy Name;…

The rhythm is allert, there are no breaks but when the tv correspondent takes an interview to the group leaders. I’m mixing in with them to shoot photos. It’s a strange feeling, I feel like I got into a gang and I feel that they also feel something. I’m not one of them, they don’t know me. I’m wondering if they know each other. I shoot from close up, a meter in front of them. They feel vulnerable in front of the camera, but don’t respond. That’s interesting. Somehow, they accepted me along the way. They’re all young, some seem to be part of a gallery, some not. Some smell strongly of booze. There are, however, among them some very frail and elegant, who don’t seem at all dangerous. A mosaic of young people. On the other side of the square are those who don’t feel the need to express their insurrection. In their eyes I can see acceptance. They don’t shout in unison with the young people I came with, but accept them. And pray, kneeling, together with them.

I decide that I want to feel from among them, what they feel. I kneel with the camera in my hand, in the crowd.

– Our Father, who art in heaven …

I shut up. I’m an atheist. I don’t pray. I don’t have religion, this words tells me nothing. But I feel the vibration in their voices, more intense than when they were chanting, throwing their fists in the air and jumping, saying they don’t want churches. It’s a strange mix what I feel, on the one hand I understand the rebellion against helplessness generated by the encounter of death, on one hand I feel ripped off. I can’t think of what others want, at their command. No one can steal my feelings and order to feel what he wants, when he wants. I wonder how someone in the family would feel if they came into the square and were ordered to kneel and recite on command. How would they feel if they were threatened if they don’t do it.

I get up, the last one, long after the square was ordered to get up, as a form of resistance to shouted orders, then I look around. I shake after the experience and bounce back. I close the camera and put the lens cap back. I finished my job and quickly sum up in my mind, just for me. I want peace. I will leave the streets of Bucharest to men and rats.

On Friday night I decide to go out on the streets again. I’m setting up a 28-300 on the camera, it’s not bright enough for night shots, but it’s my favorite toy for unpredictable stuff. This time it’s early, it’s little over 18.00. I am somewhat weary, and don’t expect anything new from the last experience. I take the metro to the University square.

University Square is filled with all kinds of people of all ages. Parents with children, elders, students, some who certainly belong to soccer galleries, some with signs, some with vuvuzelas, some with megaphones. They chant in small groups, the only time when all chant in unison being when they chant “Collective!”

There are some with signs against President Johannis. It doesn’t take long and arrive those who quarrel with them. Some say that the movement has no political orientation, and those with anti-Johannis signs claim they are against the entire political class and now, after Ponta’s resignation also Johannis must go. The conflict escalates.

– Communists! We are in this situation because of you!

– Did your mother buy you a place in the square? Is it your square?

Gendarmes gather around them. At one time, half of the square is booing those who are against Johannis. A young man with beard and winter cap with fury ears leaves his anti-Johannis banner and retracts to the side. He’s scared of the reaction of the crowd. I hear him talking to a girl, the crowd didn’t understand them, they are against all, just that they have chosen a target: Johannis.

An old woman continues to quarrel with a young man with a beard and interbelic mustache. It emerges a character with Indian figure, ill tempered. The old woman stands up to him with courage. From somewhere in the back, there comes a tall skinny guy with a beard and long hair, omnipresent character in any protest and starts to quarrel with the Native American looking guy.

I’m continuously taking shots and I feel like I’m in a comic strip in which Jesus fights Winnetou. A gendarm stands between them, but I read on his face that he’s more captivated by characters then by the quarrel. A bit aside, through the square a clone of Daniel the Patriarch is walking. Everyone takes a picture with him, nobody utters a word. I’m starting to feel good, I either have atheists around me, or people with a sense of humor, or people who think freely.

At one time people start booing the movements taking place on the stage in front of the National Theatre. I am heading to the hot spot and I perch on the scene, among figures that I’ve seen at protests, but I have no idea who they are. They are arguing among themselves for the microphone, but every time one of them is trying to address the crowd, the square is roaring:

– Leave the stage! Leave the stage!

– Huoooo! Huooooo!

Everyone screams towards the stage on which I’m sitting, threatening with the fists. It’s a strange feeling, I don’t feel vulnerable at all, but it’s true that I’m not the one talking into the microphone. Eventually, the crowd is overlooking the stage moment. Those who tried to speak withdraw disappointed.

I’m going back into the square. There are some groups that, every time another group is trying to shout something, cover them with other chants, then stop. It is proposed repeatedly to go to Collective Club. Half of the people in the square is opposing. It circulates through the square a sort of paranoia of manipulation. Everyone thinks that there are groups who are trying to manipulate the crowd. At one time, a part of the people are roaring, starting to shift:

– Let’s go to Colectiv! To Colectiv!

The other half remains on the spot, with a few people slipping hesitantly toward the leaving crowd.

– Solidarity! Solidarity, shout those who leave and most of those who remained start to march. I’m leaving too, I am getting cold.

I shoot a few more frames with the group that advances on the same route as the previous evening. In front of it there are two young men with zombie masks. I imagine how the crowd would look like if everyone had a zombie mask. I smile and dissipate with them on the streets of Bucharest, on which a wet and cold fog has set.

I dive, involuntarily, in those memories, in the emotions captured by the camera. I don’t hear anything that happens behind me, in the candlelit square in front of the club. I simply let myself be snatched from reality by those pics and wander in the world from before the fire.

In my mind, come to me like flashbacks two pictures of bodies standing at the entrance of the club, that were circulating on the Internet.

Quiet. I again need peace.

10 days after the fire and 20 days after the policeman’s death I decide to go out for the last time in the streets. A day ago the president Johannis was in the square among demonstrators, who are less and less. Perhaps now, after the visit of the president, the protest will quench completely.

But there still is an intense battle on the internet and on television. The fire at Colectiv Club sparks uprising on the street, which now turned into a political battle and a journalistic topic. The press and the televisions investigate each tentacle of the octopus that is the system, creating a new subject every day and probably will do this a long time from now. Currently, the focus is on the medical system in Romania, the allegations being that, for political reasons, the wounded were held in the country instead of being transfered abroad for treatment, although in Romania there aren’t the conditions to cope with such situations.

The message conveyed by the media to the population is obvious: the system that killed people in the fire continues to kill people. It insists on the corruption in the system, on the political interests perpetuated within the system, but this only confuses matters further. It is discussed less on bureaucracy, on the construction of the system, though not to solve things but to make the system survive. Interestingly, people tend to gather around new opinions, promoting an attitude of change at individual level, of respecting the rules that, until now, have been bypassed. I fail to understand where this identification with the system comes from, but it is clear that many people feel guilt that is fostered by the media. Concrete reactions are that within the system have been taken drastic and urgent measures, which only transform the war with bureaucracy into something impossible.

The first thing that crosses my mind is that the system acts adversely: it repeats and emphasizes exactly those things that lead to disaster: if so far thousands of papers were needed, thousands of hours were lost and considerable amounts spent so that an initiative could be set up in a thicket of hundreds of laws that contradict each other and are constantly changing, and now more sacrifice is needed. They have already started to close clubs, shopping centers, all in an intimidating rattling of handcuffs. The system seems to start to block, panicked, any action outside of it, suffocating itself in a desperate attempt to eliminate corruption by inflating bureaucracy.

The change the system makes is from complicated, slow and expensive to more complicated, slower, and more expensive and people seem to feel safer although exactly the same characteristics that are now exacerbated, have lead to tragedy.

With these thoughts in mind I’m heading to University Square, where I find a long cord of gendarmes set along the sidewalk. Today we will not block the street. A few young guys write proposals, fill in questionnaires. Unwillingly I remember of the letters I filled in in this period for Santa Claus when I was a kid. Others have gathered around a bench and sing, accompanied by a guitar. I am taking some pictures, talk to a few friends and go home.

When I open the laptop, I find from the Internet that another man has died, a photographer, after the earlier death of a photojournalist.

I pick a few shots taken in the last day in the street and end the album. “Utopia is over,” I title the last picture with a banner calling, behind a long line of policemen, people in the street, because they are still needed.

Society has quietly solaced, after it ignited and burned quickly, leaving behind only illusions. Oblivion follows.

I feel a bitter blow, not related to the events and emotions experienced, nor to the failure that I feel society will encounter in trying to change something, but related to me. I could say that the subject of this album was the uprising of the people against the system, the street movements, because, in fact, that’s what I photographed. But it isn’t so, because behind the rebellion, behind this amalgam of anger, sadness, fear, advertising, image, politics and manipulation, the real subject of all the things that happened these days, is the death of some people.

Every second of film, every picture, every word said or uttered these days is actually about death and suffering. And, no matter how justified are the reasons and benefits of the conversion of death and suffering in public affairs, no matter how much you mastered, like an acrobat, standing on the bounder between decency and grotesque, the question still stands:

“Are you using someone’s death in personal interest?”

I think that there can be treated in the same manner the considerable amounts earned due to increased audience, political posts obtained circumstancially, some additional readers to a blog, the good feeling that you feel receiving attention on facebook after you’ve begged for it writing compassionate posts, or a like or two at a photo album like this, made by me.

Respect for those who understood that these tragedies are not about them and have chosen to feel what they felt quietly.


PERIODICALLY UPDATED (LAST ON: 08.12.2015):

THE COLECTIV NIGHTCLUB FIRE KILLED 62 PEOPLE (26 ON SPOT, 36 IN HOSPITALS) AND INJURED 151.


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