National Catholic Reporter

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Police and violence in Seoul and Ferguson

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In the reports I have been filing from Seoul this past week I’ve written several times of the fissions in the South Korean society. They’ve come about, people here say, as old Confucian notions, which prize community and structure, have come under assault by modern economic growth and the pressures that have come from this growth.

Money is getting concentrated here and, so too, seems political power – and the marginalization of those whose lives are being trampled upon by the economic engine.  More nuclear power plants; more displaced villagers. New military base; move the old folks; invade a pristine coastal island.  A ferry goes under, killing hundreds, no government investigation, seemingly out of fear for what might be learned.

Ordinary Koreans, those growing numbers with waning influence in government affairs, take to the streets. It used to be, one Catholic sister told me, protesters would get a hauled off to jail. Today, she said, they are taken before courts and sentenced heavy fines.  She said these fines are debilitating and have become an effective in stifling dissent.

I’ve seen numerous protests in just ten days here. Some of these have involved rallies drawing thousands. Others have been more smaller, but involving direct confrontation with police.  I watched one develop a few days back as I ended an interview with the father of one of the children who drowned in the April Sewol ferryboat disaster.  In a matter of minutes what became a confrontation between the father and a dozen police grew into scores more police and scores of supporters facing off against each other, shouting into loud speakers.  After an hour, the confrontation simply died out.

Being here in Seoul and watching TV news reports in my hotel room, watching police confrontations in Ferguson, differences in cultures, social systems and brute violence, stand out. Police don't cary guns here. Haven't seen a single riot police. No clubs. No shields. Simple net vests.  Not that they don't exist. But from the start customs allow for a level of mutual respect, even. Korean protests have almost choreographed predictability compared.  This predictability has been lost in US protests, it seems.  

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While I’m not a sociologist, it seems to me that the fractures that exist today in US society are deeper than those I am see here. We've watched a slow militarization of our US police departments, mirroring a national military mind-set to which we are growing all too accustomed. And when there are guns -- and rifles and more -- the consequences of confrontation have far greater potential for violence. And death. 

 

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