Editor's note: Medea Benjamin and colleague Tighe Barry, are on a week-long special visit to Karachi and Islamabad. They arrived in the city on Saturday on a project that seeks to educate the US public about the dire situation in Pakistan, its implications for both the region and US national security and how to support the return of democracy in the country.
Let me introduce you to a flash demonstration, Karachi-style. Since the police have been rounding up and jailing people protesting General Musarraf's imposition of martial law on November 3, one of the new tactics is a "flash mob." Today, people gathered along the waterfront at the McDonalds (yes, they hate gathering at McDonalds, but it's a good landmark with a parking lot). The group was small--about 25 people--but they were men and women, young and old. Some women even brought their children. They were well-dressed, well-educated, English-speaking professionals. Most had never participated in a protest before martial law was declared, but they were quickly becoming seasoned activists.
They were delighted that US activists had come to show support. Tighe and I interviewed several of them on camera before the action started. One of the women was a journalist who insisted that journalists must shed the pretense of "objectivity." When the government starts censoring the press, she said, it's time for all journalists to take a stand. Another women in her 50s was a public health worker who bemoaned the fact that she could not motivate more of her colleagues-doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers-to join the movement. "The lawyers in this country are really the only organized professional sector that is standing up to Musharraf," she said. "It's understandable that the poor who are struggling everyday to survive cannot afford to protest. But the other professionals should be out here with us. And the political parties, the ones who can really mobilize large numbers of people, should be taking the lead. But they are too busy jockeying for power so it's up to us, the civil society, to lead."
The group, holding a few banners and posters (one said, in English: "This revolution will not be televised", referred to the closing of TV stations), began walking along the sidewalk that borders the beach. Part of the action was to quickly spray paint the sidewalk and walls with anti-government slogans. "Most people in Karachi are poor," a young man said, "they can't even afford to buy a newspaper. So writing on the public spaces is a good way to get the word out." They also engaged the people walking and driving by, handing out leaflets calling on the government to release jailed activists and reinstate democratic rule. When a crowd had gathered around, one of the women began to give a speech in Urdu. She was not your typical revolutionary--in fact, this young, beautifully dressed woman worked in a bank. But she was passionate about the need to restore the rule of law and drew applause from the crowd.
As she was talking, you could hear the siren of a police car pulling up. You might think that the group would have dispersed immediately (the women with children did), but most people stayed. One young man who was with the group kept filming as the police approached and started yelling at the crowd to disperse. The police didn't like that, and two of them tried to grab his video camera and threatened to arrest him. Two women immediately intervened, trying to calm the police. They escorted the man to his car, but the police blocked the car. One of the policemen, toting a Kalashnikov, also approached Tighe and wanted his video camera. He started grabbing Tighe's hand, trying to pull him to the police car. Tighe, playing dumb, kept repeating that he was just a tourist, while I grabbed the camera and put it in my purse. The policeman let Tighe go, but the standoff continued with the other man.
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So the women huddled and came up with a plan to all jump in the car. "The police are less likely to arrest him if he is surrounded by women," they reasoned. So five of us, including me (a foreigner was even better protection), squeezed into the car. And sure enough, it worked. They police, exasperated, finally told him to go.
Afterwards, the group met in a local cafÃƒ© to "debrief." The man who almost got arrested was giving high fives to the women. I asked him if he was scared and he shrugged. "I've seen so many others get arrested in these last few weeks," he said, "I thought it was my turn." I asked him what he did for a living. "I'm a dentist," he laughed, "so perhaps my arrest would have gotten some of my colleague out on the streets."
The group made some decisions for future actions: When the police threaten us, the men should leave and the women should stay because the police have a harder time roughing up women. If one person gets arrested, they should all go with him or her. Next action, tomorrow at the Press Club.
And so it goes here in Pakistan, where lawyers, bank tellers, journalists-and dentists--are taking on a US-backed dictator.