Building people power at the community level

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East Seoul Citizens Action Group was created by citizens and activists in eastern Seoul organizing for President Park’s resignation. On November 24, Shim Taeun interviewed one of its organizers, Jeong Jiyoon, about its organizing efforts. Jeong Jiyoon is also an organizer at Together Gwangjin, one of the founding organizations. She organizes events for its members: lectures on the current political situation, movie nights, street campaigns, and other small group activities. Every Friday, they hold candlelight vigils on Konkuk University Station.   What have your organizing efforts calling for President Park’s resignation looked like? What are the objectives?

At first we mainly ran street outreach campaigns to organize members to the action group and educate people on the severity of the situation. Many residents agreed with our movement. In our first street outreach campaign, more than a hundred people signed up for our group, exceeding our expectations. With increased members, we are running street campaigns from Monday to Thursday and holding candlelight vigils every Friday for those who want to participate in this movement but can’t come to the Saturday protests. The Friday protests take place near Konkuk University station because that’s where the most number of people signed up for the action group. This week, we plan to have college students, workers, and middle and high school students.

Our objective is to suggest a direction to people so that they can urge the government and the prosecutor to investigate the truth. More specifically we call for the arrest of Choi Soon-sil, the resignation of President Park, and holding the ruling Saenuri Party[ref] The Saenuri Party is the conservative party which President Park belongs to.[/ref] responsible because it’s nonsense that her party was not aware of the current situation. On a fundamental level, we aim to restore direct democracy. So it is important for us to take action and discuss politics with the group members and community residents.

What has people’s reactions been like?

During this period, we discovered that many people took to the streets for the first time in their lives. As the street campaign was held near Konkuk University station, many college students and workers near the station joined the group. At Guui or Achasan station, many residents signed up.

One noticeable thing was that people’s response was quite different by location and generation. For example, when we held street outreach on a busy street, we mostly met young people – students and workers – favorable to our cause. Sometimes people would even bring us food. However, when we went to places where older people usually gathered (e.g. local markets), we faced harsh criticism and disapproving looks. Even though the president’s approval ratings are at less than five percent, there are still some in their sixties and seventies defending her.

Do people who became members of the action group also go out on the street outreach campaigns?

Well, during the street outreach, you need to appeal to passers-by to join our group. It might be intimidating for new members to approach strangers. So instead, they come to the Friday local protests or the Saturday Gwanghwamun protests. Last week, three high school seniors came to the protest after their college entrance examinations and were there with us for six hours. We didn’t have a chance to talk with them since they had to leave early due to their curfews. So, we are planning a meeting with teenagers this week during the daytime.

Did you have any memorable events during your campaign?

Yes, most of them involved the people we met. There was one new member who joined the group on the first day of the campaign. He came to the November 5 protest for the first time and then again the following week. Now, he is like a veteran protester taking care of those coming out for the first time. It’s so fascinating seeing how fast he got used to the culture of protest. It made me realize that maybe he simply needed a space in which to take action and share his thoughts. I was really happy to hear that he was glad to meet our group.

Another interesting thing is that the past few weeks have served as an opportunity for people to restore old connections. For instance, this person joined the action group at the beginning of the campaign just before his wedding. We were invited to his wedding and even did a congratulatory performance. He came to one of our post-rally gatherings and met his cousin there. Actually, his cousin had also participated in the same protest that day. They had no idea both had joined the action group because they had signed up separately a week or two apart. In another example, one of the community activists saw a new member that looked strangely familiar. And the new member felt the same. They both thought hard and at last realized that the new member was the owner of a clothing shop the activist frequented. I guess President Park’s misdeeds are doing one good thing: connecting people. How ironic.

Even before the Choi Soon-sil scandal, there were people against President Park’s government. Of course now the rallies and marches are calling specifically for her resignation. Were people at the community level also against President Park’s government previously? If so, why?

Unlike other movements – the feminist or labor movement – the community movement focused more on cultural programming with residents and on larger societal issues. That made me think about which issue was the most pertinent to residents that might move them to action. Schools came to mind. Schools, students, and parents… they led to two issues that have facilitated robust participation: the government’s national history textbook revision[ref] The Park government has been attempting to pass a nationally mandated history textbook. The textbook has been criticized for whitewashing her father’s – President Park Chung Hee – dictatorship.[/ref] and the Sewol ferry disaster. The attempt of the government to create state-compiled history textbooks angered many parents and students. Parents participated in the petition saying that they did not want their children to receive such ridiculous education. Another significant issue was the Sewol ferry disaster. When the disaster occurred, many residents were shocked, and joined in the movement. To a lot of people, these two cases revealed the worst of the government.

Do you have some comments you’d like to share with activists in other countries?

As far as I know, President Park’s scandal is making headlines in other countries as well. And I hear Koreans in other nations hold candlelight vigils. I feel their solidarity. I also think I need to learn about other countries that had been in similar situations because the next big challenge once President Park resigns will be what to do to stabilize our country. So, I’d like to tell your readers to please share any ideas or experience with us Korean activists.

By Taeun Shim [Chief Editor, World Current Report (Korean edition)]