A RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK

photographs by Adrian Câtu, Ioana Moldovan, Andrei Pungovschi, Andreea Retinschi,  George Popescu, Mircea Reștea, Ciprian Hord, Ciprian Muntele, Alexandra Dincă, Bogdan Dincă
written by Vlad Odobescu, illustrated by Quickdata 
 

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Saturday night, the stopwatch of tens and hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Victoria Square seemed to have slowed down, not to be frozen altogether. At nearly 20.30, the prime minister had declared he decided to hold a government meeting to repeal the Emergency Ordinance which amended the penal code. Minutes after that, the banners, the vuvuzelas, the slogans and the anger that fueled all of them were still there, in front of the Government building.

At one of the ends of Victoria Square, on a big block, under colorful ads for drinks and private clinics, the images change continuously: threatening eyes are blinking-the message  #vavedem (#weseeyou) is displayed, a victory sign appears next and the message “EU, we love you”. Hope gets backups and sits next to anger.

But even if the mood is visibly more relaxed, the protesters take every word of their prime minister with disbelief. They’re afraid his announcement, filled with messages like “we might during the day” is meant to calm the spirits before the protests gain in weight. In the past days, people have had to learn what words like cancellation and repeal mean and now they had to deal with a new one: prorogation. They soon figured out it actually meant an adjournment effect of the law. It was clear that whatever document comes out of the government session the next day, people would gather again. They’ve grown to like it.

București, February 4th, 2017 © Adrian Câtu

It will be the fifth night of protests after the announcement of the decree and the eighth after the government announced a public debate on the subject of the penal code amendment and pardon. On Tuesday evening, in a press conference after the government session, Florin Iordache, the Minister of Justice, had announced that the abuse of office up to 200.000 lei was decriminalised and that the pardoning law was sent to the Parliament. Before Iordache could say for the last time “Another question!”, people got furious and already spread the word on Facebook. Then they left their houses to catch the last subway train to the Government. Others got there by foot, by cab or by their personal cars.

Among them was also Andrei Fântână, a member of the Robin and the Backstabbers band. “You always claim you’re among those people who can express a clear opinion about what’s happening, but that night and the next morning I woke up without being able to do it. I asked myself if I needed to level up or if the game had changed”, he told me. He tried to keep away from politics, especially after his father had been in prison for 6 years for political reasons. Furthermore it seems to him the society was built so as to keep one away from politics: state taxes were just for his business and you don’t “feel” when you pay them.

“Every person who owns a car and has a good job thinks Romania is wonderful: nothing gets to you, maybe the traffic jam, but just a little. You get into a nice car, drive to work where you have a parking lot and a guardian, work in an office looking like one from The Valley, you take your kids to a private school, have private medical services, paid by the company you work for and life is cheap. Two hours to get to the seaside, three for the mountains…. Why would you care about those thieves? They don’t seem to steal your money”. But this time theft seemed to happen right under your nose.

Bucharest, January 31st, 2017 © Ioana Moldovan

Half an hour after the press conference ended, there were enough of us to cover all the three building areas that faced the street. A bit after midnight 15.000 people were already on the streets, and inside the gendarmes were growing in number and were well equipped. Some people were shaking the fence in front of the Victoria Palace, others looked attentively to the lights that were turning on in one of the corners of the building. “At night, like thieves!” got born out of this pure anger, a feeling that didn’t yet needed banners with witty puns or vuvuzelas. The Social Democrat Party president, Liviu Dragnea, and the Minister of Justice, Florin Iordache, were the main targets of the “wishes” reaching from outside. The international press didn’t yet cover the news, the embassies were looking for the proper terms to express their positions, so the street seemed to be by itself. It was this precisely what gave it strength.

At 1.20, the Official Monitor published the order, but the first ray of hope came along with it: ten days were needed until the main stipulations would take effect. People were about to meet the next morning at 9 o’clock to begin the race against the clock.

Cluj-Napoca, January 31st, 2017 © Mircea Reștea

On February 1st, the evening after the order was adopted, approximately 220. 000 people were about to gather and protest in one of the biggest protests after the Revolution. In Bucharest around 150.000 people gathered. It was then that the first acts of violence took place: a group of men started throwing firecrackers and smoke bombs at the gendarmes from the Iancu de Hunedoara Boulevard. The delayed reactions of the police enforcements made people think of a possible complicity aimed to counter attack possible future protests.

Bucharest, February 1st, 2017 © Adrian Câtu

The majority wasn’t scared though. Tens of thousands took to the streets on Thursday and hundreds of thousands on Friday. Their voices louder, their clothes warmer. The tension was somewhat turned into smiles upon seeing the banners and the messages addressed to the initiators of the decree; the casual gatherings and the large groups of friends also helped. On an unexpectedly sunny Saturday morning, parents took their kids out on the street to teach them about democracy. People would take to the streets in cities where night tends to get darker and the cries sound dangerously loud in the eyes of an almighty local authority. During the day, there were fewer people in the middle of the square, but they were constantly backed by the honking cars that were passing by and the memory of the previous night. The movement gained continuity, the street knew it might lose the battle.

Saturday, on February 4th, I was with a group of journalists from Serbia. It had been 20 minutes since the prime minister had announced the meeting to stop the decree. Towards Magheru boulevard and Victoriei Street, lights were being made ready for live broadcasts, flags were being waved more cheerfully and on the Government building lasers were being projected. In the middle of a banner shaped as the Romanian map it said #neamtrezit (#wehaveawaken). The plans for the next day hid underneath the noise of the vuvuzelas. The Serbian cameraman was encouraging people to come and talk to him in Romanian, tell him what was bothering them. “People just want you to listen to them”, he says with a smile on his face. We talk about the success of the protest, a success completely unexpected a few days ago. Two nights ago he told me that even if people gathered in Belgrade in such great numbers, no one would come to film them and at some point people would scatter out of fear. “See, he says, I told you to have faith in Romania”.

Bucharest, February 4th, 2017 © Alexandra Dincă

After these past days’ gloomy and dismal protests, the Sunday Bucharest protest was like a festival with no rock stars, no stage or sound amplifiers. When some of the fences in Victoria square were still standing, a bunch of drum players were crossing the square, one corner to the other, carrying with them a crowd in search for rhythm. There were some appeals to quiet down the ceaseless vuvuzelas the morning of the protest, so they were indeed silenced, and the voices grew more powerful. The banners were larger, the costumes more refined, the flags more numerous. The laser projections enclosed the Government building, too and also a neighboring building. And since there wasn’t enough light to shed on the deeds of the politicians, more than 250,000 people turned on the flashlights on their phones. You could have sung the most beautiful ballad in the world on this background and perhaps we did.

Bucharest, February 5th, 2017 © Bogdan Dincă