The police mobilized about 300 police buses to put up a wall in central Seoul on Saturday in an attempt to stop planned protests by conservative groups. More than 11,000 police officers were deployed, and the public’s access to Gwanghwamun Square was restricted. Subways did not stop at stations near Gwanghwamun Square, while drivers driving through central Seoul were stopped and asked their destinations. However, some protests went ahead following nine restrictions requested by the court, which allowed an “up-to-nine car” protest on the condition that protesters do not leave their cars.
Fighting against COVID-19 requires a national effort, and we cannot afford to become complacent because people’s lives are at risk. The public should refrain from taking part in large protests that can lead to local outbreaks, and this is why the government is not allowing large demonstrations. However, the police have taken it too far. They installed 90 checkpoints on the outskirts of Seoul where they stopped and frisked the public as well as the cars passing through.
The freedom of assembly and demonstration is the basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution, but the government has failed to show its willingness to uphold these constitutional rights. The police have few legal grounds for banning car protests that follow COVID-19 restrictions. Leaders of the Police who have gone all out to execute the president’s instructions remind us of the times when they were puppets of a dictator.
The police said it would crack down on illegal protests on the Hangul Day. Few would disagree with their cause – to stop the spread of the virus. However, exerting its authority and forcefully dispersing protesters would result in undermining democracy that people have fought hard for. Restricting the public’s access to stop demonstrations, in particular, will turn the clock back on democracy. A government that claims to be born out of Gwanghwamun candlelight protests should demonstrate the same level of maturity, at least when it comes to the freedom of assembly and demonstration.