In an era of political unrest around the world, your travels can unexpectedly make you a witness to history. It also can make you a casualty.
Tracey Friley, an IBIT reader, a homegirl from Oakland and a terrific blogger herself (whom I hate right now because she’s in Paris!), did something dangerous today.
She asked a question on Facebook that started me thinking:
“If you saw a protest while on a trip, would you run towards it or run away?”
It’s an important question to consider, especially now and particularly if you’re traveling outside the United States.
You know about the events of the Arab Spring in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, the economy-driven street protests in Greece. You know about the Occupy Wall Street movement that has spread across America and beyond.
You also know about some of the things that have happened in those events. People have been injured, some killed.
In Libya and Syria, the dead number in the thousands.
So how would I answer Tracey’s question? My answer is firm, straightforward and absolute:
It depends on the circumstances of the moment. It depends on the culture. Most of all, it depends on you and how finely tuned is your sense of self-preservation.
We live in interesting times. Between economic turmoil and people’s political aspirations, unexpected mass protests can pop up almost anywhere at anytime.
Some folks have an uncanny ability to judge what is safe and what is not. They know how to “read” a crowd. They can sense when it’s okay to stick around and when it’s time head elsewhere.
BULLETS, RUBBER OR NOT
It’s not 100 percent, though. Even “street smarts” finely honed at home can betray you in an unfamiliar setting.
And you only have to be wrong once.
There are places in the world where the authorities’ idea of crowd control is a line of tanks and a heavy use of bullets, rubber or otherwise. Countries like Yemen and Syria come immediately to mind.
Even so, the temptation to get out there and watch from the sidelines, or even hit the streets and join in with the protesters, can be a powerful thing.
Sometimes, you can feel when history is happening before your eyes. The feeling that wells up in your soul is something akin to a tidal wave, one with the power to sweep you out onto the streets along with the locals.
But the greater the moment, the greater the potential for things to go badly sideways.
CAN YOU READ?
Think about it. Had you been on the ground at Tiananmen Square back in 1989, you might have been there to see that brave, unnamed young man singlehandly face down a column of Chinese tanks. That sight, that moment, is one that would stay with you all your life.
Then again, you also might have been among the demonstrators crushed under the treads of Chinese armor the night before, in which case you wouldn’t have seen anything the next day.
How good are you at reading moods, especially the moods of a few thousand protestors or a few hundred cops — particularly in a foreign country where you can’t speak the language or even be able to read the signs?
If you decide to go with the flow of a demonstration, your life could depend on the answer, because even in a country where you know the language and feel at home with the culture, everything about a street demonstration is volatile.
A FOREIGNER’S RIGHTS
A single act, a single voice, a single gesture, can take a peaceful protest from zero to bloody hell in a matter of seconds. If you wait until the tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets start flying before you decide to remove yourself from the premises, you’ve probably waited too long.
If you wait until after the gunfire starts, you’ve really waited too long.
The other thing you need to consider is your legal status on the ground you’re standing on.
You are a foreigner, a visitor, a guest. And one of the first things you learn during times of unrest is that a foreigner has no rights that a host government is bound to respect.
The quickest way to develop a healthy admiration for American jurisprudence is to get yourself “caught up” in a country where there’s no such thing as presumption of innocence under the law.
Your stay “in country” could wind up being extended a lot longer than you planned, and it won’t be your idea of a good time.
So before you opt to just go with what looks like the flow of historic events, you need to remember something: When you put yourself in the path of history, stay alert and listen to your instincts, because you also may be putting yourself in Harm’s way.
And over time, you learn that Harm doesn’t swerve much.
NOTE: Tracey would like me to inform you that “i’m not from oakland. i just live there. i’m an LA girl through and through.” Duly noted, T! Bonne nuit a Paris, chere!
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