Reporter's Notebook: The start of a long, hot summer

It’s remarkable what a little bit of vandalism and police violence can do.

Social protesters block Ayalon 390 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Social protesters block Ayalon 390
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
It’s remarkable what a little bit of vandalism and police violence can do. For months the social justice movement has lain dormant, save for a demonstration earlier this month that saw a few thousand Israelis march through central Tel Aviv, all to scant media coverage.
That protest was notable largely for the absence of Daphni Leef, who skipped out in favor of a personal engagement. In the preceding months, Leef had largely been eclipsed by protest leader Stav Shafir, and other than appearances on conference panels had not remained the visible protest leader she had been over last summer.
Saturday night’s rally for social justice and against police brutality (and the prime ministers, the tycoons, “the system,” and so on) will be remembered mainly for five shattered bank windows and the images and video of police strong-arming protesters. It has already been deemed the relaunch of the summer protest movement – now in a newer, angrier and more aggressive mold.
When looking at Saturday night’s protest that ran off the rails, one must first look back at Friday afternoon on Rothschild Boulevard, also in Tel Aviv.
Friday’s demonstration started like any number of gatherings through the long winter and sluggish spring of the social justice movement that captivated much of the country last summer. A small happening of mainly familiar faces delivering informal sermons to a long-converted crowd. Leef had advertised the gathering on Facebook during the week, saying it was time to bring your tents and return to the square, but by midday Friday only a small crowd of around a hundred people had heeded the call.
With all due respect to Israel’s largest-ever protest movement, Friday’s gathering did not initially appear to be a news story. The small number of reporters and cameramen present milled around in the scorching heat waiting for police to carry out arrests so they could get pictures and call it a day, as protesters headed down Rothschild Boulevard’s pedestrian walkway toward Habimah Square carrying two tents above their shoulders like golden calves, to hearty applause from the short-lived campsite.
Things spiraled out of control not long after that, with city clerks yanking tents from the hands of activists, followed by shoving matches and arrests by YASSAM riot police of 14 protesters – including Leef, who was thrown to the ground and roughed-up on the way to a waiting police van.
After her bandaged arm heals, Leef might consider sending Yarkon police subdistrict chief Cmdr. Yoram Ohayon a bouquet of flowers. By arresting Leef at Friday’s protest, Ohayon thrust her back in the spotlight as the undisputed leader of the social justice movement, or at least the movement’s current incarnation. They also made a serious news item out of what was not a significant story before Leef was thrown into the police van. At that point, the press realized they had to stay put, running after YASSAM officers separating protesters from camping supplies.
Without Friday’s arrest of Leef, Saturday’s demonstration would not have taken place, and without the violent scenes from Saturday night the next round of furious street protests would arguably lack the fuel to bring large numbers out into the streets.
Though the shattered bank windows and the blocking of the Ayalon Freeway were unprecedented, the protest on Saturday night largely fit the script of illegal Tel Aviv demonstrations.
Protesters without a permit hold an illegal demonstration, blocking the street as a large contingent of police look on. In time, one can watch and feel the police losing their patience with the theatrics. Eventually, the order is given to clear the street and police move in, making arrests as cameramen (most of them amateurs) swarm in all directions. Police report the number of arrests, activists post pictures on Facebook and the cycle repeats.
The protest bought to mind one I attended last September outside the Tel Aviv Municipality. Like Saturday’s protest, it was an impromptu act of rage directed at Mayor Ron Huldai, who had sent municipal workers to clear out the Rothschild tent city despite a vow to wait until after the High Holy Days. Police made dozens of arrests as protesters rushed the entrance of the municipal building, throwing eggs and carrying a tent aloft. Like Saturday, the protest was followed by charges of police brutality and hooliganism.
Both on Saturday night and that September afternoon, neither the crowd nor the cause appeared to represent the middle class, cost-of-living concerns that had captivated the nation over the summer on 2011.
Both protests, the two most violent since the movement began last July, revolved around issues of police brutality, freedom of speech, democracy, public vs private space and squatter’s rights, or at least however these issues were defined by those present.
It’s also worth mentioning that while police did use a large measure of force against activists and in a few cases were caught on film punching and choking detainees, the level of violence was not, in my opinion, something that would shock those familiar with police crowd control tactics in North America or Europe.
Closer to home, it was far from the violence shown against Palestinians next to the security barrier in the West Bank, or by police quelling haredi riots in Jerusalem or evicting settlers in the West Bank or in Gush Katif. Although it should be noted that in those cases, the protesters typically use more violent means than those used by the demonstrators running wild Saturday night in Tel Aviv, most of whom did not appear to be resisting arrest or posing a danger to police.
While anger at the banks and the cartels of the Israeli business world is very real and well-founded, I couldn’t help but think of that afternoon last September and on Saturday night that something was being lost in the drive to express rage at the police and at city hall. What was being lost appeared to be the rather vanilla call for relief for the Israeli middle class, replaced by street theatrics that play into the hands of those looking to see such a consumers’ movement fail.
On Saturday night, I found myself asking the same question that I had after the city hall protest last year or after any number of small exercises in “street blocking for social justice” over the past several months. What is the goal? What is the purpose? And how does this look to the critical mass of middle class Israelis outside Tel Aviv, who made a gesture by a 26-year-old Tel Aviv film editor become a nationwide phenomenon?
The answer is still unclear, just as unclear as how long anger at police will carry a movement that had long ago fallen off the front pages.