The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On American streets, echoes of long-ago protests on foreign soil

A demonstrator in New York City gestures during a June 5 protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
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I remember: a jolt of peppery gas searing my sinuses, bringing tears that blurred the world around me; the hiss of fire hoses in the streets of Santiago, sending clusters of protesters fleeing in panic; strangers stopping to pour water on my face or pushing me into alleys where I would be safe.

I remember: a hot tropical night in Manila with a mass of humanity that included nuns in habits and students with backpacks, moving in the dark past military barricades that had just been abandoned, inching excitedly toward a white presidential palace that no one had been allowed to approach in years.

I remember: a courtyard in Lahore under a majestic banyan tree, shading lawyers in black suits and ties who were preparing to march for the reinstatement of fired judges. One young lawyer, quoting Alexander Hamilton and U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, proudly proclaimed: “This is our American revolution. For my generation, it is a chance to realize the dreams of democracy that have never been fulfilled.”

These experiences took place on three difference continents, over a span of 25 years, while I was reporting as an overseas correspondent. But the episodes — in Chile, the Philippines and Pakistan — had something in common: a conviction among the protesters that the tide of history was turning and that change must come. The crowds were hopeful as well as fearful, and they included diverse sectors of society, converging to say no to injustice.

For George Floyd, an emotional final farewell

This week, I thought back to these moments as I watched events unfold in Washington and across the United States. Protests that had erupted after the death of George Floyd, a black man pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis, took on larger historic dimensions and spread to more cities. Most were peaceful, but there were incidents of crowd violence, harsh police actions, and threats by President Trump and other officials to quash the protests with military force.

No societies or crises are identical, but those events of long ago seemed to find echo in the turmoil that is taking place in American society now.

Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew an elected socialist president in 1973 with tacit American support, but after years of brutal military repression and thousands of political activists dead, a new U.S. ambassador told him pointedly in 1985 that “the ills of democracy can only be cured by more democracy.”

In 1988, after five years of peaceful protests and gradual political revival, Pinochet lost a national referendum and was forced to restore civilian rule. Soon, a moderate president was elected, and a celebration was held at the national palace. I was there, watching, as former political prisoners and exiles from across the spectrum of society hugged each other and wept.

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Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf declared he sought to save society from civilian corruption and injustice when he seized power in 1999. But his efforts at reform stumbled, and he grew increasingly repressive. In 2007, when he ousted senior judges who failed to sign a loyalty oath, the nation’s lawyers launched a nationwide protest movement, marching quietly week after week to face rows of riot police. The army, highly sensitive to public opinion, stayed away from the fight, and by 2008 Musharraf was forced to step down.

In the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos was a close U.S. military ally for decades, but by the 1980s his corrupt, autocratic behavior led to growing unrest. A massive, nonviolent “People Power Revolution” sprang up in 1986, with backing from church leaders, calling for Marcos to leave power. The army split into loyalist and rebel factions, while millions of protesters camped in the streets. President Ronald Reagan strongly urged Marcos to leave, and finally the army abandoned him. In the streets, people placed flowers in the barrels of tanks.

As news spread that Marcos had flown into exile on a U.S. military jet, people began walking across the capital toward Malacañang presidential palace, long barricaded behind a vast perimeter wall. I found myself carried along in a dense human tide, exhausted but somehow utterly unafraid. People were singing and laughing, and the widow of a famous democratic opposition leader, assassinated in 1983, was about to become the new president.

My only disappointment that night was trivial indeed — that far ahead in the throng, the camera crews had already entered the empty palace, getting a first glimpse at the famous closets full of Imelda Marcos’s shoes.

In all three cases, U.S. officials had accepted corrupt or repressive rulers due to anti-communist or anti-terrorist allegiances but ultimately sided with their opponents. And while none of the countries pivoted to perfect civilian democracies, the peaceful resolution of these crises restored breathing room to suffocating societies and purchased a period of relative calm and stability in countries that could have easily gone up in flames.

George Floyd was an ordinary man. His memorial was a reminder of that simple, powerful fact.

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