by Ramin Mazaheri for The Saker Blog
The French government has been forced to shamefully admit that they made totally false accusations that May Day Yellow Vest anti-government protesters tried to break into the Pitié Salpêtrière Hospital in order to “attack”, “assault” and “steal”. Countless mainstream media are just as covered in ignominy for having repeated these untrue claims.
I was right there when it happened, covering it for PressTV, so I witnessed exactly what transpired.
In fact, I even gave a live interview at the exact time of the incident, just after 4pm. I don’t have a copy of that for now, but I hope to get one soon: certainly, I can explain what happened and why.
Why it happened: A new rule permitting even worse police brutality against Yellow Vests
May 1st was the debut of a new policing tactic: cops can initiate violence against peaceful protesters.
It is just that objectively simple, openly discussed, and easy to explain:
Cops are now using the age-old method of “divide and conquer”… on peaceful protesters. On May 1st a line of riot cops repeatedly charged the demonstrators in order to sever them into two, more manageable sections. One section of the protest is forced to advance, while the other section is forced to wait behind.
Of course, police are not watching their elbows and politely saying, “Excuse me” – the only way to stop peaceful demonstrators from moving is to violently get in their way and then violently bar them from advancing one more step. That is “initiating violence”, and they didn’t used to do that with the regularity we saw on May 1.
The cops did this at the start of the demonstration at 2pm, and to achieve their goal of cutting the demo into two sides they gassed about 5-8,000 people. I was doing a live interview at that time as well (I don’t have a copy of that one, but I do have others from that day, read on for the link!). It was so violent and so shocking – tear gas forcing thousands of people to flee – that I had to talk (yell) for 20+ minutes live, giving myself a temporary headache. We almost had to turn and run, but we stood our ground: I take no credit, of course, but when cops advanced as far as journalists reporting live they finally relented and let the demonstration proceed, as they had set up an unprecedented, shockingly-narrow, cop-filled corridor tens of thousands of people had to slowly pass through. Happy International Workers’ Day!
Back to 4pm: the cops again cut the demonstration, and they did so right in front of the hospital. So, firstly, if anyone is at fault for putting the hospital in the line of fire it is the riot cops because they chose to re-initiate violence at that particular spot.
Why that spot? Because Boulevard de l’Hôpital was the final straightaway until the end of the protest – the roundabout Place d’Italie: the government’s new tactic also meant they wanted to allow the first group of protesters (the most hard core) to enter Place d’Italie all alone… so they could be gassed, attacked and cleared out before for the next section of protesters arrived. Gas, attack and clear out; gas, attack and clear out Place d’Italie – this happened three times (in my estimation, but I was only there for numbers 2 and 3). This is the result of the new, so called “more offensive” police tactics.
Why do that? Because the government did not want the protest – 40,000 strong – to finish together, in celebration. The government was threatened by this large gathering, so they simply did not allow it to happen.
This explains why when I finally got to Place d’Italie it was a bizarre, desolate, damaged ghost town. Construction barricades had been toppled and damaged, along with advertisements and bus stops, there was garbage, glass and tear gas canisters everywhere… yet no people. Just an empty Place d’Italie, surrounded by cops at all eight exits.
Allow me to say this: I have never seen more cops that day in Paris. This was a city under foreign occupation, truly.
Entire regions of the city were rendered inaccessible to citizens, with armored vehicles and enormous temporary, metal gates blocking off road after road after road. But the number of cops… staggering. There was a squadron of riot police every 200 meters along the demonstration route, which was limited to a tiny section; so small, in fact, that I started my day at Place d’Italie at 11 am, covering the first demo (ecological protesters, of course, who only want to make their stupid complaints and then leave – quite pleased with themselves – before the violence starts), only to return there at the end of the day. Yes, it was back and forth along the only, narrow, permitted path to celebrate International Workers’ Day in the “birthplace of human rights”. This is why there was not more violence that day – cops were everywhere.
But wait, it’s worse! I actually drove in from 130 kilometers outside Paris that day: there were rural gendarmes searching cars and people (without warrants, based only on suspicion) at every toll booth and gas station. They waved me through, each time, without searching me.
What went down at the hospital
So the cops cut the demo at 14h, the start, and then they did it at again at 16h. I was in the group forced to wait behind, stuck in front of the hospital, as the first group was getting their butts kicked at Place d’Italie while waiting for comrades who would never be allowed to join them. May 1st was a demonstration in stages, and only in certain places – certainly not “freedom of assembly”.
So to cut the demo into two means to separate friends from each other – that creates anger. The cops have no fear of provoking anger because they have tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons, truncheons and the power to arrest against totally unarmed protesters… and that’s exactly what they did at 16h.
It was a rough 30 minutes. I was at the front lines and I’ve seen worse in France, but it was no picnic either.
Cops launched tear gas first, as always, to repel the protesters from the separation line they were undemocratically enforcing. Tear gas, then water cannons, and then hand-to-hand combat – it’s the same thing I’ve seen since 2010, but I assume this existed in France long before then: this is the culture here.
So, via tear gas, cops caused a third of the protesters to flee into a side street (Rue des Wallons), while another third fled further back on the Boulevard de l’Hôpitaux, while the final third was pushed against the side gates of the now-infamous Hôpitaux Universitaires Pitié Salpêtrière. This is where the cops made their mistake (although this is all mistakes in preserving citizen security): they tear-gassed protesters who had nowhere else to go. Some panicked protesters somehow got through the side gates and entered into the hospital grounds.
And it was “panicked protesters” – subsequent videos have proven that it was not “Black Bloc” nor even Yellow Vests who forced their way into the hospital. The only people who actually made it into the hospital were just two elderly men who said they had been “tear gassed all day”. The video has made the government and the mainstream media appear even more terrible and pathetic. Not much more needs to be said….
More interesting: Why even try to get into the hospital? It’s a stupid move, like running upstairs in a horror movie – you have nowhere to go; you are sure to be arrested and/or abused. But those protesters couldn’t think that far ahead, because they were frightened, gassed, hurt, simple everyday citizens and not Black Bloc, cops or that other group which straddles both those groups – journalists.
Of course, there were no TV reporters during this long melee. There were plenty of photographers and some cameramen, and surely some print reporters, but not any TV reporters. Maybe all these journalists were working for a company, or maybe they were working for independent Yellow Vest blogs – who can tell? However, as is often the case at the front lines, I was the only one with a logo and doing a live interview.
I take that back: a lady for Italy’s RAI was there during all this. She was doing her “piece to camera”, the little wrap-up for a TV report – not a live interview. Major kudos, though.
French media on the front line? Ha! Dream on!
I don’t know why – they could be. They could hire 3 security guards (instead of the usual 1 or 2), and then 3 ombudsman to explain to (very likely angry and confrontational) protesters, “We are here now! We are trying to do a good job for France! Don’t get violent with us, please!” Maybe that’s naïve of me, but totally hiding from the front line – hiding the reality of what’s going on at the front lines for everyday citizens, such as those trapped at Hospital Pitié Salpêtrière – only further ruins the reputation of French media within France. Don’t they feel an obligation to report on such an event properly… in their own damned country?!
And then they so quickly relay whatever the government wildly claims without any verification. Oh boy….
Please stop the tear gas – I’m live on TV
The hand-to-hand combat: Tougher protesters had wanted to… keep marching. That’s all. But riot police violence prevented them and attacked them – so they fought back.
Such “resistance” is really quite, quite stupid, I think – I mean, both sides keep the kid gloves on. And thank God, because it’s not even close to a fair fight: every square inch of the bodies of cops are protected with 8,000 euros worth of equipment; cops have been searching for weapons from a 130 kilometer-wide radius around Paris, so nothing can even the playing field; protesters have none of the cops tactical knowledge, organization or discipline. Hand-to-hand means a cat and mouse game and very quick skirmishes.
I recall that, amid the melee, there was a teenager dressed in black tossing a rock up and down, like a gangster flipping a quarter on a street corner.
A plainclothes cop – dressed as if he was a fellow Black Bloc member – dropped his phony act: he grabbed the kid and threw him to the ground with 100% of his force. Hey, the kid was holding a rock like a weapon and looking like he was about to use it – the kid was dead to rights, and by showing off he gave the cops time to think and react. As they dragged him away I thought: Poor kid – he’s going to prison for a year or so. Some might be surprised that a cop would – gasp! – dress up as a Black Bloc member: Why that never happens! Yeah, sure….
Anyway, about a minute later – amazingly – the kid actually breaks free! He’s running away!
But a cop trips him up and the first, arresting officer hits the kid on the ground on his thigh with his telescopic truncheon as hard as anything you can imagine. Punches sound nothing like they do in movies, of course, but the sound of this hit was enormous. If the cop had hit the kid’s knee it would have been shattered – thankfully, the human femur is stronger than concrete. The kid surely has a nasty, nasty mark and a limp today.
Good ending: The kid still jumped the short garden fence on the west side of the Boulevard and got away. LOL… kids.
During this whole time I am dodging all this and waiting to go live on (smartphone) camera. My cameraman is dodging too. PressTV, which doesn’t seem to understand that I am avoiding the wild crowd along the hospital gate, the arrests and beatings across from the gate, and the cops further up the boulevard who can attack, gas or water cannon us at any moment, keeps pushing us back because they want a “stable shot”. LOL, yeah right. Amid this fluid situation?! Where I was just “stable” a rock just landed!
They want me to stand there – stock still – amid this violence, LOL. Just put me on air, already!
But PressTV is still waiting – I move to the side of hospital gate. Cops gas there again. I’m not going in the hospital grounds, but some do. Various ministers, reporters and know-nothings at home will soon be calling them bad little boys and girls… until the truth comes out.
One has to realize that during a bad gassing there is only one thought: get away from the gas. Certainly, LOL, you cannot do a single other thing until you complete that task.
Then there is – maybe – a second thought: if cops charge and attack now, I am totally helpless and done for.
That’s why ya gotta know these things, and avoid being right where the gassings land; ya gotta think a step or two ahead; ya gotta not celebrate your survival, as if it was some huge victory, because more gas (or worse) is coming. It takes time to learn this stuff – a couple dozen people haven’t had good luck and lost an eye, while over 600 have been seriously injured. Reminder: the weekly anti-Yellow Vest violence is nearing a half-year now! A half-year!!!
Anyway, I get away from the re-gassed hospital gate, and PressTV finally puts me on the air. I’m thrilled, because I want to get this live interview over with. So, I’m between the line of cops higher up Boulevard de l’Hôpitaux, and across from the hospital (Rue des Wallons) where the cat-and-mouse, will-they-or-won’t they is taking place, and I’m doing my live blah blah.
Blah blah is done, and all is well. I had been gassed several times in 30 minutes – medics kindly spraying my face with cooling solvent at one point – but I could tell the fight was ending, as it can’t go on forever. The cops finally get the order to pull back and stop antagonizing and attacking this section of the protest.
I didn’t know this at the time, but they had gotten these orders only because they had sufficiently gassed, attacked and cleared out the first protest section at Place d’Italie.
The protesters are thrilled – they have “won”… by not losing an eye or being arrested. Little victories for the oppressed masses. Cops are slowly pulling back, and the protesters all congregate in front of a group riot cops and start singing a chant. I forget what – On est la (We are here), probably.
Stupid. (But I did join in for a short minute.)
They’re just going to get gassed again. I tell my cameraman that this is not the place to be – indeed, it’s all about knowing where’s the place to NOT be! The crowd is singing louder, and it reaches a point where it’s either dance or fight, and the French don’t dance even though they are a Latin culture. Therefore, I know that someone in the crowd is going to do something to offend or antagonize the cops – or the cops will just get annoyed at the crowd’s sense of triumph – and gas will arrive shortly. Everyone is celebrating, but we are moving… and more gas arrived where we had just been. I had gotten my fair share of abuse by then.
Thanks to my press card the cops let us through and we enter Place d’Italie early.
Hey, I am not obligated to document and witness every tear gassing! LOL, this is France – that’s impossible. And there are other journalists, both good ones and bad ones.
This was the exact time when a cop was filmed throwing a rock at protesters, which is generating some news. Indeed, as we had passed the police line I had noticed that up and down Boulevard de l’Hôpitaux protesters had pried off chunks of road asphalt – they are being attacked and have no weapons, let’s recall. Nothing will happen to that cop, who should be fired immediately. It is ABSOLUTELY the primary part of the job description of a “riot cop” to take punches and not give them… but that’s only in a country which is honest, which enforces law and order, which doesn’t sic the cops on the protesters, etc.
Place d’Italie is totally empty, except for a thousand or so cops, and it’s a wreck. Me and my cameraman speculate on the possibility of an alien abduction of the first protest group.
The protest section we were with starts to filter in: we’re all gassed immediately.
That pushes us to one side of the roundabout, and that allows cops to push them all out. Ah, so there probably wasn’t an alien abduction? Coulda been nice, maybe….
We stay, because we have an interview at 18h.
So it’s 18h and here I am – getting gassed live on camera again (6:50 mark). The wind had shifted and it was on us quickly… but I have a tolerance to tear gas after all these years.
PressTV takes me off camera… that’s so annoying. What am I getting gassed for, then? We want to show the sufferings of the people – so show it! If we aren’t going to show it, then I can just stay in back with all the other journalists!!!
But ya gotta be at the front – at least sometimes. Protesters gotta see professional journalists are there to (somewhat) protect them, and cops gotta see that professional journalists are there to document what they do.
It’s a real shame more reporters aren’t doing live reports from the front lines, because cops know they can’t do anything to anyone on live TV – they surely are forced to rein in their violent tactics. It’s a real shame mainstream reporters (and I include PressTV with them, in a rare instance) aren’t going to the front line. Again, I am no courageous guy, I just feel that the Yellow Vests are nothing new: France’s Yellow Vests: It’s just 1 protest…which has lasted 8 years, was the first article I wrote on the Yellow Vests, and it stresses that this violence against peaceful protesters is absolutely, positively nothing new.
I’ve seen these “battles” before many, many times – and I think I know how to safely handle it. Knock wood for luck, but experience gives everyone – a reporter, a Black Bloc member, a cop – a sixth sense, and a genuine ability to predict what comes next because it is all rather formulaic (although not on May 1). I know I am not courageous, because I would never put my cameraman at risk; more importantly, I would never put his expensive camera at risk, and that shows you how well-paid we are when the camera is the utmost priority! No joke….
But French TV reporters weren’t at the front lines with the rail workers, with anti-State of Emergency protesters, with the “you can’t ban pro-Palestinian marches” protesters, and on and on and on in France since 2010.
That was, I assume, the last gassing of the day because right when I am gassed live you can see that unions and their fancy floats are starting to arrive – no more poor Yellow Vests.
Unions, of course, have signed off on every major austerity measure since 2010, and are incredibly easy to “divide and conquer” with targeted concessions… so cops surely just wanted to give them a nice Place d’Italie to stand around, talk loud and say nuthin’. This is why many Yellow Vests don’t want to march with unions, even on May Day.
At that point I left to go and do our report for that day.
All in all – not a bad day
I was expecting May Day to be bad – I was honestly concerned, as I do have things to live for besides these articles, you know – and it was pretty bad.
But it was only bad at the start and the finish – the massive, massive, massive police presence all along the route made any sort of “permanent shenanigans” impossible. That filtering corridor after the first protest-separating was appalling. May Day 2019 in France was like holding a march during a North Korean military parade, minus the great choreographed dances and true socialism.
It was also bad because it is much safer when the cops are playing defense, as they are supposed to always be doing, but on May Day they were playing offense. They have all the weapons, all the tactics, all the legal ability to whatever they want… and then a reporter – who invariably finds his or herself on both sides of the front line – has to worry about the cops, and also about rocks being thrown in his direction (at the cops). Whereas on a day like March 16, the last time the Champs- Élysées was a scene of civil disobedience, things are perfectly safe because everyone knows who the Yellow Vests are targeting and why. Cops… they can do whatever they want, and whenever they want – they respect nothing.
French reporters need to be at the front lines… but they aren’t. I’m sure editors tell them not to, and that they are told that by their publishers. But that’s why we got nonsense reporting which initially accused May Day protesters of breaking into a hospital to… do what? Burn, pillage and behead? Yeah, right….
Frankly, this new tactic of “initiate violence in order to divide and conquer peaceful protesters” is something which I can’t see the Yellow Vests being able to combat… but that’s the subject of a future article.
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for Press TV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. He is the author of I’ll Ruin Everything You Are: Ending Western Propaganda on Red China. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.