The day they died

One of our project’s component studies is about depictions of protest in popular culture. In my case, that means music, and how songs and music videos can be used as vehicles for political messages of discontent. I’ve blogged before about news reports on the anger caused by corruption and politicians in Romania, but in this post, I’d like to combine news and pop culture to think through “The Day We Die”, a song by the Romanian band Goodbye To Gravity. It seems to me that this is a perfect example of how a popular cultural text – in this case, a rock song – targets corruption (“F**k all your wicked corruption/ It’s been there since our inception”), protests against political leaders (“Loose lips are shifting leaders”), and the reduction of people to numbers (“We’re not numbers, we’re free, we’re so alive, so alive”) and encourages individuals to take a stand (“Stand your ground in the battle zone/ Filled with life, bone and scorn/ Clench your fists, I’m battle prone/ Pull the trigger and set the tone”).

While the song itself can be interpreted as spreading messages of discontent, an event related to it is particularly worth noting. This time last year – on October 30th 2015 – Goodbye to Gravity had their last concert in Colectiv, a club in Bucharest. At around 22:30 a fire broke in the location, killing 64 young people, injuring over 100, and leading to 20,000 people taking to the streets in protest. Their voices were raised against corruption, at the indifference of authorities, and at the failure to respect safety regulations by allowing unsafe spaces to be used for public gatherings, as it was the case with the abovementioned club. The protests led to the resignation of then prime minister Victor Ponta and the fall of the government, as well as stricter controls in respecting safety regulations in public spaces as clubs, bars, restaurants, and a bill that forbids smoking in such places.

On the one year anniversary of the day they died, Romania remembered them with a march of commemoration, and a silent protest highlighting a problem that persists: corruption in Romanian politics. Four thousand people were out on the streets with banners, silently heading towards the club where the fire started last October, and that is now closed.

While some point to changes that have followed in the wake of the nightclub incident, the general feeling is one of pessimism. Even the president, Klaus Werner Iohannis, agrees that political parties in Romania must continue to reform. The political discourse of the parties will play an important role in the future parliamentary elections scheduled for December 11.

The song mentioned above was toned down and covered by two other Romanian bands, as a tribute for the victims. Out of the members of the band involved in the tragedy, the lead singer is the only one still alive.

So where does this leave us? As I said at the beginning of this piece, it is the story of a popular cultural text with a deep political message. To use the language of our coding scheme, the trigger of the protest and the shift in Romanian politics was a fire in a nightclub. The protest issue was corruption, clearly stated by both protesters and journalists reporting on the event. Reporting the manifestation on the anniversary of the protests, Euronews (see clip below) reminded viewers of the continued importance of the issue. As Euronews is one of the channels we follow, the protest may well end up in our sample.

Diana Grecu

On the other side

We are used to seeing police officers in news reports on the other side of the barricades that protesters form when they take to the streets, and discussions continue about police brutality towards various groups throughout the world, not least the US. The past week, however, has seen hundreds of policemen in France taking on the role of protester themselves, demonstrating to highlight the violence perpetrated against them by civilians. The coding scheme we use on the Screening Protest project is designed with a confusing world like this in mind. It allows us to capture the plurality of roles any given actor may play in a report – such as both ‘protester’ and ‘member of the law and order forces’ in this specific case.

Apart from this twist in what is usually perceived as a classic police-protester dichotomy, there is something else about this manifestation that makes it particularly interesting. The French police chose the Place de la République as the site of what Al Jazeera called their ‘march of anger’ – a site heavy with the memory of the horror of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, and of subsequent mourning. With the anniversary of the attacks less than a month away, the Al Jazeera reporter hinted that the choice of location is significant, especially when paired with the protesting police officers’ complaints: they can no longer protect citizens under current working conditions. They have been calling for the state to intervene, to reduce the possibility that the scenes from Place de la République a year ago repeat again.

When coding news items that have protests in focus, all these elements are important for our work – the symbolic value of the location chosen by protesters, how the problem is framed in a given news report, and the identification of an actor at whom protesters’ claims are directed.

Luiza Chiroiu

Cherishing past protests

As work on the project has unfolded, it has become apparent that broadcasters do not only cover ongoing protests: they also bring to their audiences reports about demonstrations that took place in the past. For this reason, a variable was created that lets us capture whether a news item has in focus a protest that is currently taking place, or one that has already happened.

This week, Euronews provided a good example of this, broadcasting a piece about the 1956 protests in Hungary against the Soviet Union. The report tells the story of what is identified as a ‘revolution’ (although it did not lead to a regime change at that time), documenting it with black-and-white footage from six decades ago and the contemporary testimony of a witness. While the grey of the images of the past contrasts with the colours of today’s Budapest, the speaking actor – a man who, as a student at that time, witnessed the events – brings them together.

The uprising that was started 60 years ago in Budapest by a group of students turned into what would now be labelled a pro-democracy movement, with people demanding independence from Moscow and free elections. The protests failed – the movement was crushed by Soviet troops, and thousands of people died in the confrontations between Hungarian protesters and Soviet soldiers. But the Euronews report reminds us that a movement need not be successful for it to stay alive in the collective memory of a community. And in this work of memory and community, media such as television play an essential role, for they have the power to tell people which events are worth remembering and which may be forgotten.

Luiza Chiroiu