The greening of Iran

June 22, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Timothy Cooper

It was just one of those random emails that daily pops up, sent by people I don’t actually know, inviting me to another of an unending stream of political protests or alerting me to this or that human rights issue. The email came from a person named Mehdi. It read:

Rally in Solidarity with the People of Iran on Saturday, June 20 at 11am at the Iranian Interests Section, 2209 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.

I read on: “The announcement of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as winner of the Iranian presidential election came as an enormous shock.  The unprecedented number of Iranians who faithfully participated in the election have unfortunately been victims of a well orchestrated theft of their votes.  This blatantly fraudulent election result is symptomatic of a wider corruption and repression of Iranians by their government and yet another shameless denial of the Iranians’ most basic human rights.”

Next came the open invitation to participate in history-in-the-making. “As Iranians living in the DC Metro area, we consider it our moral and civic duty to support our compatriots in their courageous struggle for a democratic Iran.  We invite you to join a demonstration in solidarity with the people of Iran on Saturday…. at the Iranian Interests Section.  We plan to march to the White House.”

Via email, the budding Green Revolution of Iran had come to my doorstep, even as it grew by leaps and bounds on the tear-gassed streets of Tehran, 6400 miles away.

The protest demands were, well, pretty reasonable to me:

  1. Annul the fraudulent elections
  2. Hold new elections under supervision of independent monitors
  3. Urge the international community to not recognize Ahmadinejad as the elected president
  4. Stop the brutal attacks on students and non-violent protestors
  5. Support Iranians’ mass civic nonviolent protests
  6. Free arrested protestors and political prisoners
  7. Remove obstructions to freedom of expression and high-tech communication services including Internet, mobile phones, etc.
  8. Establish an independent truth finding commission with representatives from all presidential candidates to investigate electoral fraud and bring perpetrators of the coup to justice
  9. Stop the US government’s invitation to Ahmadinejad’s diplomatic corps to attend Fourth of July celebrations at American embassies throughout the world  

I’d missed the Orange Revolution of Ukraine and the Revolution of the Roses of Georgia, but I wasn’t going to miss out on being a part of Iran’s incipient Green Revolution. I resolved to go. If nothing else, I’d stand up for Iranians’ right to free and fair elections.

On Saturday morning, I arrived early. Slate clouds slung low over Wisconsin Avenue in upper Georgetown and it felt like rain. About fifty people had already congregated under the building canopy of the Iranian Interest Section, looking simultaneously nervous and excited. All were wearing or holding a splash of green in solidarity with their compatriots on the other side of the ocean. It provided the gathering with a sense of visual poetry: In place of rouge, Iranian women brushed bright green face paint on both cheeks, teenage girls looped green bandannas around their forehead and put on green shades—probably to disguise themselves from Iranian security forces that would undoubtedly comb the news footage at a later date to mark certain individuals for reprisals. Others wore green caps and green cotton polo shirts—pretty chic. Dark hair, deep brown eyes, starkly contrasting with the punctuation of vibrant green, seemed to make the shadows disappear under the eaves of Iranian consulate.

Organizers were passing out hand-made paper signs colored, what else?—emerald green. “Where’s Our Vote?” they read. They went from hand to hand, person to person, moving down the line of the crowd like waves toward shore. One man handed me one. I took it and held it up. Soon an Iranian woman was tying a strip of green cloth around my bicep. Now I fit right in. I felt at home, wearing the fresh, new revolutionary color, and standing in solidarity with Iranians-in-exile, asking where their vote went.

As we milled about, waiting for the protest march to the White House to begin, the mood was solemn, but not unduly grim. It was made less so when two protestors, one carrying a US flag and the other the colors of Iran slung over his shoulder, were escorted across the street by two DC policemen. Why was that, I asked an organizer, as they chanted in Farsi on the other side of the boulevard? Because they are calling for the return of the Shah, I was told. “A little late,” I replied.  “Something like thirty years too late,” she answered. Still, one had to admire their loyalty and persistence… That moment of levity felt good amid the swelling crowds. They carried signs and banners that read: “Stop the Killings!”, “Down with Oppression!”, and “Stop the Violence Against My People!” There were pictures of Iranian demonstrators being beaten and tear-gassed by police in black uniforms in Tehran.

At eleven, it started to pour, just as the crowd came into full force. Now there were hundreds jammed onto the sidewalk. The police looked on, accustomed to demonstrations, large and small. “Where’s Our Vote?” the people called as the rain blanketed the streets. News camera crews roamed up and down, capturing the event. Cell phone cameras of various participants took aim, to be instantly sent back to friends in Iran. Then came the thunderclap, the big bang from above, as the crowd roared, “Where’s Our Vote?” At first we were somewhat stunned by magnitude of the burst from above, but then we all grinned: Everyone knew what everyone else was thinking: A powerful new ally had arrived on the scene, it seemed.

As the sudden downpour subsided, the event organizers and several police officers escorted us into the middle of the road, stopping traffic in both directions. The march to the White House was on. Iranians, young and old, piled into the street, unperturbed by the steady rain. One protest sign towered above the rest: “It was Selection, Not Election.” That one seemed to say it all.

I marched with them for several blocks before peeling off. I stepped onto the curb and watched the long train of protestors pass, their signs and umbrellas bobbing in the gray, stormy day. More signs read, “Free Iran!” and “Democracy for Iran!” The marchers passed, their eyes bright with expectation for a new Iran.

I held up my very green and very wet “Where’s My Vote” sign, my fingers smeared with green finger paint, my armband hanging loose.  And when I held up two fingers, forming the Victory sign, they cheered as they went by, happy for an expression of solidarity during hard times.

As I stood there in the rain, I recalled Chee Siok Chin’s recent posting on Singapore Democrats, “Foreigners on Foreign Issues in Singapore.”  She’d written that Burmese living in Singapore had been prohibited from protesting repression in Burma under Singapore law.

“Just because they are not Singaporeans, people cannot express their support for what is right?” she asked. “Is that what we are teaching our children? In an internationalised world where movement of people [is] much more pronounced is it reasonable to expect other nationals to remain silent about what goes on in their home countries?”

Watching protestors flowing by calling for free and fair elections, I would say most definitely not. Why? Because a violation of human rights anywhere is a violation of human rights everywhere. That’s the truth of it. People must be free to speak against injustice everywhere and anywhere, no matter where they live or what nationality they identify with.

We must remain free to stand in solidarity for the fundamental rights of all people everywhere, whether they live in Singapore or Iran or Belarus or anywhere else. Why? Because we should all be caring citizens of one world.

Timothy Cooper is Executive Director of Worldrights. He contributed this piece to the SDP’s website.