On Tehran's Streets: Defiance and a Crushing Response

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Iranian women raise their arms in protest as demonstrators burn rubbish in the streets in Tehran

Nearly two weeks of silence on the streets of Tehran were broken in the evening of July 9 when thousands marched through the central districts of the Iranian capital to protest the June 12 presidential election. Another anniversary helped precipitate the show of apparent defiance: the 10th anniversary of a bloody student uprising that was brutally put down by the government. Despite threats earlier in the day of a "crushing" response, men, women and even some children went onto the streets with chants of "Death to the dictator" and "Mousavi, Mousavi!"

But the response was indeed crushing. Members of the élite Revolutionary Guard and the dreaded paramilitary group the Basij rushed the initial crowd gathered at Enqelab (Revolution) Square with batons at around 5 p.m. One woman who was fleeing the scene had bloodstains on her white skirt splattered from demonstrators nearby. But pockets of protesters numbering in the hundreds soon resurfaced along many of the main streets north and east of Enqelab Square and in the city's main squares.

Soldiers in riot gear shot tear gas at the demonstrators and attempted to quell the crowds by storming entire blocks with squads of 25 to 50 men each. But shopkeepers along the streets provided refuge for the protesters behind metal doors, allowing the demonstrators to reappear on the same streets to the cheers and honks from people in cars who had jammed the streets. Those unable to find safety, however, were beaten mercilessly with wooden batons by the attack squads.

Around Laleh Park, which was the heart of the demonstration, several undercover Basij members emerged from the crowd wielding collapsible batons to beat those who were recording the events on cell-phone cameras. At one point, a stocky thug, wearing a baseball cap and a surgical mask to conceal his identity, emerged threateningly only to retreat after the crowd surged around him, yelling "Please stop" in unison. Meanwhile, not far away, a squad of Revolutionary Guards angrily demanded to be let into an upscale hotel that many protesters had escaped into.

By 7 p.m., the streets resembled an urban war zone, the air hazy from tear gas and the smoke of burning trash heaps set afire by protesters. But despite the overwhelming security force and the shutdown of all mobile networks, the protesters seemed undeterred. With many in the crowd making peace signs with their hands and chanting "Allahu akbar" (God is great), one woman in her 50s standing on Kargar Street motioned to them and said proudly, "This is Iran."

For a few hours, the energy of the crowds seemed infinite, undiminished by the baton-wielding Basij zipping by on motorbikes. One student stood resolutely on the sidewalk of Fatemi Street and said, "We will not give up. First, Ahmadinejad. Then Khamenei. Then freedom."

For the most part, the crowd remained nonviolent, though at one point young men began to throw rocks from an alley at passing soldiers. When the small group of soldiers retreated, the man in front of the protesters threw up his hands in victory to the cheers of the crowd. As a procession of men carrying flower arrangements commemorating the 1999 student uprising went by, a bystander explained that these men were the first to be attacked.

But as night fell, the Revolutionary Guard and Basij surged in numbers, swarming through nearly all of Tehran's main streets and into the alleys, where protesters ran for haven. By 9 p.m., it was over. Save for burning trash cans and broken glass, the streets were empty of foot traffic, though plenty of cars continued to crawl along the major boulevards (apparently the security forces targeted only people on foot).

Gangs of Basij motorcyclists, often numbering in the dozens, swerved in and out of the traffic, some with their helmets off and their batons in the air, shouting in victory. At Vanak Square, one of the main sites of the protest, soldiers lined the roundabout every five feet with perhaps a hundred more gathered on the sidewalks. Dozens of Revolutionary Guard vans were parked at Enqelab Square and Vanak Square, along with similar numbers of security forces. Iran's opposition movement believes today could mark the beginning of a new wave of public demonstrations and resistance. But for government forces, it was business as usual. On Enqelab Square, where the Islamic revolution of 1979 had its beginning, members of the Basij were seen calmly eating sandwiches and joking with each other.

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