At 4 p.m. the Iranian government broke up an attempted memorial service at a cemetery, but very soon after, tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of central Tehran the night of July 30, overwhelming Iran's feared security forces. The crowds burned tires, honked horns, waved peace signs and chanted, "Death to the dictators." Because the demonstrators gathered in several neighborhoods throughout the capital as well as at the country's largest cemetery, 12 miles (20 km) south of the city center, the Basij paramilitary and Revolutionary Guards could not cover enough ground to control the growing crowds one of the largest outpourings in recent weeks, albeit spread about the city. The protests even continued into the city's subway system as many participants hurried back into the city from the aborted prayer service at Behesht-e Zahra cemetery. "Tehran was our town today," exclaimed a 26-year-old woman. "We had more courage and the police less courage."
Indeed, at moments, the streets seemed to belong only to the demonstrators. "At times," said a resident, "I would see hundreds of people all gathered, some on staircases that headed up hills to nearby parks, not watching but participating. There would be 45 minutes of seeing this every 250 m or so. All without one riot cop." The resident said, "I kept wondering, Where the hell were they? Did the government tell them to lay off?"
It was in sharp contrast to recent cat-and-mouse street clashes that protesters stood their ground, using vinegar-soaked rags and surgical masks to deal with tear gas and quickly re-emerging from alleyways during charges by Revolutionary Guards dressed in black riot gear and wielding batons. Several of the protesters interviewed said they had read lengthy handbooks distributed via e-mail on how to act in street protests.
The forces of intimidation may have been spread thin, but when they were present, they were just as brutal as before. Basij gangs on red motorcycles roared through the Vanak Square chasing protesters with batons. There were reports of gunshots. But the fervor of the crowds won over even some businesses worried about appearing to collaborate with the opposition. One hotel had refused to let protesters seek refuge from the Basij on its premises until a young man rushed past with blood pouring down his head. At that point, the hotel opened its doors to the crowd.
The opposition had scheduled the protests for July 30 to mark the 40-day anniversary a religiously significant day in the Islamic mourning cycle of the death of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, whose last moments were captured on video and circulated around the world. The regime has been deeply concerned about the commemoration of her death. Similar 40-day anniversaries in 1979 fueled the unrest that led to the ouster of the Shah and onset of the Islamic revolution.
Despite Thursday's ostensibly being a day of mourning, the mood on the streets was almost jubilant. A 2-year-old flashed the peace sign from a car on the jammed Haqqani Expressway. Groups of women waved green banners above their heads near Vanak Square. Protesters near Motahari Street, once they realized that nearby riot forces had been recalled to the massive Imam Khomeini Mosalla (mosque) prayer complex, burned tires and chanted all sorts of seditious phrases, including "Die Mojtaba" (a reference to the second son of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, thought by many to be groomed as his successor), "Death to the dictators" and "Down with Russia." "It's out of control," said a university student with glee.
Protests occurred near many central squares, including Ferdowsi, Tajrish and Punak, and throughout the Abbas Abad neighborhood surrounding the Mosalla. According to eyewitnesses, there were demonstrations outside the capital as well: in Rasht in northern Iran, oil-rich Ahvaz in the west and Isfahan in central Iran.
The crowds in Tehran did not disperse until sundown. "At about 8 p.m.," said an eyewitness, "I went through Vanak again and saw the Mad Max army of [Basij] motor bikes amassed," taking control of the city once more. "But for a few hours," the witness said, "I saw a look in many people's faces that I had not seen since the week after the election a look that said, 'We can win this.'"
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