By Zan Dubin-Scott with Britt
Going through old photos this morning, I came across a reminder of the most exciting, unexpected article I ever wrote for the Los Angeles Times (as a staff writer back when I was, ha, young). It’s this photo of “The Goddess of Democracy,” a towering statue hastily made in June, 1989 by a Los Angeles artist.
I’d gotten a tip the night before the statue went up that LA artist Tom Van Sant designed a statue in solidarity with the Chinese pro-democracy protesters who heroically stood up to Chinese authoritarianism. With the help of colleagues, Van Sant erected the statue on a footbridge next to the downtown Los Angeles city hall. I showed up the next morning to see the magnificent 23-foot sculpture atop the bridge as reporters from all over assembled in awe. Even the Associated Press were there, as the world had been watching the demonstrations for weeks.
These pro-democracy demonstrations ended with the Tienanmen Square Massacre, which took place on June 4th, 1989. No one knows for sure how many people died that day. It could be hundreds, or it could be thousands. The Chinese government admitted to 300 deaths of students, soldiers, and innocent bystanders. There were claims that 5000 police and over 2000 civilians were injured. The government also asserted no tanks drove over the protesters and that no deaths occurred in Tienanmen Square. An official denial.
You’ll remember this piece of history best from the iconic photograph of the unidentified Chinese man standing alone to block a line of tanks in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square. He was calling on the Chinese government to end its violence and bloodshed against the demonstrators.
What you may not remember, is that the student-led democracy protests were part of a larger social movement for democratic reform that started a few years earlier. General Secretary Hu Yaobang had been forced to resign due to his sympathetic attitude toward the proposed reforms, and he died soon afterwards. Beginning on April 15th, 1989, protests began in Tienanmen Square after students had gathered to mourn Hu’s sudden death.
The police were violent with the protesters, and this violence seemed to encourage more students to join in. By April 21st, there were 100,000 students occupying Tienanmen Square. By May 13th, there were 300,000 protesters, and a hunger strike had begun. By the 18th of May, there were a million protesters in Beijing and 400 smaller protests across China. Several unions, organizations, some party officials, and some police joined with the protesters. On the 19th of May, the government chose to declare martial law. The protesters refused to end their hunger strike or leave Tienanmen Square. They were determined that their nation would accept their call for democratic reforms.
It was decided that Tienanmen Square would be cleared by force in the early hours of June 4th. Tanks and soldiers descended on Beijing. Shots were fired into the crowds using expanding bullets, which are meant to create larger and more destructive wounds. Both protesters and bystanders were killed, and the surrounding apartment buildings were sprayed with bullets, killing uninvolved people in their own homes. The students were made to disperse or be killed. The soldiers shot at anyone who tried to come back, including at parents who came looking for their children.
The Goddess of Democracy was immediately destroyed after the soldiers cleared the pro-democracy protesters from the square. She didn’t die, though. Her image was re-created in various locales around the world. There is even a permanent monument to her in Washington D.C.
Britt and I both see parallels here to those protesting against police brutality and working for equality through Black Lives Matter and wanted to mark the Tienanmen anniversary before June ends.
The Black Lives Matter and the Tienanmen Square protests have similarities. They might be seeking different types of reforms, but the Black Lives Matter protests have unnerved the Administration in the same way the Tienanmen Square protests frightened the leadership in China. Considering the increasing invective from the White House against largely peaceful protesters, they would do well to take a lesson from Tienanmen Square.
The American people, like the Chinese, will have little tolerance for an unjust use of force against the peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Already, we have witnessed a harsh rebuke for actions taken in Lafayette Square where protesters were forcibly removed.
More importantly, when the people mobilize for democratic reforms there is no stopping these reforms. China did not prevent reforms by killing protesters, and neither will the current Administration be able to prevent reforms to the police and policing.
Whether this Administration ends in four months, or four years, it will end. Whatever messes were made will be cleaned up and this last dying gasp of American white nationalism will be extinguished. The whole world is watching America struggle, and just like the world supported the Chinese students in 1989, the world is supporting Black Lives Matters. It is the start of a new century, and Americans must decide if they want to be a part of it. They will.
In 1989, the Los Angeles city officials, while sympathetic to the cause, were concerned that the un-permitted Goddess of Democracy statue was a safety hazard. Towering far above the pedestrian walkway, it might have fallen and injured someone. An emergency council meeting was scheduled right then and there because something had to be done.
That’s where the most unexpected part of the story comes in. As we were all assembled in chamber quarters, LA went and had one of her famous earthquakes. This was 31 years ago now, but I think I remember all of us rushing outside to see if the statue had toppled. It had not. Much to the artists’ gratification, the city council moved to help have her anchored down and then moved to less precarious ground, where she was to stay for 90 days.
The next part I remember quite well: Afterwards, I rushed back to the office to write up the story with my colleague Paul Feldman. He came up with a metaphorical and poetic line to describe the moderate quake’s impact: “The statue remained unbowed.”
Change is coming and nothing will stop it. Not earthquakes, not a global pandemic, not white nationalism, not bullets.