It was an unusual Sunday evening on Ketagalan Boulevard (凱達格蘭大道). A rally of about 20,000 participants was in its fifth hour, and demonstrators from across the country were taking turns on a platform telling the crowd their stories of forced land expropriation and other social injustices.
“Something is going to happen tonight,” a man standing next to me said.
Something out of the ordinary did happen that Sunday night last month: After the rally, nearly a thousand protesters broke into the Ministry of the Interior’s (MOI) compound.
A sense of euphoria was in the air. The trespassers greeted each other with smiles, commenting on how “cool” and “awesome” it was to be able to ambush the government building. Stickers and graffiti soon covered the building’s walls, windows and sidewalks. Outside the main entrance, a group of art students started spray-painting the ground, depicting a bulldozer broken down by dropping ears of rice.
Students and young protesters were not the only ones who joined the break-in. “I come with my girlfriends,” a middle-aged woman in high heels and carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag told me. Across the plaza, a toddler wearing a Guy Fawkes mask won unanimous praise and affection.
After a brief initial confrontation, the outnumbered police stood guard in and around the building and watched the demonstrators from a distance. Some took a rest near the flagpole, on which the national flag had been replaced by a banner that read: “Fuck the Government.”
The “occupation” of the MOI building ended peacefully 20 hours later, on Monday evening. It marked the first time that Taiwan Rural Front (TRF, 台灣農村陣線), the rally’s main organizer, formally called on the public to engage in civil disobedience against government policies.
TRF says their decision to launch a civil disobedience campaign was not made lightly.
“It was a long process, and we had held to our belief in communicating with the government and making improvements within the system,” says TRF spokeswoman Frida Tsai (蔡培慧) to the Taipei Times.
For years, TRF worked with victims of the government’s forced land seizures and pushed for amendments to the Land Expropriation Act (土地徵收條例), which the activists believe has become a tool of money politics. Their effort led to a promise made three years ago by then-premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) and then-minister of the interior Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) that four homes in Dapu Borough (大埔) of Miaoli County’s Jhunan Township (竹南) would be preserved. It turned out to be another broken promise by politicians.
On July 18, Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) unexpectedly sent in demolition squads escorted by police officers to tear down four houses in Dapu. At the same time, the affected home owners and their supporters protested the demolition plan on Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei. Protesting Dapu residents like Peng Hsiu-chun (彭秀春) didn’t have a chance to pack; everything they owned was lost, buried under layers of debris that was once their homes.
“They still demolished the houses. We were angry. We felt that if the government refuses to change, then it must know that we will stop playing by the rules,” says Tsai.
On the evening of July 18, TRF research staff member Hsu Po-jen (許博任) posted the itineraries of Wu, Jiang, Liu and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to the group’s Facebook page so that “people knew where to go to vent their anger.” “It was not planned or thoroughly discussed. It was a spur-of-the moment decision,” Hsu says.