My Day With the Cleaners

I woke up late as I’d arrived back in Malaysia late the night before. On the way home from KL Sentral, the city streets were conspicuously empty. There were hardly any cars at all. I found out that the government had ordered the police to set up road blocks along all roads leading into the central KL area.

I spent the first hour or two after waking up at a nearby restaurant, using the wifi there to follow what had been happening on Twitter. The Petaling Street and Central Market area seemed to be busy and accessible. At 2pm, I decided to leave, Plaza Rakyat was the place to begin.

At Cempaka station, police had stopped a man and were checking his bags. I wondered if this had any connection to Bersih. At the station counter I asked for a ticket to Plaza Rakyat but was told that it had been closed. I was told the closest station to Plaza Rakyat that was open was Bandaraya so I bought a ticket to Bandaraya.

On the train, announcements informed passengers that Hang Tuah, Plaza Rakyat and Masjid Jamek LRT stations had all been closed and the train would be skipping those stations. I sent an sms out to some friends to see where they were at and received a reply saying, “Pudu is vendetta”. I decided to get off at Pudu instead of going all the way through to Bandaraya.

The section of Jalan Pudu between Jalan Pasar and Jalan Imbi was empty. No traffic, no shops open, the only people around were those who had just got off the train at Pudu to walk somewhere else that wasn’t that area of Jalan Pudu.

At Jalan Imbi, I watched a group of people march from near Hang Tuah LRT station and turn left onto Jalan Pudu, towards Puduraya. People on the side of the road watched them walk by, waving, chanting “Bersih” and some left the side of the road and joined the marching group. The group then stopped for a while at the corner of Jalan Pudu and Jalan Bukit Bintang.

At the same time, the “Patriot” counter-protest group, made up mostly of UMNO Youth members, was making its way down Jalan Bukit Bintang toward Jalan Pudu.

The Bersih group then made their way down Jalan Pudu but turned into some backstreets adjacent to Jalan Pudu, presumably to avoid a police line along Jalan Pudu near the hospital. I didn’t follow this group as it had began raining and I didn’t really feel like getting stuck in the rain. I joined the rest of the ‘spectators’ standing under shopfront awnings at the bottom of Jalan Bukit Bintang.

As Patriot continued a slow march down Jalan Bukit Bintang the FRU had arrived. The police pushed the ‘spectators’ behind their line formed at the bottom of Jalan Bukit Bintang. I watched from behind the police line.

Patriot and the police clashed. Solidly linking arms, Patriot seemed to easily break through the police line before a tear gas canister had been detonated. A group of us who had been watching from just behind the police line huddled into a nearby doorway. We held towels, bandanas, scarves and whatever else we had with us to our faces trying to reduce the effects of the tear gas.

Patriot retreated back up Jalan Bukit Bintang and as the teargas cleared we left the doorway. I managed to find some friends at that moment and since the rain had calmed we left to find the Bersih march.

After walking down Jalan Imbi, various back streets, and crossing Jalan Bukit Bintang where the police and Patriot were still facing off, we found some Bersih people down in Changkat area. A taxi driver drove past and raised his fist out the window chanting “Bersih!”

At this moment, I received an sms saying, “People takeover the hosp.”

At the corner of Jalan Nagasari various small groups converged and we tried to figure out where to go next. Some said to walk Jalan Nagasari, others to go back toward Jalan Bukit Bintang – which would have been a bad idea because that’s where the FRU and Patriot were facing off. Deciding against making our way to the hospital on Jalan Pudu we joined a group of a few hundred people making their way up Jalan Nagasari. Along Jalan Nagasari we stopped at a mamak restaurant to watch the TV news about Bersih before jogging up the hill to Jalan Raja Chulan.

At Jalan Raja Chulan we converged with a  much larger group that was heading toward Jalan Sultan Ismail. The group turned left into Jalan Sultan Ismail, heading toward Bukit Nanas. We took over all six lanes of the road and spread back as far as I could see and as far forward as I could see. There were at least a couple of thousand marching down Jalan Sultan Ismail.

For the next hour or so, there was almost zero police presence at all. A few thousand of protesters were marching down Jalan Sultan Ismail across all six lanes and no police in sight. We kept on walking. Walking and chanting.

Apart from the usual chants of “Hidup! Hidup! Hidup Rakyat!” and its Bersih counterpart, “Hidup! Hidup! Hidup Bersih!”, there were also regular chants of “Takbir! Allahu akbar!”. My Chinese friend and I would just smile at each other, and share a look that said, “Yep, this chant’s not for us.”

I always find moments like this fascinating. Events such as protest marches, street festivals and Reclaim the Streets parties. When roads open up not as places for cars to dominate but for people to gather and socialise. The way a city looks and feels changes so dramatically when people replace cars on the streets. I find it always comes with the realisation that something seems a little bit wrong when a huge proportion of our public space is roads for cars.

With all the walking and chanting, I started to wonder what we were actually doing. Where were we going? What were we going to do when we got there? What were we actually trying to accomplish with everything we were doing? Were we still trying to go to Stadium Merdeka? Were we just looking to start a fight with the police? But what would be the point of searching out a heavily policed zone when we already had the streets of KL all to ourselves? For a little while it did start to feel like we were just walking aimlessly around.

Past Bukit Nanas we turned into Jalan Ampang and after we met with another really big group who had just come from another assembly point closer to Dataran Merdeka and Petaling Street. The numbers grew. It was huge.

We stopped for a while. And tried to figure out where to go next. Well, we didn’t really figure out where to go next, someone else did. I’m not sure who this someone else was, and how they went about making decisions. We started walking back the way we came. But after a few hundred metres we all stopped again. Messages to go this way, that way, this way, were yelled up and down along the crowd and we stayed still for a few minutes. A police helicopter flew past.

After the few minutes of not moving in any direction along Jalan Ampang, that someone or those someones who were figuring out which way to go had figured out to go toward KLCC. So we continued marching along Jalan Ampang to KLCC. Still, besides for the helicopter flying by every now and then there was no sign of police at all.

When we arrived at KLCC there was still no sign of police anywhere. Most people sat at the intersection of Jalan Ampang and Jalan P Ramlee. Others were standing around the large sitting crowd. People were chanting, singing Negaraku and just hanging around.

After about 20 minutes, or what felt like twenty minutes, it may have only actually been five minutes, a helicopter flew overhead and suddenly a large numbers of people started running. It took me a while to realise that the FRU had arrived. Some ran down Jalan Ampang in the direction of Ampang Park, others ran in the direction of KLCC. I made my way to KLCC. As I walked, people were jumping over walls and through gardens, others were caught and held by undercover police. I saw a few young men and women being picked out by the police.

At KLCC it was safe enough to stop moving and turn back to watch what was happening on Jalan Ampang. A line of FRU police were marching down Jalan Ampang followed by the water cannon spraying its chemical-laced water.

As one half of the crowded were pushed further down Jalan Ampang, I followed the other part of the crowd past KLCC into KLCC Park. It was about 4:30pm and the azan from the masjid in KLCC Park signalled time for Asar prayer. Many people went into the masjid while others hung out in the park, resting and rehydrating.

I was hoping that this would be just a break for rest and/or prayer and the people would soon be back out on the streets.

One of my friends had received news from other friends that there were still people out on Jalan Ampang near Ampang Park. We tried to make our way there from KLCC Park but a side street would have taken us right into the FRU line – on the wrong side. We walked around the block in another direction and found many friends outside the 7Eleven on Jalan Ampang not far from KLCC.

After waiting around, hoping the masjid would empty on to the streets, one of my friends told me it was over. Apparently the steering committee had called it off. I was a bit disappointed. Why stop now? There’s still 1000s of people around, surely we can regroup somwhere or split off into several smaller decentralised groups.

We continued sitting outside the 7Eleven. Catching up with more friends who came by and not really sure what to do or where to go next. Over the next 30 minutes, more people began to walk up and down Jalan Ampang. The restaurants and shops were all still closed except for that one 7Eleven.

Some of us walked back up to KLCC. Outside, police paraded around on horseback in front of an onlooking group with their cameras out. I think it was their way of telling the shoppers that everything was ok. Don’t panic. Everything is back to normal.

Inside KLCC everything was normal. Shopping and business as usual. You wouldn’t think that less than an hour ago the shopping centre entrance had been closed off and just outside thousands of people peacefully assembled had been attacked by police shooting tear gas and spraying chemical laced water.

Walking through this scene of normality, on a day that wasn’t so normal at all, I was quiet and lost in my thoughts. What happens tomorrow? What happens on Sunday? Is everything the way it was before?

I like to think it won’t be the same as it was before. Sure, Najib will still be prime minister as head of UMNO, capitalism will rule and all those big things won’t just disappear before tomorrow. But maybe some little things will stick with us. The reminder that Malaysian democracy is presently nonexistent. That 1Malaysia exists not in an UMNO-led Barisan Nasional but for a few hours it existed in the streets. That we had just been a part of one of the biggest demonstrations seen in Malaysia despite the police’s attempt to lockdown KL.

We just have to look after those little things. Those little changes and make sure they aren’t forgotten or lost. Encourage their growth and keep on adding. To continue to expand Bersih beyond just a Pakatan Rakyat movement or a Reformasi movement but into a real democratic people’s movement.

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