Police respond to high schoolers protesters on Hungary’s March 15 national holiday

March 16, 2018

Police respond to high schoolers protesters on Hungary's March 15 national holiday
Participants of the March 15 student protest on Budapest’s Andrássy Boulevard | Photo: MTI/Zoltán Balogh

On Thursday, a few hours after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech on Kossuth Square, the “I am a student” movement held a protest at the State Opera House on Andrássy Boulevard. The movement is an offshoot of Hungary’s Independent Student Government (FDP). From there, the students moved along to the National Museum and the former headquarters of the Hungarian public radio, before finally being trapped by police officers for blocking traffic on Rákoczi Boulevard.

At the Opera House, speakers recited Hungary’s National Song, spoke of their dissatisfaction that the government ignores the concerns of students, declared that they would no longer tolerate the government’s shunning of their opinions, and encouraged those present to vote in Hungary’s general election on April 8.

Speakers included FDP representatives Blanka Nagy and Viktor Gyetvai. But several notable civil society figures were also in attendance, including representatives from the I Would Teach Movement (Tanítanék Mozgalom), Katalin Törley and Blanka Sulyok, Teachers Democratic Union president László Mendrey, and History Teachers Association president László Miklósi.

Three speakers then recited the FDP’s 12 demands, which they had made public in January, and announced a 13th demand: that the government provide education independent of any single worldview.

Anett Tiszai, one of the founders of szavazz.info.hu, encouraged everyone to go vote and recommended that undecided voters check out her organization’s website if they need more information.

Viktor Gyetvai spoke of the importance of the April 8 election and condemned segregation in Hungary’s school system.

“We have one shared cause,” he said. “We want to be able to learn and work in a normal setting [in Hungary] because we love this country, he said.

“If we are capable of…rejecting all forms of oppression…Hungary will be a happy and democratic country.”

At around 6:45pm, the young protesters left the Opera House and headed toward the National Museum, chanting:

  • “Orbán, get out of here!”
  • “You will be ousted!”
  • “Vásárhely!” — referring to Fidesz’s defeat in the recent Hódmezővásárhely by-election
  • “Viktátor!”
  • “Free country, free education!”
  • “Europe!”
  • “[Minister of Human Resources] Zoltán Balog resign!”
  • “Join us!”

When the crowd arrived at the National Museum, the FDP again recited its list of demands. Meanwhile, a small group of protesters climbed the stairs of the National Museum and waved two flags: a pirate flag and an EU flag.

After reading the demands, FDP spokesman Dániel Kálló tried to get the crowd to chant “Equality!”, but the crowd opted instead for “Ruskies, go home!”

The protesters recited the National Song, the chanting continued, and then the crowd was asked for – and granted – a moment of silence. Following that, the crowd sang the national anthem and Gyetvai thanked them for attending.

He closed with a play on the National Song’s refrain, and asked “Should we be prisoners or voters,” — referring to the general election next month.

When the protest ended, a portion of the crowd broke off and headed towards the former headquarters of Hungary’s public radio. A protest at this building is always symbolic because it is where the 1956 uprising was started.

A witness tells the Beacon that the crowd, which numbered “a few hundred,”  was escorted by police. Upon arriving at the site, a handful of protesters lunged at the building, taunting the police officers, but nothing serious happened. No protesters assaulted the police, no damage was done to the building. A few high schoolers made noise with their megaphones and drums.

After a few minutes, our witness says, the crowd made its way towards Rákoczi Boulevard via side streets, some of which where blocked off by police in what appeared to be an attempt to herd the crowd together.

“The police were closing in. The protesters could feel it,” our witness says. “Tensions were rising.”

When the protesters arrived on Rákoczi Boulevard and started crossing the street, some laid down in the intersection, blocking traffic. By that point, our witness says, there were around 100 protesters at the scene.

After about 10 minutes, the police formed a line and drove the protesters up the sidewalk, trapping them in on all sides. This move cleared the way for automobile traffic, but people who weren’t even part of the protest also wound up stuck in the police trap.

Nothing happened for several minutes, and the protesters were confused. After a while, the police started checking everyone’s ID cards.

“People were mad,” our witness says, adding that the police significantly outnumbered the crowd. “They wanted to see everyone’s ID, even members of the press.”

As our witness understood, the legal basis for ID-ing the crowd was that the protesters obstructed traffic. Police told the protesters that they would review video footage of the protest to determine who was responsible for blocking traffic.

“It was just really weird. It seemed to me like they were just tired of following around the protesters and the number was low enough to where they could end the protest,” our witness says. “The police were just following around a bunch of high schoolers and activists. It’s not like this was a violent protest.”