September 28 to 29 — This is What Democracy Looks Like

Observations and thoughts from Occupy Central.

The tram Marc and I were riding came to a complete standstill. Ahead of us, a massive traffic jam of trams and vehicles stretched into the distance. Nothing was moving any time soon.

Our friend Puck, on his way to the airport, sent a text message. “What’s happening? Nothing is moving here.”

We left the tram and took the MTR to Admiralty. Announcements looped throughout the station. “Attention. Due to overcrowding at Exit A, passingers are advised to use alternative exits.” Exit A it was, then.

Outside, huge numbers of protestors were gathered on Connaught Road, a six-lane freeway that is the primary vehicular artery for the island of Hong Kong. Traffic was completely stopped in both directions, and as crowds had grown, stuck buses became encircled by citizens.

The number of people there was a mystery, the size of the crowd lost in a sea of heads, in every direction.

I won’t try to provide political background on Occupy Central, because other people have already done a much better job.

Who are the protestors?

Over the next several hours, Marc and I walked around, watched, and talked with several of the people who had turned out. Here are portraits of some of them. (Photos taken at night are black and white, because of white balance issues.)

The protests at the Central Government offices began as student protests, and many of the people there are students. But they have now been joined by Hongkongers of all kinds.

Surgical masks and plastic wrap, distributed widely among the crowd, provide makeshift protection from potential chemical attacks.

After coming too close for comfort to the pepper spray police were using at the front lines, Marc and I walk towards Central, worlds apart from Admiralty. Filipino women are staging dance lessons and picnics in the park, enjoying their Sunday holiday. It’s worth noting that these are Hong Kong’s truly disenfranchised people — allowed to work but denied any path to permanent residency.

At around 5:30pm, Marc goes home, and I, alone, start walking back towards Admiralty. A young man runs the opposite direction on Connaught Road, shouting “the police used teargas, three times!” Still, I join the many that continue their determined walk towards the center of the protest.

The situation at Admiralty actually seems calmer than it did previously. Both the protestors and the police seem entrenched and static. There are no red flags of warning visible, shouting their declarative threat, “Stop your advance, or we use force.”

I talk to people, and explore the protest site. The Hong Kong city bus that has been stopped in traffic all day is now being used as a quiet place for cell phone conversations, and an observation deck of sort for the occupation below.

I am walking up the elevated part of Connaught Road, when three shots ring out. Simultaneously, everyone turns to look, as huge clouds of tear gas rise up around us. The wind blows it away from me and the people standing nearby, thankfully, and the mass of people begins to retreat. On this elevated highway, there is nowhere to go. I can feel the panic welling up inside me, and the fear of what might happen if anyone succumbs to that panic.

Three more shots, and I see smoke trail through the air as gas canisters land in front of and to the right of me. Even with the wind blowing the majority of the gas away from me, I can feel the acrid fumes burning my nose and lungs. I close my eyes and try to follow the crowd. Finally, I am able to jump down from the highway, and move to relative safety on the side of the road.

When the police started firing tear gas, I left. After all, it’s not my democracy to fight for. But then I started thinking — maybe there’s something that I can learn from this.

Here in Hong Kong, tens of thousands of people, young and old, without a democracy, a fighting a seemingly intractable government for the one they were promised. And, they are doing it with impressive determination, steadfast non-violence, and at great personal risk.

I found it easy to see the protestors as naive. It certainly seems unlikely that President Xi Jinping will backdown from the original decision about Hong Kong’s democracy, no matter how angry Hongkongers are. And, didn’t we try this? They’re even borrowing the name, despite the success, or lack thereof, of our movement. But where I can see naiveté, I can also see great optimism, an optimism that is difficult to find in America.

In America, there’s a growing a sense that we too are without a democracy. That our political system is broken, politicians are bought and sold, and voter influence nil. And what are we doing about it? The problem at home is complicated and seemingly intractable, and most people my age, the same age as the protestors in Hong Kong, feel hopeless and fatalistic about our future.

Can this be changed? I know that this is not an uncommon thought, so I’d love to read what other people have written, and see what other people are doing to combat this sense of resignation. Comment here, and I’ll add suggestions, ideas, and thoughts to this post.

In what seems to have been a political miscalculation by the Hong Kong government, and possibly by Beijing, the use of “appropriate violence” has galvanized support for the students.

Michelle Chow, 53, said she was shocked the police used violence against peaceful students who kept their hands above their heads.
“How could the police say the students were crashing against you when you were in fact pushing forth against them?” said Chow, who came in the evening. “It’s my civil responsibility to show support for the students. The government must be scared if it uses such irrational force.”
Kenneth Kwok, 23, an IT worker, said he decided to come after seeing the first tear gas shot.
“It’s necessary for Hongkongers to stand united and support these non-violent students against excessive force,” he said. “You can tell how irresponsible the government is by evading the public after all these people came out.”
Colby Lee, a 20-year-old student, said he felt an urge to come after seeing the tear gas shots.
“The turnout matters. No one knows what the police will do if there aren’t more people coming,” he said.
(From the South China Morning Post)

Today, on Monday, the atmosphere on Harcourt Road has completely changed. There is minimal police presence. Groups of people sit along the side of the expressway, sharing food and drink, and the whole place feels almost like a picnic.

The ground crews have organized significantly, and tents full of supplies line the roadway. Police barricades have been repurposed into a makeshift ladder for crossing the Jersey barriers, and volunteers help people across. Schoolgirls and volunteer nurses walk up and down distributing face masks, water, fresh fruit and first aid.

And there are more people here.

A lot more. I’m no expert at estimating crowd sizes, but I would guess at least three to five times as many as last night. Crowds of substantial density now stretch for a kilometer, from Central to Wan Chai.

The massive crowd cheers in waves as someone unfurls a Hong Kong flag from a distant overpass. Football fields away, I can hardly see it. But I can still feel the energy, the optimism, and the ownership of this moment. The very presence of everyone here seems to be saying “this is our Hong Kong, and our future is malleable. Our future is ours.”

Let’s hope, for Hong Kong’s sake, that their future really is. And, let’s hope, for America’s sake, that we can find that same sense of empowerment over our own country’s future.

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