Nov 1st, 2022, 09:00 AM

American Organizers Need to Take a Page From Hong Kong's Book

By Kelly Russo
Protesters in Hong Kong crouch in a line in the middle of the street, as if preparing for battle. Most protesters are wearing helmets and gas masks. Many of them are holding makeshift shields and umbrellas. A sign in the center reads "Shield of Democracy"
Image Credit: Flickr/Studio Incendo
Powerful protests drive democratic progress.

One of the most enduring threats to China’s regime, as it turns out, is the umbrella. An image that now serves as the rallying cry of democracy movements in Hong Kong, umbrellas also serve a utilitarian purpose—to defend protesters from rubber bullets, tear gas, and other weapons used by military and police. The spread of the umbrella as a tool in Hong Kong’s protests highlights something missing in contemporaneous American movements—coordination and community. 

These missing elements were felt deeply during nationwide 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, where Amnesty International reported 125 incidents of excessive force used against protesters. On the whole, protesters were unprepared and unprotected in the face of such brutality. Ahead of the next social movement in the US, organizers must create a framework to increase protester preparedness, spread responsibilities among the community, and utilize new technologies that will allow them to be more safe and successful. 

In doing so, they should look to Hong Kong, where organizers learned from their mistakes to create one of the most successful protest movements the world has seen yet. 

Image Credit: Flickr/Tracy Lee

Adapting protest styles and adopting new technologies

In 2014, Hong Kongers made headlines for pro-democracy protests that were dubbed "the Umbrella Movement.” The 79-day-long protests arose following the introduction of a policy that would effectively ensure Hong Kongers could only vote for politicians who had been green-lit by the Chinese government. During those months, up to roughly 100,000 protesters occupied parts of the city that were integral to government, shopping, and major transportation at any given time. 

Ultimately, the Umbrella Movement failed to move the government, with observers categorizing the root of these failures into several categories—lack of economic strain incurred by protests, infighting, and the arrest of its seven main leaders. But as police cleared the last protesters from occupation “villages,” they were left with one last message—”we will be back.”

When protestors indeed returned in 2019, they did things differently. Organizers took inspiration from martial arts icon Bruce Lee and equipped their peers with one guiding principle: be water. The concept was simple. Be fluid, be one, and be ready to dissipate as quickly as you arrived. Using technology like Telegram—an encrypted messaging app that allows up to 200,000 members per group—organizers created a guerilla-style movement that allowed protesters to avoid unnecessary clashing with police. As police aimed to locate where protests were springing up, citizens used live maps to report and track movements of police forces. When the police headed their way, protesters dispersed and regrouped elsewhere. 

In addition to diffusing direct conflicts, this cat-and-mouse game enabled protesters to drain energy and resources from government efforts to quell protests. It also provided them with a greater sense of control and success, allowing them to remain engaged over longer periods of time. Organizers across the US should consider how this strategy might play out across the geography of their cities and should investigate technology that would allow protesters to remain in communication. 

Image Credit: Flickr/Studio Incendo

Decentralizing leadership and engaging communities in critical protest functions

Historically, protesters in both the US and Hong Kong often showed up to rallies as attendees rather than active contributors. There is much to be learned from how Hong Kongers created volunteer opportunities for everyday protesters and decentralized their decision-making. 

Decisions about where and when to hold protests were made via Telegram polls. Decisions to disperse could be quickly voted on and communicated via both Telegram and AirDrop. When incoming police seemed likely to collide with protesters, behind-the-screens activists were prepared to share door codes for nearby apartments—allowing protesters to disappear as if into thin air. 

Peaceful protesters who did not want to participate in more dangerous protests or who had special skills could take on a number of volunteer roles: first aid, citizen journalist, behind-the-scenes logistics preparation, and more. Perhaps most importantly, the protesters took a communal vow: “Do not split.” Regardless of protesters’ active or behind-the-scenes roles, they committed to mutual aid and cooperation in the face of the government. Unlike in 2014, they did not allow themselves to be divided. 

Although this volunteer infrastructure did not appear to exist in the BLM protests, it became clear how badly everyday Americans wanted to help. Over the span of days, social media feeds were flooded with mutual aid coordination efforts—from bail funds, to fundraisers for purchasing food and medical supplies for protesters. If organizers harnessed this energy and established a similar volunteer infrastructure, the results would be revolutionary. 

Looking forward

So, what happened in Hong Kong in the end? The protests saw a marked difference—China buckled. Although it didn’t concede to all five of the protester’s final demands, Hong Kong announced that it would concede on their primary demand and withdraw a dangerous extradition bill. Protesters were invigorated by the win, and only the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw the halt of their momentum. 

Ever since, Hong Kongers have served as an inspiration for movements across the world—from Thailand to Belarus to Spain. Notably, this inspiration indeed reached Portland, Oregon during the BLM protests. In a scene unlike others across the US, protesters armed themselves with umbrellas. Videos showed teams of protesters swooping in to douse tear gas canisters with traffic cones and electric leaf blowers. These strategies are a promising start to building a prepared and protected community, but t’s time for American organizers to begin building out further like Hong Kongers did in the Umbrella Movement protests. 

There is not a doubt that such as in Ferguson and in Minneapolis, another police officer will murder another Black person somewhere else in the US. When the next reckoning arises, American organizers must be prepared to support protesters in protecting themselves and in equipping them with the resources and tactics to move as a unit—to be water.