Tear gas and pepper spray are so last week.
On Friday, Day 6 of the Umbrella Revolution, hired thugs fanned out at protest sites across the city, starting with Mongkok and quickly spreading to Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay. By nightfall, angry mobs disguised as “pro-Hong Kong citizens” had moved into Admiralty, the heart of the students-led pro-democracy movement.
I had arrived in Admiralty earlier the evening to offer protestors free help with their homework on the street. I was explaining the stories of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. to two university freshmen, when my phone started to buzz with text messages. “The Triads are heading your way. Stay Safe!” a reporter friend warned. “Leave Admiralty NOW, and remove any yellow ribbons on you,” said another. The yellow ribbon has been an insignia for the movement, as is the yellow umbrella that is now known around the world. Pro-Beijing groups have responded with a symbol of their own: a blue ribbon to call on law enforcement to end the political standoff. Many of the thugs in Mongkok were seen wearing the blue ribbon.
I didn’t pay much attention to my friends’ warnings. They weren’t anything new – rumors about Beijing mobilizing Triad members to harass protestors had been circulating on social media for days. With so many false alarms going off this week, we had learned to take things with a heap of salt. That said, fighting crowds with crowds is nothing new. Rent-a-mobs are routinely deployed in unrests in Thailand and the Philippines. They are a weapon of choice not only because links to the renter are hard to prove, but also because they give authorities a convenient excuse to use force. A clash between yellow and blue ribbons would certainly be the justification that Hong Kong police had been waiting for to end the week-long impasse.
|One of clashes in Mongkok|
A few minutes later, my sidewalk classroom was interrupted yet again, this time by speeches broadcasted from a makeshift podium fifty meters away. The speaker was Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), founder of the activist group Scholarism (學民思潮) and one of the leaders of the Umbrella Revolution. He was confirming reports that throngs of angry blue ribbons had overrun Mongkok and Causeway Bay. Then came a series of emotional accounts from students who had been kicked and punched by mobsters earlier that evening. One girl, still sobbing, recounted her experience of being groped in the chest and up the legs. Horrified, I took out my phone and searched for corroborating news reports on the Internet. On the subject of sexual assault, one man was heard taunting a teenage girl: “You should expect molestation in a street protest!”
I told my “students” to go home and continued scrolling through the news feed on my phone. The situation had deteriorated rapidly in the last several hours. Amateur videos of physical and sexual assault abounded, many of them were too gruesome to watch. The attacks, a form of domestic terrorism, were systematic and indiscriminate: students, journalists and even passers-by. Much of the public outrage was also directed at the police’s flagrant inaction. Some uniformed officers were seen standing idly by with their arms folded, while others took advantage of the mayhem to remove barricades set up by students. Worse, there were video clips showing police officers arresting assailants on the spot, only to release them quietly on the other end of the street.
I continued to sit on the sidewalk, overcome with disgust, frozen in disbelief. I had many unanswered questions. Were the blue ribbons gang members or disgruntled citizens? Were they hired by Beijing? Were they working in cahoots with police? Who were our real enemies? The only thing I knew was that whoever was behind the coordinated attacks had run out of options and was desperate enough to make a deal with the devil. Resorting to Hong Kong’s Underworld to handle tricky situations has long been an open secret and a time-honored tradition. In 1984, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping openly endorsed the Triads by declaring that “there are many good guys among them.” These days, local mafias like 14K and Wo Sing Wo are called upon by loan sharks to collect unpaid debt, and from property developers to intimidate stubborn residents who hold up lucrative real estate projects.
|Student protestors formed a human chain to keep the peace|
I decided to heed my friends’ advice to leave the protest site before the mob arrived. I spent the rest of the night at home watching clashes in Admiralty play out on live television. Images of peaceful protestors being beaten and not fighting back broke my heart and sickened my stomach. The next morning, I woke up to more news reports of fracas happening all over the city, as some of the protestors attempted to reclaim Mongkok and Causeway Bay. At a news conference, Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok (黎棟國) vehemently denied claims of collusion between police and the Triads. On a radio show, cabinet member Lam Woon-kwong (林焕光) dismissed the allegations as a “fairy tale.” I drifted in and out of sleep while footage of street violence interweaved with public statements by government officials. By 1:30pm, I was still in bed, staring unseeing at the television set. I was disgusted by the ochlocracy in our streets and the little that had been done to stop it. I was angry with some of my Facebook friends who applauded the blue ribbons for teaching student protestors a lesson. Above all, I was depressed by the hopelessness of the situation, for the mob attacks would only get worse in the days to come.
I found myself right where our enemies wanted us to be: a state of dejection and defeat. “You are smarter than that,” I told myself. I then willed my body out of bed, took a cold shower and ate a hearty lunch, the first proper meal in the last 48 hours. As I emptied my bag, I found a piece of hard candy given to me by a student volunteer the night before. My eyes started to well up, for the gift reminded me of how much they had done for the city and the long way they had yet to go. It also gave me a much needed boost of energy. I started to focus on what lay ahead. At this critical juncture, we must regroup, reassess and re-strategize. If it meant retreating from other protest sites to fortify the stronghold in Admiralty, then that’s what we would do. Whatever our next move might be, we must stay a few steps ahead of our opponents. We must not lose faith in our cause and play into the hands of the mobs. We must remember, no matter how grim things may look at the moment, that the night is always darkest before dawn.
|A gift that is worth its weight in gold|