Tuesday afternoon was the July 1 March for democracy in Hong Kong. Every year NGOs meet at Victoria Park in demonstration to demand democracy, universal suffrage, rights of minorities, protection of freedom of speech, and so many other political concerns of value. Historically, July 1st is the anniversary of the British handover of HK back to China, though it has become a day of expressing all political concerns against Beijing in a solidified manner. A half a million people or more were anticipated to join in what is billed as an annual peaceful demonstration, and it was largely attended with throngs of people standing, marching, sitting, singing and speaking out for their cause in quite the orderly fashion.
My colleagues and I spent a few hours speaking to various attendees with a range of opinions on the state of affairs in Hong Kong relating to the upcoming 2017 elections. Such was the case during the mini-interviews we conducted for our “If You Could Break The Rules” man-on-the-street video project in Victoria Park where people expressed very heated yet eloquent political demands of Hong Kong’s government and residents. At the same time, many of the local Hong Kongers we spoke to could not legitimately conceptualize the idea of “breaking the rules”, nor could they see there ever being a necessity or justifiable reason to “break the law.” As Americans who have often had to face destructive “rules” or laws relating to ethnic background, gender, disabilities and sexual orientation, one can more readily answer a question like, “If you could break the rules what would you do? Which would it be?” But for them, it was not as culturally relevant to conceptualize, even in theory. Because of this, a lot of time was spent trying to bring value of the question to the thought process of the people we approached. Largely, people didn’t get it, though many tried to answer despite the seemingly rebellious nature of the inquiry.
Moving throughout the Victoria Park protest area proved to be problematic as a swift exit was a goal after two and a half hours of rallying and interviewing. It was inspiring to see so many people stand in solidarity of the day, but it was time to figure out an exit strategy. I had a first mind to convince my colleague to wade through the throngs of people so that we could reach a packed footbridge and try to get to the other side of Hennessy Road. Looking back, that would have been a bad idea for so many reasons. What I did not know, really neither of us, was that right in front of us, amidst the thousands of protesters jam-packed onto Hennessy, a thread of disruption would rip through the crowd in the most sensational way.
The energy was palpable as the crowd moved at snail’s pace. Swells of protest cries would come from the groups of people on either side of Hennessy and across the footbridge over the normal flow of traffic by taxis, buses, and other vehicles. Just by nature of the excess of people within such a tight space while being kept on the sidewalks with nowhere to move forwards or backwards, it was apparent that some sort of disruptive action would be needed to open the floodgate of activity despite the police presence. And then it happened. While my colleague and I had the natural instinct to already be recording footage of the marchers at standstill and the oncoming traffic, commotion began in the middle section of Hennessy when one or two protesters jumped the gate into the road where cars were driving. One young man, shirtless in red shorts and sneakers, and another in a black t-shirts and cap both managed to get into the street and start advancing forward though teams of police officers were ready to swarm them and stop their activity. The thing is, however, once they became visible in the middle of the street, the drama of seeing men being wrestled by the police compelled people to then rush into the streets as well. This effectively ended the flow of vehicle traffic as a standoff of people blocked all vehicles from being able to move.
This sparked a bit of exciting pandemonium all around and I had to quickly figure out what, or rather who, to record. There was the man screaming at the police to move the barriers and let the people through. There was another guy going back and forth, struggling with officers to create space. There was so much drama going on, which was completely different from the peaceful demonstration that largely categorized the day, that I tried to capture as much as I could on so many different subjects. Yet, it still seems like I didn’t get as much as I could have though I’ll be reviewing the footage all weekend. Would I have done the same in mainland China, absolutely not. There’s no way. But in Hong Kong, with the liberties it seems both citizens and residents can take to protest, make a scene, record the whole process, and walk away unquestioned, it feels very much like they are doing a lot of things right. It didn’t feel violent at all, however there was a clear urgency on the part of many of the protesters which, in the spirit of revolution, is respected. I commented to my colleague that had the same thing happened in the States, with the tensions between the protesters and the police officers, it is almost certain that the police would have used excessive force to silence the people. Actually, there’s no doubt in my mind some would have been beaten. So, the whole ordeal represents a cultural awareness for me on a lot of levels here in Hong Kong. I’m glad I was there to witness it all. POWER to the people!