Occupy Hong Kong: A coalition of resistance takes shape

A collection of University of Western Ontario students show solidarity with protestors in Hong Kong.

The Nation is reporting that some 10,000 union workers in Hong Kong have decided to strike in solidarity with the Occupy HK movement.

Just a week ago the protest movement was catalyzed (and moved forward in timescale) due to student action. Now older citizens of all stripes have joined in, including businessmen and women, as this liveblog update catalogues:

In Admiralty, the crowd began to swell, fuelled [sic] by many working in Central who came out during their lunch breaks to voice support.

Clad in a stripped shirt, Lampson Lo Ka-hang, 33, said: “They are doing the right thing because someone needs to pressure the government,”

He said most of his colleagues were supportive of the movement.

Another man in his 30s, surnamed Yu, who works for a financial firm, said: “I just want to take this time to support these students.”

This is joined by large solidarity protests all around the world, including in regions dealing with similar problems, like Singapore.

And now there is a burgeoning strike movement. Given Hong Kong’s centrality to the global economy, the greatest power protestors possess (besides moral rightness) is the ability to disrupt the way China does its business. The mainland is known for sacrificing many things to keep factories running and capital moving. The PRC government has its hands tied on one of their usual solutions to unrest- appalling violence- and thus has to face the umbrella-wielding activists on unfavorable soil.

The fight will be long, for Beijing is used to besting social movements, as this year’s 25th anniversary of the June 4th massacre shows. But there is a built-up call for more political rights and economic justice. Heartening stories have been relayed, of mainland tourists showing support, amidst the expected skepticism and contempt. Events will always tilt towards those areas where protest is least constricting, and despite the tear gas and pepper spray, Hong Kong is still that island for which the issue of democracy for all of China will ultimately begin.

Each aspect of Hong Kong society is joining together, joined by the huge diaspora across the world, and other allies- many in their own battles against oppressive institutions. The bundle of sticks does not break when bent- it stays strong, and cannot be destroyed.

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Occupy Hong Kong, Gene Sharp, and nonviolent revolution

If there is one modern thinker that I think needs larger exposure, it is nonviolent struggle academic Gene Sharp. Now a frail old man in his mid-80s, Sharp has spent the last sixty years compiling countless case studies and composed rock-solid theories on nonviolent means of enacting political change, and added a list of 198 methods to achieve them.

His thesis: even for those with no moral opposition to violence, unarmed struggle is more likely to succeed, and much more likely to produce a better society than the one it overthrew. This idea over the past few decades has gained widespread currency, as a feature in the not-at-all pacifist Foreign Policy this summer supports, entitled “Drop Your Weapons”. 

The Albert Einstein Institution, which is primarily Sharp and Jamila Raqib, operates out of Sharp’s home in Boston. Much of his work is available for free on the organization’s website, most notably There Are Realistic Alternatives, the short pep talk for would-be revolutionaries, and the practical guide to creating a better world, From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Gandhi during the Salt March

I already wrote a piece last year extolling Sharp’s virtues; this is more of an update. Some may look at this scene and think Sharp and Raqib to be fringe academics, that nobody actually listens to. However, there is always the theme, across the world and over many years. Ask key organizers of movements, whether those in Serbia that overthrew Slobodan Milošević, someone even US air power couldn’t drive from power. Some of the students behind the initial revolution in Egypt sought Sharp’s advice, and Benny Tai, a key leader in the current Occupy Central campaign in Hong Kong openly admits the influence. From this Bloomberg article:

Occupy Central is inspired by a civil-disobedience playbook set out by Gene Sharp, a U.S. academic whose work has inspired non-violent uprisings from Egypt to Serbia, Tai said. Sharp, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, argues that once authorities use violence against unarmed protesters they lose the sympathy of the rest of the population, leading to a shift in public opinion to support the protesters.

Protestor in the midst of tear gas dual-wielding umbrellas. Hella badass.

Wherever you go, Sharp shows up somewhere. He may never be the primary influence, and certain local conditions create local strategy and leaders, but he is around. His work is disseminated organically- he or his supporters have never printed copies by the millions. Yet From Dictatorship to Democracy has ended up translated into Chinese, and Ukrainian, and five separate languages used in Burma. We all know that the real heroes are those on the ground, and Sharp is thankfully a humble personality, but the effectiveness and discipline of Occupy Hong Kong shows the power of resources for planning and executing nonviolent forms of struggle. Work by Sharp, Robert Helvey, and others help anyone interested in the work of 20th century nonviolent resisters accessible. Not everyone has the brilliance of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., but lessons learned from their work can be distilled and provided as a guide.

Gene Sharp was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, his fourth nomination. Two years ago he received the Right Livelihood Award, which is its closest equivalent. I would like him to receive the Peace Prize, but it has always been a bit faddish (Barack Obama the year of his election) or strange (the European Union as a whole). This year I’d put good money on Pope Francis winning, but there’s a reason betting sites always have Sharp in the top five.

Have a plan. Know the methods. Change the world.

 

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Occupy Hong Kong: through rain, lightning, and tear gas…

A torrential downpour on the mass crowds blocking key parts of Hong Kong

A torrential downpour on the mass crowds blocking key parts of Hong Kong

American media accounts tend to focus on the umbrella- now only four days in immortalized as a revolutionary symbol- as a way to deal with pepper spray. What gets left out is that Hong Kong has a subtropical climate. Not only has it been in the 90s (F), the summer is also notoriously rainy. In this way, umbrellas are the ultimate protest tool. Not only have they helped against police crackdown, the shade and rain protection have kept thousands of people at their posts. An economic shutdown only works as long as people are willing to stay out in the highways and streets.

Twitter is probably the best way to keep track of things, but some websites are doing an excellent job. The South China Morning Post has kept a very well-maintained English-language liveblog, the current section is located here.

Occupy is not just a movement, confined to a place and time. It is a method of action. It is a title given to those that go out and work. It existed long before there was a march on Wall Street, and exists now and will in the future. The protest here has been incredibly well-coordinated, but on a grassroots level. If people are disciplined and certain key traits (nonviolence, respect for the city) are maintained, there is no need for a rigid hierarchy. I am continually impressed by the humanity and decency shown by the protesters, but also their strength under fire, and their endurance under bad conditions- whether pepper spray or pelting rain.

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This earth belongs to the people

Hong Kong Students Begin Pro Democracy Strike

I hold aloft my spirit
extended to blot out
a harsh sun, unaware
its setting has begun

I hold aloft my spirit,
we come in twos and tens
neighbors become fellow soldiers
empowered, enraptured

I hold aloft my spirit
though my feet stay steady
for though time flows fast
I am here, I occupy this earth

This earth
right here
belongs to
the people.

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Shut it down: Occupy Central and the global economic system

One of the strongest, most incendiary things an individual, or a group, can do is to seize a physical place and refuse to leave. The action of occupation is as old as mass movements, and predated the big-O Occupy movement. It is used to protect people from eviction, to keep park space free from development, to block access to political institutions, and to paralyze the economic infrastructure of towns, regions, and whole nations. As was the mantra in 2011 among some activists, sometimes you need to shut this motherfucker down.

Protestors in anti-pepper spray gear. September 28, 2014. Alex Ogle/AFP

Protestors in anti-pepper spray gear. September 28, 2014. Alex Ogle/AFP

Occupy Central comes from a long and storied history of nonviolence. The color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Lebanon occupied key places of political and cultural importance. Central goes beyond that to a more radical place- using occupation as an economic weapon of the people. We saw this happen with the West Coast port shutdowns three years ago, and the related Block the Boat campaign against Israeli industry. There is an added weak point in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and other major ports- access of goods and labor is of international importance. To shut down central portions of Hong Kong is to amplify the power of the act of occupation, so it can reverberate into global markets. In the short term, good business must be paid for by increased political rights. From that platform, working to change the global economic system becomes easier.

Clash between umbrella-holding protestors and police. September 28, 2014. Alex Ogle/AFP

Clash between umbrella-holding protestors and police. September 28, 2014. Alex Ogle/AFP

They now call it the Umbrella Revolution. It certainly has gained that tangible thing that defines great movements, whether a place, color, or object (Serbia’s 2000 peaceful revolution is sometimes dubbed “The Bulldozer Revolution” due to protestor tactics to break up barricades).

The whole world is watching. We have been blind to the authoritarianism creeping throughout Hong Kong. It has been a time to get educated, and get on the right side of affairs.

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Justice comes with an umbrella: Hong Kong and Occupy Central

Pro-democracy protestor engulfed by tear gas. Hong Kong, September 28, 2014.

Pro-democracy protestor engulfed by tear gas. Hong Kong, September 28, 2014.

Following a strong students’ strike on Friday, the pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong launched Occupy Central in its full form early. They aim to paralyze the economic center of the territory, to force changes in the political structure to allow for universal suffrage and free election of the chief executive in 2017.

I first wrote about the simmering conflict over a year ago, and about Occupy Central earlier this month. It is a reminder that some of richest places in the world, like Hong Kong and Singapore, are not true democracies and their people are fighting for the same political rights that many in the developing world seek.

Hong Kong exists in the nexus between colonialism and authoritarianism, a British holding turned over to China but given certain rights that the mainland population does not have. The agreement was vague, and Beijing is attempting to keep true democracy off the table, and make an already anti-democratic system more rigged.

Student meeting to discuss tactics. September 29, 2014

Student meeting to discuss tactics. September 29, 2014

Occupy Central is a shining example of the mass civil disobedience that is popping up all over the world, which can challenge governments and the existing economic order that resists progress.

As with climate change, world poverty, endemic racism- there is no time for gradualism. Hong Kong has waited 17 years for full democracy and has not gotten it, and will never get it if the present state of affairs continues. The need is for people to get more radical and ambitious with their movements. It’s to go beyond symbolism and into disobedience. Nobody said a just society would come easy.

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The San Diego cycle: UU Fellowship of San Dieguito

Earlier this month I moved from Northern to Southern California. Exciting, a bit uncomfortable, but San Diego is a place of great promise and opportunity. Starting this week I will be a new transfer student at the University of California, San Diego; since I know very few people here, the half dozen local Unitarian Universalist congregations are a great starting place. Getting integrated into the community, both on a social level and as an activist, is deeply important. So I’ll be doing a write up of each place I go.

The fellowship's band performs in the outdoor amphitheater

The fellowship’s band performs in the outdoor amphitheater

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito (UUFSD, website here) is located in the hills of Solana Beach, just east of I-5. It typifies all things Southern California. The landscaping is arid shrubs and drought-resistant trees, the buildings are of grey stone and of the flat, pueblo style. What gives it a unique flair is the outdoor amphitheater where services are held, weather permitting. A hemicycle of benches surrounds a modest red-brick stage, its back butting up against a sandy hill. Beach umbrellas shield most congregants, though if one is quite pale and sensitive to sunlight (your truly fits the category) you may have to keep shifting in order to match the rising sun.

The centerpiece of the 11am service was the coming of age program, where youth start the transformation towards having their own ideas about meaning and spirituality. In total there were twenty-five teens moving forward to the next stage, an impressive amount given my original congregation had serious issues with an imbalance between elderly and youth congregants. Overall it felt like the “moving up” days of my early schools years; this was not a graduation but more an acknowledgment of progress and the foundation of future work.

Rev. David Miller, who like many in the UU tradition has the ministry as a second career, gave a speech entitled “The Edge of Reason: Faith in an Unreasonable Age”. It dealt with the great clash in society and within all UU congregations- how does reason interact with faith, science with mysticism? He called attention to the waste that comes with hair-splitting and semantics, and that ultimately what science and religion do for individuals and the world is more important than whose ideas are better.

Walkway between amphitheater and building complex.

Walkway between amphitheater and building complex.

 

His point regarding the ‘edge of science’ and what can and cannot be proven was well taken. It reminded me of an article recently put in a Scientific American compilation called “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?” by George F.R. Ellis (PDF here). Multiverse- the idea that there are other universes outside of our own, in some structure- reaches the edge where physical theories become metaphysical conjecture. Ellis points out that if there is no way to test for a multiverse, and the theory is not provable nor falsifiable, there is no place for science. Rev. Miller illustrates that we must not lean on science for everything, because its method has only so many uses. But also, implicitly, that superstition and dogma cannot creep into the territory that science can explain.

As one hopes, the congregants were very welcoming. I was offered the chance to introduce myself early in the service and took it. Rev. Miller pointed out that given my shirt (this one from Northern Sun, only with the old logo) I was probably not a stranger to the religion. Several people came and talked about their history at UU of Palo Alto, where I came from. It was nice to talk to people from Southern California and get a sense of what the community is like down here. Members were also helpful about other congregations in the area.

View towards the Pacific from the campus.

View towards the Pacific from the campus.

I plan to visit all the congregations in the county (five of them, with the largest one in downtown having a branch with overlapping content), and this was an encouraging start. The low-70s weather was perfect for outdoor worship, and the campus itself has character. What the amphitheater had was character- not run-down, but also not sparkling and impersonal.

Given that I only have one class this week, I should be ready for a new congregation next week- Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

 

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