My time this past week has been something of a split experience. My boyfriend visited for a little over a week, and he just returned to the States. In the course of his visit, the dynamics of the Umbrella Movement have changed due to police violence in the clearance of Mong Kok, and the United States seen demonstrations, arrests, and far too much violence in a way that I thought – I hoped – we might have left behind in 1992.
I had a chance to attend an event at the Los Angeles Times‘ Festival of Books at USC in 2012, at which Rodney King spoke to promote his memoir. This was just months before he died. He brought his fiancée on stage at the end of his short speech. I don’t recall much of what he said specifically, but I recall being surprised that he didn’t talk much about race, thinking that maybe he wanted to move beyond it, and I remember how hopeful he felt with his future ahead of him.
I’ve read about the problems of a teleological view of history, and the expectation that human history and “civilization” moves in a linear way towards “progress” (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) – but I still wonder at how 1992 can possibly re-occur in 2014. You would think that race riots might be something from the previous century – wouldn’t you?
I feel so sad that they aren’t – but I shouldn’t be so naïve, when America has always been shaped by race. A 2004 study in Urban Affairs Review found that half of some 1,400 residents of Los Angeles surveyed expected another race-related riot to break out within the next five years. Even in our public discussions, despite new scholarship, not much seems to have changed. I remember how Sherman Jackson, whose great class on Islam in Black America I took at USC, mentioned that he’d once refused to write an article on race in America because the only people who had been invited to participate in the exchange were whites and blacks. He said he couldn’t do it, not when the conversation on race today needed to include people of other ethnicities and races. Now reading tweets and news coverage from the States makes it seems we’re back in a black-white paradigm again. (There is another voice reminding us that race isn’t just black/white, but it’s much less heard.)
I’m no lawyer and I haven’t gone through the grand jury’s documents, so I couldn’t say whether the decision was fair; I don’t approve of looting and rioting as a method of “protest” either (let’s recall how Korean Americans were impacted in the Los Angeles riots). But the echo of 1992 just aches. Seeing glimpses of photos and footage from the protests responding to the Ferguson grand jury’s decision has made me feel horrible.
Thinking about the use of tear gas in Ferguson from Hong Kong makes me want to cry and laugh. It’s sadly funny that one instance of tear gas in Hong Kong could spark such a massive outcry, launching a movement in earnest that has now lasted over two months. But in the U.S., tear gas is nothing new to a protest; there have been rumors of gunshots being heard in Ferguson. I recall one conversation here in Hong Kong where some asked if it was true that we had to be afraid of black people in the United States. Others ask me about racism in the United States – a lot of people are curious about how Asians are treated there – and the consensus seems to be that Hong Kong might not be the best when it comes to racial equality (see the case of a homeless Nepali man shot and killed by Hong Kong police in 2009), but at least it’s better than America.
People also make connections between Ferguson and Hong Kong. Since the first days of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, photos of protesters here with their hands up – the method by which they showed nonviolence, as instructed by the organizers of Occupy Central – began to circulate in American news and online networks labeled as international solidarity with Ferguson. What protesters here meant as “nonviolence” was translated into “hands up, don’t shoot” in the United States (this article offers a pretty thorough rumor check correcting that misinterpretation). A demonstration about Hong Kong politics was read as a demonstration about race in America. “Race” is certainly part of the discussion in Hong Kong when you consider the anti-locust demonstrations and discrimination against mainland Chinese, but this is not the focus. (“Culture” might be a more appropriate word to think about the anti-locust anger, considering that the large majority of police, pro-Occupy demonstrators, and anti-Occupy demonstrators all share the same “race.”)
But similar kinds of misreading are still happening. “They are marching for Mike Brown in Hong Kong,” this Tweet proclaims. Well known organizations like Amnesty International juxtapose Hong Kong and Ferguson to support people’s right to protest, garnering numerous re-tweets; Quartz has drawn the connections between the two cities through the production and sale of pepper spray. Other tweeters herald a new era of revolution and proclaim international solidarity. These comparisons are far less common from people in Hong Kong (though this might just be because I’m reading more English-language tweets), but there have been a handful that similarly juxtapose the two protests.
I find that claims and suggestions of world revolution are pretty misinformed about the actual debates and events occurring in each protest, and often misinformed about the places where the protests are occurring. But I understand the impetus, to (want to) feel that the world is changing, that people can overcome whatever policy, body, or system is oppressing them, and that protesters in one place are “not alone.” Even in Admiralty, taped letters on the street call for “Justice for Ayotzinapa.” (Some people in Hong Kong I’ve spoken with are surprised when I tell them Spanish is the main language in Mexico – though I should clarify that I haven’t spoken specifically with protesters about Mexico.) In Mong Kok, protesters have recently begun using the Hunger Games sign of three uplifted fingers as a symbol of resistance to the government.
But I think Professor Jackson’s words remain so potent and true, as far as I have seen. He quoted Reinhold Niebuhr’s argument that social change occurs because of “powerful oversimplifications” (or to quote Niebuhr exactly, in addition to Professor Jackson, “Contending factions in a social struggle require morale; and morale is created by the right dogma, symbols and emotionally potent oversimplifications” (Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932). It’s far more encouraging to look at the world and see people standing up alongside you, imagining everyone fighting for the same cause, rather than to delve into all those divisions and differences.
I’ll write more on the clearance of Mong Kok later – but I do want to comment on how exactly the last week has been strange for me. It was one thing to write about the Umbrella Movement in the first few weeks, when I was there in person and when there was a stronger sense of injustice at the police’s use of tear gas. That gave the movement a clear impetus toward community and common cause. But over time it’s now become so fractured and hard to describe clearly, and police action has become increasingly brutal in Mong Kok (again, more on this later). The violence has made me unwilling to go down in person late at night to such a crowded area where – unlike in Admiralty – there are no overhead walkways from which to watch and stay safely away from police batons (though even the “watching” doesn’t feel right to me either, making me think of protest tourism and war tourism and all these other instances of “watching” other people’s struggles – is an informed kind of “watching” really any better than rubbernecking? This is a question I’ve been struggling with); I’m also conscious of my status as a visiting student sponsored by the State; last week especially, with my boyfriend visiting, I didn’t want to put us in such volatile situations; etc, etc, etc, all the excuses.
It’s really hitting me that I’m watching both Mong Kok and the United States from a distance, physically and online. I suppose what’s bothering me is both the feeling of wringing one’s hands at all the wrong that happens in the world, but just watching (and watching secondhand). At the HKU library, we sat below a giant screen showing four news channels that broadcasted images of protests and police from both Ferguson and Mong Kok simultaneously. We would be at home scrolling through our Twitter and Facebook feeds while waiting for the next episode of “Downton Abbey” to load, sharing news about the protests in both places. It makes me feel 不安 – not at peace, unsettled – to see updates from friends in California on protesters being arrested in downtown Los Angeles; it makes me feel 不安 to hear friends in Hong Kong seeing police beating people at random (here’s just one example). I’m missing home and hoping everyone stays safe.