Wednesday, April 18, 2018

From Joshua Tree to Hong Kong, Part Six - Umbrellas and Urban Vistas in a Twelve Hour Conversation about Hong Kong’s Fight for Global Democracy

a fisherman, a view to the water and a friend, laurie wen, in hong kong

protests, temples and banyan trees were everywhere. 
On my last day in Hong Kong, I met Laurie Wen.
She sent me an email for where to meet.

So, tomorrow morning around 11, can you meet me at the HKU (Hong Kong University) stop on the MTR? I'll meet you at the C2 Exit, on the street level.

If you're coming from the Olympic station, take the MTR toward Hong Kong station, then at Hong Kong station you walk underground to Central station (an 8-min walk) and take the Island line (blue) toward Kennedy Town. The HKU stop is the one before Kennedy Town. Allow ~35 min from your hotel. From the Mong Kok station you take the Tsuen Wan line (red) toward Central. At Central you transfer to the Island line (blue) toward Kennedy Town. The HKU stop is the one before Kennedy Town. Allow ~40 min from your hotel.

I’ve known Laurie since 2002 with ACT UP and 2003 when we were arrested at an anti-war protest, and were swept up by the police.  Afterwards, we sued the City of New York   In the case, our lawyers with the Center for Constitution Rights alleged:

“1. This civil rights action, brought pursuant to the United States Constitution
and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeks redress for defendants’ bogus arrest of scores of peaceful protesters. Defendants, members of the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”), inexcusably abused their power and authority, thus depriving plaintiffs of the rights, privileges, and immunities secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States and the State of New York.

2. On April 7, 2003, defendants wrongfully, maliciously and without
probable cause, arrested more than 70 people, including the 52 plaintiffs in this case, whose only
“crime” was exercising their constitutionally protected right to engage in peaceful protest against the war in Iraq and those profiting from the war, specifically the Carlyle Group.”

With video evidence that contradicted the city’s accounts of our actions, we beat the city in court, although one never gets back the time one spends in jail. Our central argument was that there is something terribly wrong with a system that arrests people for asking questions or meeting in the streets.

When we won a settlement for our arrests, Wen called to ask me what I thought we should do with the money.  She thought we should organize to buy a collective space.  I ended up paying bills with the money.  Wen had other ideas.

Over the years since our suit, we stayed in touch, organizing together, going to ACT UP actions, joining the Occupy movement in New York in 2011, where Laurie supporting programs for healthcare for all, working the street medics, as well as Occupy Health and Doctors for the 99%.

In 2014, when the Umbrella Movement sprouted in Hong Kong, Wen, who grew up in Hong Kong, moved back to join the movement, sleeping out in the streets with the activists, supporting the two and half month occupation.

When I saw her, we had a lot to talk about.  Walking through Kennedy Town, we started talking about the Umbrella Movement and Chinese history and what she was doing in Hong Kong. Every time we started talking, a new topic went on stack, as she pointed out a new politician or topic.

“There is Judy Chan.  She is the enemy,” she noted, pointing to a campaign poster for a conservative politician.

“I love the trees here,” I followed, pointing to trees in the park across the street from her house.
“Those are banyan trees.  They get their nutrients from the air.  They don’t need soil.  They can grow out of any wall…”

“Its like they are reclaiming the city.  The world needs more of this.”

“I have a lot of favorite trees here, we can go see a few of them today.”

We walked down the street and she told me about a protest we were going to tonight.

“It wouldn’t be a visit in the city for you if there wasn’t a protest,” she smiled.  She always smiles when she has plans for me, inviting me to some of my favorite protests over the last fifteen years.  When our friend Mark’s insurance company turned down his claim, she invited friends to block the entrance of the headquarters and the insurance company honored his claim. When the UN General Assembly on AIDS convened in the spring of 2006, she invited me for the civil disobedience outside.  I ended up in jail for 24 hours and she didn’t even show up.  Her demos for healthcare during Occupy were legendary.

She told me about the day’s demo.   “Its part of the Umbrella Movement in Central.  Benny Tai drummed up to education civil society and universal suffrage.  The movement is influenced by Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, using civil disobedience as a chip to negotiate with the Hong Kong government.  And now they are going after him.”

“Is he in jail?”

“Not yet.”

Wen is the author of We Speak for You: Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and the Fight for Global Democracy.  Publisher to be determined. In the proposal, she situates the story of the movement:

“On September 28, 2014, when tens of thousands of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters unfurled umbrellas to protect themselves from police tear gas, the Umbrella Movement was born. The mass movement for universal suffrage was led by high school students too young to vote, but drew participants from across the social and demographic spectrum. It bloomed into a 79-day, nonviolent occupation that paralyzed the heart of one of the world’s premier financial hubs. A global audience watched the teenage children of an ostensibly apolitical society face off against the world’s rising superpower, 17 years after the former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule as a “semiautonomous” region, and exactly 25 years after the massacre of student demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.”

The demo would not start until 7 PM so we had all day to explore.
She points out a sign for apartments.  “Like all cities in the world, Hong Kong is going through amazing gentrification, pricing everyone out.”

A woman walked by pulling a pile of boxes.  “They make money returning the boxes.  A few years ago the police arrested one of these women and the whole community defended her.  Now we can buy units at certain restaurants paying for a meal for an old person.”

Standing outside a tea house, Wen changed the subject again.
“When I first came to this neighborhood, I walked in looking for tea,” she explained, pointing to the Yik Yee Teahouse. “The folks inside are so nice, they told me stories and offered me different teas for an hour and a half.”  So we walked inside.  And Wen introduced me to the amiable owners.  What kind of tea would you like to try, they asked.  Green tea. I replied. Which kind? We have several.  The owner started heating water and preparing several jasmine teas for me. Looking at the tea he is arranging, I started to see why the British fell in love with Chinese tea. Needless to say, he does not drink British tea.  We spend the next hour drinking the sweetest jasmine tea I have ever had.  Make sure to only heat it for eight seconds he reminds me as I leave.”

We spent the afternoon walking and talking about history and tragedy, loving democracy and  rejecting the colonial legacy.  

"All you have to say is three years and eight months and everyone in Hong Kong understands," she explained, reflecting on the legacy of the Japanese occupation. There have been many.  

There’s a poetry in the streets, as Wen greets dogs who she’s met through the year.  She tells me about a tree in Yuem Long, a neighborhood in the Western new territories, that has enveloped a whole house, growing around it.  Resistance and engagement is everywhere, as this ancient city contends with a modern dynasty.

In We Speak for You, Wen wrote:
“Benny Tai, a mild-mannered Hong Kong law professor, became a prominent thorn in Beijing’s side when he proposed, in 2013, a civil disobedience campaign to pressure the Chinese government on its unfulfilled promise of universal suffrage for Hong Kong. Called “Occupy Central with Love and Peace,” Tai’s plan was to conduct a brief sit-in and block traffic in Central, Hong Kong’s financial district. In 2014, as dialogue continued on the proposed sit-in, Hong Kong’s government released a plan to allow “universal suffrage” in the race for Chief Executive (Hong Kong’s governor)—as long as all candidates were preapproved by Beijing. In response, students organized a weeklong class boycott, then tried to take over government headquarters, rejecting Tai’s appeals for calm. Police beatings and arrests ensued. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers, converging to support the students, were met with tear gas. Protesters opened umbrellas as improvised tear-gas shields, and the movement found its name.”

At lunch she tells me about the demonstration we are going to in support of Professor Tai, whose tenure is under threat. The government is pressuring Hong Kong University to fire him for exercising his free speech.
Its hard to hear these stories and not think about the Democracy Movement in China.
I watched the movement in the Spring of 1989 in awe, with more and more people filling the streets. 
The world was changing right there.
Wen points out that as the Poles went to the poles, Deng sent in the tanks.
It was the one of the Democracy movements of 1989 that was crushed. Yet, somehow it anticipated the Velvet Revolution later that fall when the totalitarian system controlling Eastern Europe collapsed.

But this did not help the generation of activists who lead the June 1989 actions in China. Leaders, such as Fang Lizhi were forced out of their jobs, into exile, if they were lucky enough to get out.

A quarter century later, the Umbrella Movement began with similar cries for freedom of speech and suffrage, Wen continued.
When authorities threw teargas on the students, their actions unleashed generational dynamics as elders asked, how could you do this to our kids?  How could you treat them this way?  This triggered the 79 days of occupation.

The shadow of 1989 keeps making its way back into our conversation
In our movement, people are obsessed with Eastern Europe, notes Wen, referring to the Singing Revolution that brought down communist rule in Estonia.

“We Shall Overcome was the first song I sang in jail on March 27, 2003” after the die-in in front of Rockefeller Plaza, in protest of the coming Iraq War.  Chilled ran down my back as I watched Wen and company scream 'No Blood for Oil!!!' during their action.  Police eventually dragged everyone away into jail.

Walking after lunch, we talk about Dr Wan Yanhai, a Chinese doctor who spoke up about HIV, particularly after he found out HIV contaminated blood was being given the general population, creating orphanized villages. When he was jailed, ACT UP worked to bring international attention to his jailing.  After ACT UP worked with international human rights groups, he was released from jail and eventually came to the United States. I consider fighting to Dr Wan’s freedom one of my greatest achievements in ACT UP.

Walking, we strolled past temples, up, down stairways, across streets, over to the Sai Won Pier, a container terminal and cargo dock in the Western District Public Cargo Area, the
space reminds me of New York from three decades ago.  People are hanging out, making art, painting, cruising, taking in the water, snapping photos and sharing ideas. Laurie shows me her favorite spots, where people walk dogs. And olders ride bikes. The construction materials look like art projects.  The bamboo looks like an installation.  Two guys are doing karate.  The space feels open and wild, with ideas flowing everywhere.

And because of this, the space is contested.

Eventually we come up to a fence.

“This is why people are upset,” she laments.

That’s the interplay of public space.  But without access to the street, questions about democracy basically go out the door. 

Our conversation turns back to the Velvet Revolution and the Lennon Wall, of pro-democracy slogans and Beatles lyrics, that students created in the 1980’s in Prague.  The art was an ongoing nuisance for the communist leadership before the Wall crumbled.

Image result for Lennon wall prague
The Lennon Wall, Mala Strana, Prague.  
Inspired, the Umbrella Movement created its own wall, noted Wen. It was a space for a mosaic of political messages calling for democratic election of Hong Kong’s chief executive.  Its in the Central Government Complex, Harcourt Road, Admiralty, where we are going tonight.

Making our way, we stroll by the old university, looking at the Banyan Trees extending out of the walls and sidewalks, into the air, this way and that, over the roads.  We meet Alec sitting in the Cozy Bean coffee shop, sitting looking at art deco architecture, talking about his sister's band, punk and alt country music.

Our day is starting to take on the complexion of My Dinner with Andre, as we talk and talk and talk.

But we’re just getting starting.  I’m starting to get slap happy, thinking about getting to the demo.
My friend Mike is in town.  He’s going to meet us at the demonstration at Central.

We wind down hills, through a coffee shop full of Chet Baker posters called Lets Get Lost.  The city looking more and more like San Francisco, with views down to the water.

“When I was in Tower Records, I met a drummer who used to play with Chet Baker,” gushed Wen.  

“When we were in Amsterdam, we stayed in the hotel where he fell to his death, stumbling off the roof,” I recalled.

Wen points to a restaurant, where people cook for the elders, notes Wen.  There’s always more to show.

Arriving at Central, an elder woman is scolding the cops standing around for pepper spraying the kids.  I’m not sure this has just happened or its something that has happened in the past.

Wen looks out.  We occupied all of this, pointing to the streets, a highway running around us. This was where we put together our Lennon Wall.

The demonstration is full of people talking, giving speeches.  Laurie introduces me to a few college students, who helped organize the Umbrella Movement when they were high school.

Isak tells me he is here because of the attacks on Benny Tai.  The government is going after him.  I just hope people will be more willing to speak the truth, Isak concludes. He worries they will not be able to if the Communist Party has their way.

Would you like me to tell you what is going on, asks Pong, another man walking with us.

Yes, of course.

We’re here to support Professor Tai.  He said something that the communist government doesn’t like, basically suggesting its worth thinking about what life will be like when the communists government is gone.  What kind of a government should we have?  They do not want the people to control their own destiny. We’re here to say that its like the Nazi’s. They don’t have that power now but they would do it.  The new president is like Mao.  He’s like Putin.

Walking in Reverend Chu Yue Ming, one of the Occupy Three, who along with Benny Tai and Chan Kin-Man organized the Occupy Central with Love and Peace campaign, is speaking.  Ming famously smuggled activists out of China in June of 1989.

In and out of court, today fame is their protection, notes Wen, greeting elders and friends, introducing me to everyone.

A student asks me to sign his petition in support of Catalonia in Spain.  We discuss this situation.  And I tell him I disagree with his point. But that’s ok.  That’s what democracy is all about.

The two agendas for the movement are Hong Kong independence and free speech, notes another man, standing beside us, talking with my friend Mike and I.  He spent two nights sleeping in the streets and working during the Umbrella movement.  Mike and I concur.  We were both working during Occupy Wall Street.  I only slept in the park one night.  Freedom is something everyone can get behind, our friend smiles. 

He tells me about Hong Kong Basic Law Section number 23. Its an anti-subversion law, he explains.  The law states Hong Kong, “shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies…" Benny Tai gave a speech suggesting that the Communists were not going to be here forever.  So we might as well think about what life might be like without them.  What are we going to do?  No regime lives forever. The government did not like this speech.  And now they are using basic law section 23 to go after him.  The line around the law shifts over and over again.

Edward Yiu, one of the movement’s two disqualified officials planned to speak at the rally,  suggested this felt like the first days of he cultural revolution.

The crowd roars.  Benny Tai speaks and the crowd gets even louder.

Its an uphill battle to fight for democracy here.  All around the world, we are losing freedoms, in Russia, in the US, and in Hong Kong.  I hope people wake up, notes Pong.

We lose freedom gradually.  This is what is happening

But not in all parts.

The streets of Hong Kong feel as vibrant as ever.

As usual, we all debate where to go after the rally. People stand around talking.

Laurie takes us to So Boring, a pay as you wish café in Kowloon.  With tables outside on the street, it’s a lively place.  Mike and I bring a couple of beers we bought at a bodega and sit down to plates of curry and noodles, one delicious plate after another.  The food is wonderful.  We end up paying close to nothing for the meal.  It’s the best of many great meals I’ve had in Hong Kong. We eat quickly as our last demonstration of the night is about to start.  And we can’t be late as they tend to be very very punctual, notes Wen, who missed one once because she was running on New York activist time.

With adrenaline pumping through our veins, we walk to our final rally of the day, passing bright streets, full of people and neon lights everywhere, rushing to join the Gau Wu protests.  Why Gau Wu, I ask.  It’s a word for shopping.  After the Occupation was shut down, activists gathered in the street of Mong Kok every night, non stop. Finally the chief magistrate said people should go back to shopping to boost the economy.  Activists responded, going out into the streets, where they have been every night since then, calling for more democracy. A new form of protest was born.

Standing outside by a group carrying yellow umbrellas, signs declare this, “a democracy street.” A woman gives me a flyer describing what they are doing:

“Today, the “Gau Wu” group symbolizes the persistence of fighting for democracy and human dignity.  People father in Sai Yeung Choi Street South Every night, carrying their slogan  flag of “Genuine Universal Suffrage”, chanting political messages, cruising the area in procession with their Yellow Umbrellas open.  Political speeches are made every night to keep our passion alive, believing that our dreams will come true one day. Volunteering to stand up for civil rights, we are not associated with any organizations or political parties.  In the absence of leader, any Hong Kong residents could join and leave any time.  Together we fight for our only demand – Genuine Universal Suffrage.”

Several of the people, including the woman who screamed at the cops at the rally earlier, are here. They welcome everyone, giving us umbrellas to carry through the street.

We talk for a while and then march, engaging the crowd through the night.

The demonstration reminds me of the moral witnessing of the New York Shut it Down: the grand central crew #blacklivesmatter actions. Friends meet, talk, disrupt and act up together, building a community, between the elders, students, and countless others leading the Umbrella Movement.

When we leave, the activists thank all their friends and universal supporters.
Take an umbrella with you to New York, notes one activist.

After our twelve hours of walking together, Laurie, Alec and I say goodnight.  Mike and I wander back to Mong Kok over to grab a pint at Big Wave Bay, on Pok Man Street, where our adventure began.

I’ll be leaving Hong Kong in a few hours.  I can’t really sleep.  Its been too exciting. So I toss and turn and start writing this blog about a day I that seemed to go on forever, a movement for democracy which first awoke my consciousness three decades ago.  In the years since, it became subject to books and my fascination.  But for a moment, I was able to support this movement, stretching through time, connecting Tiananmen Square to Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Central with Love and Peace.

My taxi drove me to Kowloon and I said goodbye, with an umbrella in my hands. 

A last glimpse of Mong Kok after a day for the ages, people collecting boxes.
bs alec and laurie by mike duncan

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