People Power

24 September 2019 Elizabeth Flux

People Power

I’m walking far too quickly through the markets, swerving and dodging around people leaning over piles of vegetables, stopped in conversation, or eating hot doughnuts.

“Sorry, excuse me, sorry, I’m just, if you could, thank you, sorry.” I leave a constant stream of apologies and explanations in my wake as I make my way towards the State Library.

Today I’m heading to my first protest, and, despite all my careful planning, it looks like I’m going to be late.

It feels awful to think – and even worse to write – but I have to confess that, for a very long time, I didn’t really think there was much point to protests. No matter what the issue, no matter how much I cared, I couldn’t see how deciding to converge on one place, how marching, how declaring how unhappy we were would make any difference.

Why would anyone in power listen? It felt like we only have a chance to be heard once every few years – when we vote. After that, it’s mostly out of our hands. Right?

Over the past few years I’d look at photos of friends with their hand-made signs, determined looks on their faces and feel a mixture of shame, admiration and despair. What was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I there too? But what, I would think, was the point?

I realise now that it was a deeply ingrained pessimism. For every protest there would be a proportionate number of articles or posts that focused not on the issue at the heart of the protest, but about how disruptive it was, how silly it was to try.

What I was hearing was protests don’t work. Underneath it, however, the real message I was internalising was you have no power and will never be heard.

In March this year, a bill was announced in Hong Kong that would make it easier for the Chinese government to extradite citizens to the mainland. It was seen for what it was: an erosion of both rights and identity in Hong Kong, putting the currently autonomous region just a little bit more under mainland control. The protests started quick and small, but grew and grew. On 9 June, up to one million people took to the streets to tell authorities they didn’t want this bill to go ahead.

As a Hong Kong-born Eurasian, the protests – many of which my family and friends were attending – and the general aura of despair surrounding the extradition bill really affected me. I watched a video of an old lady, standing in a street like the one my parents used to walk along every day on the way back from work, shouting and crying at the way the police were treating protestors. Unfamiliar scenes against familiar backdrops. I was shocked at how much it hurt. How scared it made me. How paralysed I felt.

When the 9 June protest happened, I started looking at airfares, wondering if I should fly over to take part. At that point I still didn’t really think there was any hope the bill would be stopped – but I had, at last, seen the power of protesting. I wanted to be part of it, and to make sure the protest was heard as widely as possible.

So, when a series of solidarity protests were planned around the world, including in Melbourne, I didn’t hesitate. This is how I found myself rushing through the markets to the steps of State Library Victoria, surrounded by people also dressed in black, listening to stories from students, from Hong Kong residents, and even from Tibetan community leaders.

People who were feeling the same way I was, who were also scared for the future, who also felt that perhaps just by being here and sharing our stories, showing passers-by that we cared enough to gather together, maybe we would be heard.

This was on 16 June. In Hong Kong they were also having a protest. This time, nearly two million people took to the streets. For context, Hong Kong has a population of roughly 7.4 million. That meant that more than one in four Hong Kongers were against the bill – and that’s just the people that were visible.

The protests have been going every weekend since March, and on 4 September it was announced that the extradition bill would be formally withdrawn. But the protests are continuing – because the bill was just a symptom of a bigger problem, and withdrawing the bill is just one of five demands the protestors have.
In the past I would have thought that if a protest doesn’t meet all its goals, then it wasn’t “successful”.

But what I came to realise this year was that I had been operating under a very restricted view of what “successful” meant. Sure, sometimes success is getting the one thing you are asking for. But that’s not the only way a protest can be successful. Beyond getting an immediate result, taking part in a protest means that you are drawing attention to an issue, and saying that something isn’t right. Protesting means being heard – and sometimes that in itself is enough. At least to start with.

» Elizabeth Flux (@ElizabethFlux) is an award-winning writer and editor based in Melbourne.

This article first appeared in ed#596