A Primer on Protests
The protest season is upon us. It is only a few weeks in length, book-marked by two dates, June 4 and July 1, which represent two very different facets of recent Chinese history.
This year, a government initiative to force through an extremely problematic bill in Legco which will remove a firewall between the legal system of the HKSAR and the Mainland, has provided more opportunities for people to take to the streets. It is a good opportunity now to take stock of demonstrations and protests, particularly if you are thinking for the first time of going on one.
The first thing to get straight is that gathering together for the purpose of a protest, whether the aim is to secure political changes or draw attention to the damage we are doing to the environment, is a legal right, not a privilege. Although police officers may monitor a demonstration and usher it along a certain route, they do this in the interests of public safety and public order which is their duty anyway.
The police can set conditions about holding a demonstration or the route to be followed by a march or protest, but they cannot impose such stringent conditions that would completely neutralise the impact of a demonstration, such as insisting a protest should be held between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. at a remote location in the New Territories .
That would be inconsistent with Article 27 Basic Law which guarantees ‘freedom of association, of assembly and of demonstration’. In point of fact police have duty to facilitate the right of assembly and demonstration so far as is compatible with the seeing that public order is maintained, and they do this by working together with the organizers to ensure that the event goes off smoothly.
So, if you have this important right, when should you use it?
I cannot answer that because the right to protest is a personal right and should therefore be exercised according to personal views or convictions. You might feel compelled to protest over a certain issue, but you should never feel coerced into joining in by others. That devalues the very right itself.
If you decide to attend, be sure to find out where the demonstration will be held or, if it is a march, the route it will follow and where to join it.
Go prepared for a few hot and sticky hours in the sun if the weather is fine, or if it is not, bring an umbrella-yellow has been a fashionable colour in these last few marching seasons. Try and locate the nearest steward or helper and be sure to alert him or her to anything that could disrupt the event. Demonstrations and marches must be peaceful to have a positive effect and comport with the unspoken requirement of non-violence in Article 27 Basic Law.
Will a protest achieve anything? That is a question that can only be answered after the event, sometimes months and even years later. Certainly, some protests in history have had great results.
Gandhi’s march to the sea in 1930 to collect salt to protest against the British tax on salt was a highly organized challenge to British authority and its success marked a realization on the part of Britain that it could only rule India with the consent of the Indians and that consent was being withdrawn. Only the Second World War delayed the inevitable of Indian independence, which was obtained in 1947.
Another protest with more immediate results, was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom organized by Martin Luther King in 1963. Some 200,000 people finally assembled at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to hear King deliver his “I have a dream” speech. Soon afterwards King met with President Kennedy to discuss how his vision for equality could be made real. The result was the Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act 1965 which transformed American civil society.
My favourite successful protest because of its novelty was a series of demonstrations that took place in Estonia between 1988 and 1991. Estonia, together with Latvia and Lithuania, had been incorporated into the U.S.S.R. in 1945 after the Second World War. By 1988 Soviet control was weakening and Estonians adopted a national predilection for mass-choral events-a national characteristic shared by the Welsh.
At a traditional music festival in June 1988 thousands of Estonians began performing old national songs and waving long suppressed national flags and so began “singing” their way to freedom over the next few years at this and similar organized musical events, including organizing a human chain of singers in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in August 1989 that linked with one another across the borders of the three satellite republics. The Soviets attempted to assert control but, in 1991, the U.S.S.R.’s heart was not in a political struggle when it had its own problems in Moscow and Estonia declared independence in August 1991.
Another protest that captured my imagination for inventiveness was the witty use of handheld door and car keys by Czechs demonstrating at the time of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. They were in the streets to see off a Communist government and waving keys symbolized both the unlocking of civil society and an invitation to the moribund regime that they might pack up and let themselves out by the backdoor.
And, of course, Hong Kong has contributed to protest symbology with the yellow umbrella, which was exhibited by the British Museum in 2018 in its exhibition of protest art and props “I Object” curated by Ian Hislop, the editor of “Private Eye’, a long-established satirical journal.
Whatever the results of demonstrations and marches in these few weeks participants should keep in mind the words of Elie Wiesel, the Romanian-born American author, Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, on the fundamental point of all protests: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
About the author
Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.
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