The view from the bridge was perfect. We could see the stage, the students sitting quietly on the road in front of Central Government Offices, listening to speech after speech about the future of their city. Sweat glistened off arms and foreheads. It had been unbearably hot earlier in the day. Even at 10 in the evening, we could feel the heat rising off the asphalt road. It was remarkable how so many kids could stay so attentive for such a long time.
Those of us on the bridge were getting restless though. Journalists and photographers fiddled with their smart phones. A few cameramen started to pack up. We’d just returned from a dinner break but contemplated leaving too. After all, the event – a student strike, called to pressure China to grant Hong Kong genuine democracy – was nearly over. And while there had been a few bits of drama here and there throughout the week, no one expected anything major to take place in the final hours of the protest.
But then it happened.
In post, we’ve watched and re-watched that moment, debated and analysed it over and over again. Did we see it coming? No. Never. We’d been following activists involved in Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy for months. We’d sat in on discussions about civil disobedience and listened to plans to occupy one street in the business district. But not once did we imagine that hundreds of tents would soon fill the roads below us, that traffic would stop flowing on some of Hong Kong’s busiest highways for weeks, that thousands of demonstrators and riot police would face off again, and again, and again in a frightening flurry of tear gas, batons and pepper spray.
We never saw it coming – the spark that would trigger the massive protest the world now knows as the Umbrella Movement.
It feels almost surreal now – the confusion that gripped us on the bridge as seventeen-year-old Joshua Wong urged the crowd to storm Civic Square. The square, an area in front of government headquarters, was designed specifically for public demonstrations. Wong himself had in 2012, staged a hunger strike there, to protest plans to implement controversial school curricula that critics said was nothing more than propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party.
As Wong’s campaign grew, so did his fame. A rally he organised drew more than 100,000 people. By the time the government caved, the skinny, bespectacled teenager had become a household name in Hong Kong – an unlikely hero in a city where superstars were typically well-dressed and manicured and carefully packaged.
In the middle of 2014, a three-metre fence sprung up around Civic Square. Authorities cited security concerns. Activists said it was little more than a bald-faced attempt at curtailing their right to protest. They warned that doing so would only stoke more anger among a people who were already mistrustful of the government.
By then, the campaign for genuine universal suffrage was gaining traction. An unofficial referendum on how elections for the city’s leader should be conducted drew nearly 800,000 votes.
Pro-democracy activists asked repeatedly for dialogue with CY Leung but received no reply. The fence – an imposing grey barrier – reinforced for them the perception that authorities were not interested in connecting with the people. Alex Chow, a student leader who would go on to take a leading role in the Umbrella Movement, warned that by closing off the square, the government was pushing protestors to demonstrate on the streets instead. He couldn’t have been more prescient.
But on September 26, 2014, we did not have the privilege of hindsight. Perhaps we should have suspected something was up when Wong and the other young activists we were following disappeared for a few hours in the afternoon. Earlier in the day, we had put a wireless microphone on Oscar Lai, spokesperson for Wong’s student group, Scholarism. He turned it off shortly after lunch.
“We’re holding a private meeting,” Lai said when we asked.
We didn’t press him for further details. Perhaps we should have. Maybe we would have been better prepared for what was to follow. Looking back now, it made sense that the students were planning something big. Their weeklong strike had yielded no breakthroughs. Critics were laughing at the students for wasting their time.
The night before, Chow’s Hong Kong Federation of Students had even led several thousand supporters on a march to Leung’s residence. We huffed and puffed up Government Hill, jostling for space with dozens of sweaty photographers and camera people. The students carried a massive cutout of the Chief Executive – to his smiling face, they added fangs. We couldn’t help but laugh. The protest was visual, noisy, a documentarian’s dream. The students knew how to engage the media and photos of the march were widely shared on social media the following day. But behind their antics, was genuine anger.
The August 31st decision
China had on August 31, released its plan for universal suffrage for Hong Kong. We watched the announcement on TV, in a room inside the Legislative Council building, together with members of the city’s leading pro-democracy groups, and a huge gaggle of journalists and TV crews. The proposal drew immediate condemnation. Despite calls for public nominations, the plan stipulated that while Hong Kongers would get to vote for their Chief Executive in 2017, candidates had to be selected by a committee made up largely of pro-Beijing loyalists.
“The time for dialogue is over,” Benny Tai, co-founder of the group, ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’, declared shortly after the announcement.
It was Tai who first mooted the idea of a civil disobedience movement in 2013. The law professor suggested in a widely circulated article that Hong Kongers should take over the city’s business district, if Beijing failed to grant them the kind of democracy they desired. During an early interview conducted at his tiny office at the University of Hong Kong, he told us he never expected the idea to catch fire the way it did.
That night, on a soggy rain-soaked field, Occupy Central kicked off what Tai called an “era of resistance” for Hong Kong. The plan was to unleash a wave of protests that would culminate in the sit-in they’d been talking about for months. The student strike in September was one of several such protests. A warm-up exercise before the main event. Nobody expected it to lead directly to an occupation far beyond anything anyone had ever envisioned.
“Retake Civic Square!”
On the evening of the 26th, Wong himself seemed mildly surprised when he realised that his fellow activists had entered Civic Square. Looking at the footage now, it feels almost as if he wasn’t expecting them to move so early. He paused ever so slightly, hesitated for a second. And then, he called on supporters to follow him.
Up on the bridge, we gasped as the crowd stood up, surged towards the metal fence. Someone with a loudspeaker roared, “Retake Civic Square!”
A few students scaled the fence, cheered on by their friends. Other protestors attempted to push their way past the metal gate. Wong was swiftly arrested. But it was impossible for police to remove everyone. Dozens of protestors sat down in the middle of the square.
Outside, the chanting continued, “Civic Square is our square!”
We ran down from the bridge, into the crowd. The atmosphere around the fence was electric. Some people were still trying to scale the metal railings. Other protestors peered through the bars, shouting words of encouragement to their friends inside.
As news of the storming spread, more and more people started pouring into the area. It was clear not all of them were students. The Umbrella Movement has often been portrayed as a youth-led protest. But on the 26th, we met academics and lawyers, bankers and lifeguards, parents and retirees. They arrived almost as soon as they heard the news.
Near the gate leading into the square, we saw Oscar Lai. He was trying hard to convince police to let medics in to treat protestors who were feeling unwell. They looked hesitant. Lai was surrounded by hundreds of demonstrators who could easily push their way into the square once the gate was opened.
“We won’t charge,’ he assured them before turning to the protestors behind him. “We’re not charging, right?”
We’d been on marches with Lai previously, and we knew how good he was at taking control of large crowds. Where his fellow student leaders excelled at giving speeches and leading protests, Lai was an organiser. People looked to him for direction whenever things got confusing. It made sense for him to remain outside the square. The police must have found it incredibly infuriating though – having to deal with a sarcastic 20-year-old who calmly challenged them over and over again throughout the night.
Lai wasn’t the only person who kept his composure. Up on stage, student leader Nathan Law alternated between leading protestors in a series of chants, and giving out practical advice.
“Take down this telephone number. Send an SMS if you get arrested.”
Elsewhere, protestors formed human barriers in key areas to prevent more police from entering.
As the night wore on, others stepped forward. A call for water was swiftly met. Those outside the square filled a box with their personal supplies and passed it to protestors inside. People got on their phones to tell their friends to bring food, drink and first aid kits.
Through it all, the protestors reminded each other that theirs was a non-violent movement. Those who approached the police often did so with their hands raised. No officer was attacked that night. Nothing was broken.
How did they maintain this level of discipline? We wondered about it back then, but it all makes sense now. These were protestors who had spent more than a year mulling the idea of civil disobedience. They’d just emerged from a strike, during which discussions on democracy and peaceful resistance took centrestage. Occupy Central’s own sit-in was imminent. The group had even issued a handbook on how protestors should behave. So while the call to storm Civic Square was unexpected, the reaction should have come as no surprise.
The first umbrellas
At around 3 am, police made their move.
Lai yelled as he ran across Tin Mei Avenue. A small group of protestors followed him. As a line of police attempted to cross the divider separating the road, Lai leapt up, arms spread, eyes squeezed shut. Several rounds of pepper spray had already been released that night. He was probably bracing himself for a faceful.
Hundreds of hands filled the air as the divider disappeared under a wave of protestors. In our footage, we see someone opening an umbrella – the first of many that would be raised throughout the movement. It was a clever way to fend off pepper spray.
More umbrellas appeared. They floated above our camera and around Lai. For a moment, it looked as if there might be a stampede.
And then, the police retreated.