The road divider was surprisingly comfortable. We were not the only ones who had discovered it was a very good place to sleep. Dozens of protestors lay in various stages of slumber around us. Others were sprawled on the road below. As more and more people stirred, a cheer rang out. It was a brand new day, and still the police hadn’t managed to clear the area.
Some volunteers walked through the crowd, distributing sweet bread rolls and water. Earlier, they had given out crackers and energy drinks. We would see the same generosity repeated in the weeks that followed. There was never a shortage of food at any of the protest sites. Donors showed up regularly with boxes of mineral water, biscuits, sandwiches, fruit, breakfast bars, and when the weather turned cold, steaming hot soup.
One evening we stumbled, starving, into the nearby McDonald’s. It was late and the only thing available was cake from the McCafe. As we were about to leave, a family approached us with a tray. They’d managed to get themselves probably the last order of chicken burger and fries.
“Take this,” they said. “Keep up the good work.”
They left before we could thank them properly. Fast food never tasted so good.
“Panic, panic, absolute panic!”
A shower of pepper spray broke the calm on the morning of the 27th. As police tried to retake a narrow road next to government headquarters, hundreds of protestors rushed in to stop them. But their umbrellas were no help this time.
A pungent smell filled the air. And then, panic ensued.
The person in front of me screamed. It took a while before I realised he’d been hit. I suddenly found myself coughing and gasping. My lungs felt like they were on fire. All around me, foam-covered protestors flailed and wailed as they called out for help. A man slumped onto the ground and started convulsing – he’d been blinded by a squirt of pepper spray in his eyes and was having a panic attack. Volunteer medics rushed forward to help, but they were overwhelmed. People were collapsing everywhere, bewildered, terrified.
“Panic, panic, absolute panic!” A protestor cried out.
What’s it like to be pepper sprayed? I was lucky not to be hit that morning, but not so fortunate in subsequent encounters with police. The pain is intense, burning. It doesn’t go away for hours. Water only makes things worse. Like many of the protestors, I soon learnt that the best way to deal was to do nothing at all. Stay calm. Let the foam evaporate. Keep breathing. Know that the pain will eventually go away.
But on September 27, it was all new and strange, and frightening. And when the panic subsided, shock turned to anger.
A young woman, her face still red and raw, approached a police officer.
“Sir,” she said through tears, “we’re fighting for democracy for you too. Why are you doing this to us? How can you do this to us?”
“Can we party together?”
For weeks, activists from Occupy Central had hinted that their planned occupation would take place on October 1. They even had a euphemism for the illegal protest – it was a “banquet”, a party that was just a little bit different from other parties.
At a secret meeting in September, volunteers were assigned to oversee different sections of the road they were going to occupy. They compiled lists of the people they believed would show up, and carefully calculated the amount of supplies they would need to see them through what they thought would be a two-day sit-in.
If everything went according to plan, Occupy Central’s demonstration would make a statement but cause minimal disruption. Sceptics queried the effectiveness of such an exercise. Why bother organising a sit-in if it wasn’t going to affect anyone? What would it achieve?
In the end, it didn’t matter – the storming of Civic Square changed everything.
On the evening of the 27th, Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai announced the start of their occupation. They’d modified their plans and were going to join the protestors outside Civic Square instead.
“Can we party together?” He asked.
There was an immediate backlash.
“We came here to support the students, not Occupy Central!” Someone yelled.
Word went round the site that Tai’s group was trying to hijack the students’ sit-in. Groups of disgruntled protestors started leaving.
It was then that Long Hair – probably one of Hong Kong’s most flamboyant pro-democracy legislators – decided to act. He got on his knees and begged the students to stay, to hold on, to not give up. It was an astonishing move, but Long Hair was only partially successful.
By the morning of the 28th, only a few hundred protestors remained. We thought the sit-in would likely end soon. With so few people left, police could easily retake the site.
How wrong we were.