Abstract

This article examines the ways in which particular notions of safety have become central to political protests in Hong Kong. It follows the development of the methods protesters have used to establish a sense of safety as a core part of movement organizing, by focusing on the Umbrella Movement of 2014 and the building of its focal point, Harcourt Village.

On the night of Friday, September 26, 2014, seventeen-year-old student leader Joshua Wong and around one hundred students occupied a forecourt in front of the Hong Kong Government Headquarters, dubbed “Civic Square” by the protesters. The move was highly symbolic. Originally, the architect Rocco Yim had designed the new government headquarters, which opened in 2011, according to the concept of “door always open.” Yim hoped that citizens would be able to use the space for public assembly as part of an open and transparent system of government. But after seeing an increasing number of protests on different issues, the government closed the forecourt in July 2014. A few weeks later, in late August, China’s National People’s Congress announced its “831 Decision,” which specified that the right to nominate candidates for the position of Chief Executive Election of Hong Kong would be restricted to a committee composed of twelve hundred nominators from the upper-class elites (e.g., entrepreneurs and leaders of different professions). In the following weeks, more than ten thousand students from different universities boycotted their classes in order to join protests to demand genuine universal suffrage, which has been pursued by many Hong Kong citizens since the late 1980s. The students also specifically demanded the reversal of the 831 Decision, and some of the students developed the plan to put more pressure on the government by occupying Civic Square.

That night, around two thousand police officers went to clear Civic Square and other nearby areas of protesters, and managed to encircle and arrest seventy-four student occupiers. However, the police were themselves surrounded by an estimated eighty thousand people who came from different parts of the city by Mass Transit Railway (MTR) to demand the protection and release of the students. These political actions marked the beginning of a huge occupation movement, which came to be called the Umbrella Movement because the protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas and police batons as they gathered to occupy the highways in the Admiralty area, where Civic Square was located (fig. 1).

On the following morning of Saturday, September 27, Kin-long Tong, a student protester and one of the authors of this article, was amid the crowd of people protesting the arrest of the student occupiers. Suddenly, the police shot pepper spray toward the protesters without warning. Tong’s left eye was bruised after he was hit by a police officer’s riot shield. But he returned the following day and witnessed the moment when the police fired the first tear gas grenade at the protesters, at 5:58 p.m. on Sunday, September 28. Images of protesters shielding themselves from the tear gas with their umbrellas were broadcast live on television while many people were having dinner and watching the evening news. Many citizens were shocked by the scene, and tens of thousands of them soon joined the angry crowds. According to reporters from the South China Morning Post, countless older people rushed out to the streets; one of them who was interviewed by a reporter questioned the presence of the police by saying “the police exist to protect us. . . . But in fact, we are safer without the police.”1

After the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from the British colonial government to China’s Communist Party in 1997, many citizens regarded the Hong Kong police as an uncorrupt and reliable force that ensured the stability of the city, and as a symbol of the difference between the city—a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR) with its own system of politics, economy, and society—and the rest of China. But on September 28, 2014, the Hong Kong police demonstrated clearly their role as a tool in Beijing’s efforts to eliminate dissent, no longer guarantors of citizens’ safety in the face of Beijing’s state power. The public sense of being kept safe by the police shifted to a profound fear of police brutality.

The Umbrella Movement thus was driven not only by the demand for universal suffrage, which citizens hoped to use to curb Beijing’s state power and its alliance with local elites, but also by public discontent and outrage about police brutality exercised on the protesters. Survey data collected by communication scholar Gary Tang shows that 55.8 percent of the protesters decided to join the movement only after seeing (mainly via TV news) the police firing tear gas.2 For the first time in Hong Kong’s postcolonial history, police brutality became the galvanizing reason for a massive number of citizens joining protests on the streets. The whole city was soon divided based on attitudes about the police: citizens who called themselves “yellow ribbon” supported the movement in opposition to police brutality; those who called themselves “blue ribbon,” the color of the police uniform, supported the police.3 Ever since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, public anger toward the police has only grown with Beijing’s increasing political control. In the summer of 2019, many citizens criticized the police for their use of excessive force to suppress protesters who were calling for the withdrawal of a bill that would allow Hong Kong citizens and foreigners to be extradited to mainland China. The Anti-Extradition Bill Movement is still ongoing, and its result is yet to be known at the time of writing this article. But without question, the relationship between the police and citizens has continued to deteriorate since 2014 and shows no signs of improving as long as the conflicts between Beijing and Hong Kong persist.

Countless citizens went to Civic Square because they were worried about the safety of the student protesters, but as they did so, they also feared for their own safety. Similarly, in the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement of 2019, many citizens and frontline protesters have emphasized the importance of being safe amid the dangers of tear gas grenades, rubber bullets, and surveillance cameras. We have seen frontline protesters putting helmets on the heads of unprotected journalists reporting from protest sites. When the protesters have been partly surrounded by riot police, netizens watching livestreams of the protests have provided the protesters with detailed maps of possible escape routes. Several food store owners, after inviting the escaping protesters to rest in their premises, closed their gates to protect the protesters until the riot police had retreated from the streets. It is also very common to see online comments to the effect that “the more people we have, the safer we are,” as protesters try to persuade more citizens to join the protest despite the risks of being attacked by members of gangs (triads) connected to pro-Beijing associations. Having participated in both the Umbrella Movement and the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement, we detect a serious concern among protesters about safety in front of an increasingly violent police force.

A social movement is not only about resistance to power; it is also about protecting oneself and one’s fellow protesters while confronting that power. But scholarly and public discussions of the protesters’ safety are often much less extensive than discussion of the ideals and goals of social movements. This essay explores how Hong Kong protesters developed an important practice of creating community based on the notion of safety as a part of movement organizing. By revisiting the development of the Umbrella Movement, we focus on how protesters collaborated to build the major occupied zone in Admiralty, which they called Harcourt Village. Built on several main streets in the central business district of the city, the village managed to exist for almost three months, during which time the villagers did not allow uniformed police officers to enter.

The collective safety from police brutality offered by Harcourt Village created a communal space that greatly strengthened the protesters’ belief that, instead of following instructions given by traditional political parties and their leaders in a top-down manner, they as ordinary protesters had the ability to take political action as individuals and autonomous groups. As Kin-man Chan, a sociologist and one of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement, observed, the occupied space allowed “people to communicate and co-create a community of their own,” which “reflects people’s discontent to the existing hierarchical, utilitarian and over-disciplined society.”4 What is rarely explored, however, is what the occupiers did to ensure that their communal space was safe enough to be free from the threat of the police force and the attempts by Beijing and the Hong Kong SAR government to restore that hierarchical and overdisciplined society.

In this essay, we first give a brief historical overview of how public perceptions of and experiences with the police have changed since 2010. Then, we examine what the occupiers did to build Harcourt Village. Although the Hong Kong protesters did not openly claim that they built the village for safety reasons or to protect themselves from police brutality, two elements indicate an increasing aversion among the public regarding the police. First, many occupiers rushed to the streets after they had been galvanized by the tear gas, and second, the occupiers rejected the role and presence of the uniformed police in securing their occupied spaces. The process of building the village itself can thus serve as a reference point to imagine what a world without police might involve, especially considering that protesters’ safety is of the utmost importance in the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement, which is happening as we write. If that world is imaginable, it means that we, as citizens, might find ourselves able to do the job of ensuring public security without the police. While the demand for national and public security is often used as an excuse to reinforce state power and its conservative hierarchies, what Harcourt Village demonstrated was an organic form of safety constructed through protesters’ mutual care, which strengthened those who were opposing the government. In the following sections, we will see how the protesters’ care about safety was realized, and how it in turn empowered the citizens’ will of resistance.

When Protesters Felt Unsafe: Hard-Line Policing

The Umbrella Movement was a continuation of citizens’ pursuit of universal suffrage, a demand extending from the 1980s during the negotiations between China and Britain over the future status of colonial Hong Kong.5 The right to universal suffrage was promised in the Hong Kong Basic Law promulgated in the 1990s, when sovereignty over the city was about to be transferred to China, but there was never an agreement on the schedule and details of this promise. Beijing has repeatedly tried to tighten its control over the city by delaying and limiting the request for universal suffrage, while the politicians, activists, and citizens who have been called “pan-democrats” have always sought a political system that could limit Beijing’s state power in the city. On August 31, 2014, the city’s political reform reached a critical moment as the “831 Decision” triggered a series of protests.

Unlike previous protests organized by the pan-democrats, the 2014 protest had to face a government that had consistently adopted a hard-line attitude to any political demonstrations. C.-Y. Leung, the chief executive since 2012, and Andy Tsang, the commissioner of police since 2011, were politicians who were widely seen as close to Beijing and hostile to liberal reforms. More citizens started to worry that the police would become the “private guards of the government” instead of “civic guardians.”6 This concern over changes in the Hong Kong police was a continuation of the public’s understanding of the social role of the police in Hong Kong’s late colonial period. As argued by Lawrence Ho, postcolonial Hong Kong had to face a transition in the notion of policing. In the colonial period, the British requested that the police remain politically impartial in the conflicts between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang, but this impartiality could not be effectively transplanted into a postcolonial and authoritarian context in which the police were overseen by the Communist Party.7 Public fears were also related to the rise of China’s President Xi Jinping around the same period, as Xi strengthened ideological control and cracked down on social movements that might threaten the prerogative of state governance. Beijing was particularly unwilling to see Hong Kong become politically unstable after the 2000 overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in the former Yugoslavia, the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. Beijing, which always worried that it might follow in the steps of the Soviet Union in losing the control of its territorial boundaries or ceding a greater liberalization of the Communist Party–state, had repeatedly emphasized that they would not permit a “color revolution” to take place in Hong Kong.

In 2013, the relationship between Beijing and the pan-democrats in Hong Kong became even more tense when a small group of pan-democrats, who called themselves Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), attempted to offer a blueprint for principled resistance that could force Beijing into granting universal suffrage to the city. According to OCLP leader and law professor Benny Tai, resistance within legal bounds seemed in vain as Beijing became more intransigent, and civil disobedience had become the last-resort measure to put pressure on Beijing.8 Thus, OCLP advocated the nonviolent occupation of Central, the central business district beside Admiralty. After the 831 Decision was announced in August 2014, Tai, drawing inspiration from the Occupy movements worldwide, proposed his “occupation with love and peace,” which he expected to instigate on China’s national day (October 1). However, the students’ occupation of Civic Square forced Tai to announce the beginning of the OCLP occupation earlier, at 1:38 a.m. on September 28, in solidarity with the students. OCLP members, many of whom came from different organizations in Hong Kong’s civil society, contributed their resources to the occupied areas despite the situation having escalated far beyond their expectations. In response, the Hong Kong police initiated Operation Solar Peak, which had been in preparation for one year in anticipation of an occupation of Central. The details of the policing plan had not been disclosed to the public, but some of its core injunctions had been revealed by the pro-Beijing media a year earlier. For example, the Hong Kong police were not to tolerate the occupation of major traffic highways and core infrastructure (such as the stock exchange center).9 However, the evolving situation did not conform to the original plan, and the students’ actions had caught the police off guard.

The use of tear gas grenades was a disheartening moment for those who had experienced, or imagined, a period of greater political freedom in Hong Kong. According to a 2014 report made by netizens, between the end of the Second World War and 2014, the Hong Kong police had used tear gas only a few times, for instance: during citywide riots led by leftist labor unions in 1967, and against Korean farmers who came to Hong Kong to protest against the World Trade Organization conference in 2005.10 In 2014, Liu Wingon, a secondary school student, was shocked when he witnessed the scenes of tear gas on television. He recalled that he was “overwhelmed with indignation” because “we are also Hong Kongers, why did you [the police] fire tear gas at us?” A sudden sense of anger and defiance led him to rush courageously into the streets with his violin to play songs to motivate the citizens.11 The police fired eighty-seven tear gas grenades to disperse the citizens who came to join the student protesters on September 28 and 29, but they failed to clear the crowds and chose to retreat from the streets.

According to political scientist Yongshun Cai, the Umbrella Movement was able to sustain itself for seventy-nine days because the government, having lost its policing legitimacy after the tear gas incident, chose to wait out the situation until the protesters eventually lost their legitimacy in the eyes of the wider Hong Kong public as their presence on the street continued to disrupt the local economy.12 But alongside this state-centric perspective, we can also examine seriously how the protesters themselves sustained their presence on the streets. In the next section, we will show how the protesters decided to build a protest space that not only continued to help them express their political demands but also protected them from police violence and intrusion. In the five years since the Umbrella Movement’s end, academics have extensively discussed the political and artistic meanings of its occupied spaces. Social scientists usually understand the Umbrella Movement as a continuation of the democratic movement of the previous three decades, while humanities scholars have theorized the Umbrella Movement as a form of theater showcasing the protesters’ creativity and diversity.13 In contrast, the protesters’ tactics of creating a safe environment, which greatly curbed the state’s ability to police the movement, have not been given significant scholarly attention.

Harcourt Village: A Safe Space without the Police

Located in one of Hong Kong’s central business districts, Harcourt Village, the “capital” of the Umbrella Movement, was a result of both the tactical retreat of the police and the uncompromising determination of the protesters. The police retreated after their use of tear gas failed to restore order in early October. Some anonymous police officers complained to the media that such policing strategies were tactical mistakes.14 For example, every time the tear gas dissipated, the police retreated to their barricades and the protesters would regroup and take back the streets. Moreover, after the activation of OCLP, the police closed all routes to the government headquarters in order to cut off the supporters who were traveling to join the protesters by public transport, especially MTR. The consequence of this was that these supporters, most of whom would exit the MTR station at Admiralty opposite Harcourt Road, simply occupied Harcourt Road instead. People leaving the MTR station would immediately become part of the occupation. The police failed to disperse the protesters who occupied the main roads and highways in the city’s central business districts, including Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok.

The tactics chosen by the police were also influenced by the space and time in which they were situated. Hong Kong is a global financial hub, which Beijing values. With a free flow of information, citizens and journalists—including foreign correspondents—can easily document abusive policing practices, which would tarnish the image of the Hong Kong government and also threaten the business environment in the city. Two incidents of abusive policing that captured the public’s attention during the occupation period, involving a superintendent and seven other front-line officers, exemplify how police misconduct could be recorded and exposed.15

Historical memory also mattered. Hong Kong citizens have been haunted by the memory of the Tiananmen Incident in 1989, in which Beijing used its army, including tanks, to repress student protesters. Before September 2014, the Hong Kong public had often used the Tiananmen Incident as a reference point to predict the government’s policing strategies, forcing Elsie Leung, a former secretary for justice who has been regarded by journalists as a spokesperson for Beijing, to state explicitly that another June Fourth Incident would not occur.16 After the students’ surprise occupation in late September, there was also a rumor that some Chinese Communist Party officials wanted to create another June Fourth Incident, but the idea had been vetoed by President Xi. Commenting on the development of policing studies, Mark Neocleous has argued that a critical reflection on policing should liberate itself from criminology and embrace a materialist turn to reveal the operation of state power.17 We can apply Neocleous’s argument to the case of the Umbrella Movement in the sense that policing was never purely a tactical decision made by front-line police. The policing on the ground and on the streets was also shaped by how the Chinese state understood Hong Kong’s geopolitical status as a global city for capital coordination, which required political and social stability, as well as China’s concerns in the post-1989 period about the perceptions likely to be created by any use of force.

The political will of the protesters should not be forgotten as a key element in the building of Harcourt Village. After the teargassing, the student leaders and OCLP agreed that the situation was dangerous and asked the protesters to retreat. However, many protesters, some of whom had been protesting and living on the streets for two or three days, refused. They voluntarily occupied a number of areas and proclaimed themselves “landlords,” as they were literally the ones who occupied those sites. Receiving no satisfactory response from the government, protesters remained on the streets after the national holiday on October 1. When police officers claimed to be delivering food to the government headquarters, they were blocked by some landlords and could not pass through the occupied zone.18

The building of the occupied space involved many small steps that strengthened both the borders and the configuration of the space to ensure the safety of the occupiers. But the protesters soon developed the highway from an anonymous and transitional space into a place of community. On October 2, the day after the national holiday, a journalist reported what was occurring in the occupied zone: “On the fifth day of the occupation, the protesters started to remake Admiralty from a commercial and political center into a clean and multifaceted occupied zone. This is their self-made community. The occupiers renamed Cotton Tree Drive to Resistance Drive, setting up a community library, establishing a recycling bin. . . . Yesterday, many parents brought their children here.”19 The above report shows that Harcourt Village was created not only through the actions of occupation but also through the repurposing of infrastructure. Students, OCLP, and other political parties and civic organizations started to set up material stations that stocked medical kits, water, masks, and towels for protesters who expected to face police pepper spray. Some protesters assembled sound equipment, including speakers and megaphones, to broadcast instructions to their fellow protesters. Other protesters used waste containers and other barricades to form a material border for the occupied zone. In mid-October, a construction worker showed the protesters how to reinforce the borders of the village with the bamboo poles used by local construction workers to scaffold buildings (fig. 2).20 These borders would not necessarily have been robust enough to prevent the police from destroying them if they decided to do so, but the bamboo barricades marked a clear visual boundary between the protest space and its outside.

After the police decided to stop trying to enter the Admiralty-occupied zone, the protesters rested somewhat more easily. For example, a student named Samuel shared his feelings with a volunteer journalist of a self-published booklet called Harcourt Village Voice (Issue One): Once in a Lifetime—The Legendary Popup Village:

I have been here since September 28. The whole occupation process was first about survival, then about life. At the beginning I was very conscious of whether there would be any danger, such as whether the police would come to clear the site. When a desire to protect this community emerged, the whole thing became about life. When the police stopped their actions, I started to read and ride my bike around the occupied area.

The booklet, published by the occupiers and released within the occupied zone in late November 2014, captured the voices of many occupiers or, as they called themselves, “villagers.” The editor of the booklet, Benedict Leung, wrote that “what is impossible is practiced here, in Harcourt Village. This is a world of fairy tales, a community that we truly want.”21 Mass media portrayed Harcourt Village as a leaderless but orderly community with its voluntary cleaning activities, spotless restrooms, self-study corner, and countless activities and artworks. The quote below shows one example of how one international media outlet described the scenes in Harcourt Village:

The crowds camping out across Hong Kong have already set up a recycling system, and teenagers can be seen sorting through rubbish at every protest site. On Twitter, there are even photos of kids helping the trash man load his truck. Some protesters have set about distributing food and water. Others are handing out face masks to help protect against tear gas, and grandmothers offer surplus umbrellas. In the local parks, protesters stick to sidewalks and don’t trample the grass.22

The protesters cohabited peacefully in Harcourt Village for more than three months (fig. 3). During this period, uniformed police could only station themselves outside the occupied zone because of the protesters’ resistance and the government’s policy of self-restraint. The police could only enter the occupied zone in plain clothes, or else they would be surrounded and asked to leave by the occupiers. The power of the police—at least its power as a visual icon that symbolizes and enforces public order—was greatly limited as a result.

Intrigued by how the occupied spaces transitioned from chaos to a safe “world of fairy tales,” in 2018 we conducted several in-depth interviews with patrol team members. Originally formed and trained by OCLP to protect their planned civil disobedience from outside disturbances, the patrol team was composed of various people, some of them with significant previous experience of patrolling political gatherings in the city. We argue that the patrol team, who used nonviolent principles to maintain order, functioned as an alternative method of self-policing without the state police. According to Yin-tung Cheung (around fifty-five years old, male), the head of the patrol team, a small-business owner and a senior member of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party (a party with around seven hundred members), the patrol team decided to take off their uniforms and badges to avoid being seen by the “landlords” as hijacking the movement.23 They also decided to shift their role “from being an instructor to a facilitator,” who tried to solve conflicts not only between the police and the occupiers but also among the occupiers themselves.24 The OCLP patrollers invited new protesters to join them, expanding from thirty OCLP supporters to more than eighty occupiers, including many younger ones. On the internet, the patrol team was criticized by some as hijacking the movement and interfering too much. From our interviews, however, we sensed the powerlessness of the patrollers, as they lacked any authoritative position and equipment with which to maintain order. Jackie Hung (around forty-five years old, female), project officer of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese and the only female patrol leader, told us that it was unfair to criticize them, as they could do nothing more than facilitate better communication between the protesters.25 On one hand, the patrollers helped maintain order; on the other, they were merely protesters with more protest experience who took up the responsibilities of facilitating communication between protesters.

To understand more about the operation and efficacy of this communicative patrolling as a form of spatial management, we turn our focus to Alex Kwok (around fifty-five years old, male), a lifeguard and a leader of a workers’ union, who was well known by the occupiers as the most active patroller in Harcourt Village, having been there almost every night. Among the six patrol leaders, Kwok most firmly defended the necessity and power of the patrol team.26 As a workers’ movement leader who believed more in top-down discipline than decentralized bottom-up activism, he argued that without the patrollers’ guidance and facilitation, the whole occupied space would have collapsed due to the many seemingly trivial conflicts that could have potentially ruined the occupiers’ image and reputation. Kwok told us that he had witnessed how the occupiers learned to live together, especially in the first few days when they were not familiar with each other. At the beginning, for example, some occupiers had disputes over the location of their tents. In addition to solving these kinds of conflicts, Kwok also patrolled to make sure there were no strangers or state agents who could create disputes or stir up trouble among the occupiers. When gangs entered the village zone, he would gather enough patrollers to surround them and distance them from the occupiers, so that the occupiers could feel protected from any potential attack. Kwok shared a story that he had stopped some occupiers from staging a “people’s trial” of a suspected thief and instead suggested that they hand the suspect over to a plainclothes police officer who was at the entrance to the occupied zone. The story reveals a paradoxical situation: the patrol team was intended as an alternative police to protect protesters, but they were willing to cooperate with police despite their anti-police stance. Kwok argued that they did not respect the police, but they would “strategically” use the state police for the good of the campaign and the people.

According to Kwok, his burden was much relieved after the occupiers became acquainted with each other, because the community became so strong that they could easily recognize who were and were not visitors from outside the village borders. This community-based sense of security was also recorded in interviews with occupiers published in Harcourt Village Voice (Issue One). One occupier, Lee Lee, shared her views with the booklet editor: “I completely trust the people here. I can randomly leave my wallet and smartphone here without any worries, but not outside the space. After all, we cannot totally trust a stranger.”

Lee Lee’s sense of security came from the people there, a trustworthy “we” in contrast to the strangers outside. This “we” was constructed through both the patrollers’ labor and the mutual familiarity nurtured through myriad interactions and communications inside the occupied space. As Laikwan Pang has pointed out, the Umbrella Movement was not only a political protest but also a cohabitation practice that nurtured an alternative sociality in which individuals learned to cohabit with many strangers.27 In this process, the protesters developed the occupied space into a community about which they cared and with which they associated their identity. Ultimately, it was the combination of a fierce protest action and the construction of a material border and communicative order that enabled the products of civility and creativity to thrive.

What should not be forgotten is that the sense of safety in Harcourt Village was to some extent built upon the protection provided by the actions of the occupiers of the Mong Kok area, although some members of the Admiralty zone expressly distanced themselves from the more working-class community of Mong Kok. The areas of Admiralty and Mong Kok are geographically close to each other, a distance of four metro stations, or roughly ten minutes’ traveling time, apart. But the two zones were often seen as separate, with distinct respective characters: the Admiralty zone, close to the financial district, was middle-class, well-educated, bohemian, and international, under the leadership of the students and OCLP. In contrast, Mong Kok had a more working-class, grassroots, militant, and diverse identity, and its participants were unwilling to be led by the Admiralty occupiers.28 After the police had retreated from the streets of Admiralty, the media attention of the whole city shifted from Admiralty to Mong Kok. A group of people claimed that the occupation of Mong Kok had disrupted their businesses, and they physically attacked the occupiers in order to reclaim the occupied area. There were many reports and complaints that the police did not arrest the attackers and stood by indifferently.29 The ultimate outcome was that the protesters, through their persistence in the face of physical violence, managed to hold the occupied zone. The survival of the Mong Kok occupation zone in the face of physical violence was galvanizing for many protesters of the wider movement. The Mong Kok protesters soon set up a Kuan Kung shrine, which symbolized righteousness and militancy, in the occupied zone.30 However, when some Mong Kok protesters advocated for a more militant form of protest for the broader movement, some Admiralty protesters called them “ghosts,” attempting to discredit them as being infiltrators for the government who were trying deliberately to create a violent image of the protesters.

The protesters’ will to resist the government gradually faded as they received no response to their demands and the police force stopped its incursions. As early as October 2, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam had announced that she was arranging a meeting with several student leaders who had organized the class boycott and Civic Square occupation. But the meeting was delayed and could only be held on October 21, at which time the three occupied zones were well established. The meeting was broadcast live, but no consensus could be reached. On November 16, a survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong was published, showing that more citizens preferred to end the Occupy Movement than to continue it, so society could return to normal.31 In the following days, protesters attempted to encircle and attack the government headquarters along with many other kinds of active resistance, including hunger strikes and flash mobs; yet these were signs of a final struggle or a tactical retreat.

A group of pro-establishment taxi and minibus drivers successfully applied for an injunction to clear the occupied zones. They claimed that their business was substantially affected by the protesters’ blockading of main roads. The police cleared the Mong Kok site on November 26, Admiralty on December 11, and eventually another site in Causeway Bay on December 15. But there were a number of symbolic occupations afterward, including the establishment of a small encampment called Tim Mei New Village outside the government headquarters for almost a further year, not to mention various memorial activities that continue today.

The Power of a Safe Space

The Anti-Extradition Bill Movement in 2019, to some extent, is an escalation of the Umbrella Movement, with a more uncompromising state power and even more heightened public anger about the police. The occupation of different public spaces has become a common strategy today, though the more aggressive approach now being adopted by the police makes it much harder for protesters to hold sites for more than short periods of time. The community nurtured in the occupied spaces of the Umbrella Movement survives. Some occupiers call themselves “umbrella soldiers” and have formed different pressure groups to participate in community engagement and local elections. Many occupiers are still politically active and call each other “brothers and sisters” in internet forums such as LIHKG, the largest and most active public forum online that supports the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement in 2019. Many “umbrella soldiers” also pass down some of their knowledge of resistance to the younger protesters. For example, some Umbrella occupiers instruct the younger protesters to resist riot police by placing chess pieces on the streets to make the police slip and fall. While the current Anti-Extradition Bill Movement is often emphasized as being very different from the Umbrella Movement, there are many undercurrents behind the spectacles of protest and policing that connect the legacy of the Umbrella Movement to current protests.

Harcourt Village, which symbolized collective safety and freedom from police brutality, is one such undercurrent that reminds us of the importance of the continuous production and maintenance of protesters’ safety in the building of a vibrant protest community. On LIHKG, some Anti-Extradition Bill protesters recently began discussing the need to build their own people’s defense team because the police only protect pro-Beijing protesters. In a way, this desire to build a team for the collective safety of the protesters was a continuation and an extension of the patrol team of Harcourt Village in 2014. Facing a police force that increasingly aligns itself with Beijing’s mandates, the production of collective safety is likely to reemerge as a central factor in current and future protest movements.

Harcourt Village demonstrates the power of collective safety, especially when materialized as a public space, to keep social movements alive. This safety was created by the courageous actions of people, the careful management of materials, and the collective labor and mutual care that ensured the stability of the occupied space.

In the final page of the second (and final) issue of Harcourt Village Voice, the writer Mao Shan contributed an article called “A Beginning,” in which she wrote:

As a worker in the industry of architecture and heritage preservation, I have always witnessed the demolition of buildings and villages. But this is the first time I have felt that my home was being demolished. Throughout history, how many villages have been so well established after only seventy-nine days? Harcourt Village gives us a first-hand experience of a new possibility, realizing a utopia that could not be possible on earth on the land of Hong Kong. But Harcourt Village is not our end . . . let us not to fall into the black hole of self-pity. We have to bring what we have practiced into our lives.32

Mao Shan was wholly aware that the creation of Harcourt Village was a contingent event, but she did not, or chose not to, interpret the singularity of this movement. For her, the experience of Harcourt Village was more a blessing with which to begin a new life than the failure of a political movement. Despite its contingency, the Umbrella Movement did present an alternative sociality that broadened our imaginations of the possible relations between citizens. The vibrant existence of Harcourt Village, which demonstrated newly created relationships between individuality and community, diversity and unity, creativity and civility, middle class and working class, and so forth, can serve as a radical challenge to many dominant ways of thinking about policing. In the face of unprecedented police brutality, widespread antipolice antagonism, and the prospect of ever more disorder and violence, we find Harcourt Village to be a memorable and thus also inerasable experiment in living together. If we are to continue our pursuit of a better world, as well as better ways of taking political action, a historically realized space of community safety can be a lighthouse that anchors our vision and strategy.

We are grateful to the constructive comments given by the anonymous reviewers and by Monica Kim, Robert Williamson, and Sean Tierney.

Notes

15.

On October 15, 2014, protester Ken Tsang was assaulted by seven police officers in the “dark corner” of Tamar Park. The scene was filmed by a Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) news crew. On November 26, Superintendent Franklin Chu hit a bystander with a baton during an occupy protest in Mong Kok. These two cases were widely discussed by media as evidence of police brutality.

23.

Yin-teng Cheung, interview by authors, Lai Chi Kok, Hong Kong, November 30, 2018.

24.

Yin-teng Cheung, interview.

25.

Jackie Hung, interview by authors, Sai Wan Ho, Hong Kong, November 23, 2018.

26.

Alex Kwok, interview by authors, Tai Wai, Hong Kong, November 16, 2018.

31.

According to the survey, 67 percent of the respondents thought that the protesters should end the Occupy Movement. See Now News , “Zhàn lǐng háng dòng de mín yì jì xù nì zhuǎn.”

32.

Mao, “Beginning,” Harcourt Village Voice, Issue 2, 45.

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