Back in 2011, I was a small part of the Occupy Wall Street movement (occasionally helping stock the kitchen and First Aid tents in Zuccotti Park), so arriving in Hong Kong, I had a sense of what Occupy Central with Love and Peace would look like.
This morning (Oct. 1), I headed over to Hong Kong’s financial district, to see the occupation trying to secure for Hong Kong the democratic election they were promised in 2017. Walking east from the ferry terminal, the scale of the event certainly seemed like Occupy in New York—hundreds of people, many wearing that dazed, curious smile people get when they see their fellow citizens behaving as if politics could include them.
Walking uphill on the normally busy Harcourt Road, now turned into a political pedestrian mall, felt like a kind of elongated Zuccotti Park. Then I got to the crest of the roadway, and looked down towards the Admiralty neighborhood, the moment captured in the picture above.
And I realized how wrong I was about the size. Occupy Central is absolutely massive, endless participation as far as the eye can see. (Amazement at the scale of the event seemed to be a common reaction—my picture includes several other people holding up their cameras at about the same spot, having had roughly the same reaction.)
I took my kids with me, and while I have never lost my midwesterner’s wonder at tall buildings and big groups, my kids have grown up in New York City and now Shanghai, so crowds don’t impress them much. What they were interested in (and what came to interest me) were the ways the occupation is adapting to the need to inhabit a two-mile stretch of asphalt 24/7.
The first thing we noticed was the need to alter the surface of the space, to take an impersonal environment and modify it to say “We’re here. This matters.” Cities are occupied, every day, by their residents. To make an occupation different, to kick off a political conversation in what had just recently been a transportation corridor, requires taking urban-scale space and adding human-scale adaptations.
Someone could update Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn to talk about the way various Occupy movements adapt seemingly impassive urban space to their particular needs, both rhetorical and practical.
One common pattern is signs, of course…
Media is also a hugely important part of Occupy Central. All political movements look for coverage, of course, but here, evidence that an event is being documented takes on an additional resonance, since every bit of independent documentation knicks at the government’s ability to keep coverage of the event limited to its side of the story. Though the peer communication app FireChat is getting a workout (and a lot of attention as a result), the real social media story here is about publicity, not privacy. For people who want to be heard, the event has to carry past the streets of downtown Hong Kong, and outside the bounds of legacy Chinese media.
There were also practical adaptations by the score. One of the first ones we came across was about wayfinding. Because the occupation is in the middle of a formerly busy street, there are no guides for pedestrians, so maps were drawn up and posted, to help people find their way along the avenue.
The most famous practical adaptation, of course, was the umbrellas.
Because the first clash of the protest involved occupiers defending themselves against pepper spray with umbrellas, this has become known as the Umbrella Movement.
Even broken umbrellas can serve a second, rhetorical function. Tied to the the western-most barricade on Central, the umbrellas say “This is where business as usual stops and our particular temporary autonomous zone starts.”
Since Hong Kong is, per Wikipedia, “a monsoon-influenced humid subtropical climate”, umbrellas are ubiquitous; politicizing them provides some of the hiding in plain sight symbolism An Xiao Mina has written about so brilliantly. It also means that political symbols are readily for sale in a country known for subtle and pervasive symbolic control.
Likewise, the site of the occupation is distinctly not pedestrian friendly. Central is essentially a downtown highway, with borders to match. As people flow in by their thousands, they need to be able to do something the roadway’s designers explicitly tried to prevent: cross the street. There are several improvised barrier crossings, often staffed by volunteers.
The other famous adaptation was to tear gas, with impromptu gas masks being created out of goggles and saran wrap, which they now stock by the bale.
The occupation doesn’t go in for political graffiti—most signs are made and put up, rather than being painted directly onto walls. (Indeed, we saw protestors carefully scrubbing graffiti off the roadway today, an elaborate signal that this movement does not aim to destroy or deface property.)
My friend Marianne Manilov pointed out to me that Occupy Wall Street strengthened its political message enormously with a commitment to look after anyone who showed up. In the industrialized world, taking care of other people has become a radical political act. The occupiers of Hong Kong have created an impromptu but effective distribution system for food, water, first aid, cooling supplies.
The speed with which the participants in this movement have built an encampment with food and water and first aid and even border crossings is impressive. They have shown us, at a scope unimaginable even in Zuccotti Park in 2011, what it means to occupy a space. The odds against this movement are serious, but they have shown that adapting urban space to political communication is an act of shared imagination and adaptation.
The original version of this essay is on GitHub. If you would like to share the photos or copy the essay, you can fork a version of your own.