In the past week, cities all over the world have risen up to protest police brutality and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others—only to see peaceful marchers brutalized by the police themselves. In some places, these protests mark the largest acts of organized resistance in decades. But in others, protest has been a part of daily life for months, even years.
Hong Kong is one such city, where citizens have actively protested a sweeping extension of mainland China’s power since June of last year (and today, June 4, is the anniversary of the tragic events at Tiananmen Square in 1989). What began as a protest of a controversial extradition bill has expanded to what activists call the “Five Demands” encapsulating police brutality, incarceration, and voting rights. Through their highs and lows, the Hong Kong protesters have developed invaluable new strategies for 21st-century social resistance. And I wondered—is there something we could learn from their tactics?
I downloaded Telegram, an encrypted messaging app banned in mainland China but popular among Hong Kong activists, and was connected via a private channel that facilitates connections between activists and journalists. There I cold-contacted an admin, who asked me for two-step identity verification, then posted my name and interview request on a private message board.
A few hours later, I received an anonymous message: “They call me 103,” they said.
“103” told me little about themselves—they’re middle-aged and “working towards a fair, just, and free HK”—and are well-versed in the tools of resistance. I also spoke to Stacey, a veteran protester in her late 20s, and Maple, a 23-year-old worker in the luxury industry. All three of them offered actionable intel for protesters in the U.S. and abroad—from what kind of helmet you should wear to how you should communicate—while channeling the wisdom of the one and only Bruce Lee.
What to wear
While there’s no uniform that suits every protest, different gatherings have different goals. Bear in mind that things can always change on the ground once resistance is under way. “You never know what cops are going to use,” says Stacey. “It’s not like you can choose, ‘Today I’m going to wear my tear gas outfit or something.’ ”
There are a few essentials you should be sure to wear if you plan to hit the streets: masks, goggles, long sleeves, and helmets.
“Unarmed citizens have no business trying to force things against modern, heavily armed forces with full backing of the state,” says 103. They were quick to point out that masks and goggles don’t equip you to confront police officers. Instead, “these really just buy you some time and opportunity to move away.”
Both Stacey and 103 also recommended wearing a helmet to protect against batons and rubber bullets. Stacey recommended getting the nicest helmet you can find, and 103 told me what to avoid: “Yellow construction helmets ain’t so good: they are both flimsy (cracks on a determined baton strike) and if the police/military is shooting, you’d stand out like a firefly at night.”
There’s a grim irony in the fact that the respirator mask is the essential tool in both major crises of 2020—COVID-19 and police-brutality protests. If you plan on any direct confrontation with law enforcement, Stacey says, the mask is a must, along with goggles. “If you’re not wearing them, once the cops fire tear gas, you’re done.” Keep your mask on and a pair of airtight swimming goggles around your neck, just in case. Long sleeves are a good idea, too, as tear gas and pepper spray can damage your skin as much as your eyes. The masks and goggles made for a wild combination when the Hong Kong protests reached their peak in 2019: “Everyone dressed like Heisenberg!”