by Johnson Ching-Yin YeungAugust 03, 2017
For the first time in Hong Kong’s history, people waged a campaign of civil disobedience and nonviolent occupation for two-and-a-half months in 2014. Hundreds of thousands of brave Hong Kong citizens took over highways and traffic roads; people created cleaning squads and recycling teams; artists and craftsmen put up artwork with yellow umbrellas on them; indie food stalls and restaurants sent hot meals and drinks every day to protesters. The movement was energetic, the people were united. For a moment, we thought our 30-year-old dream of democracy was coming true; we thought Hong Kong was going to change.
Police brutality and court actions brought our efforts to a halt. There were more than a thousand injuries and arrests. The colorful tents and art installations that had decorated the highways were torn down by bulldozers. Protesters, once united like brothers and sisters, turned against each other because of disagreements over tactics. Immense contrasts between the expectation of success and setback led to frustration and feelings of disempowerment.
Many people began to question the effectiveness of mass mobilizations, leading to low turnout and declining street protests after the Umbrella Movement. Protesters who had quit their jobs to devote all of their time to demonstrations wondered, “Was it worth it?”
For a long time, I was haunted by thoughts like, “What could and what should be done to prevent our people from turning against each other?” and “Was it our decisions that caused others to suffer?” I didn’t tell anyone I was besieged by negative emotions. Many of us kept our sorrows and worries to ourselves.
Of course, self-blame and frustration spread easily in failed attempts of nonviolent struggle. People are sentimental beings and they need the feeling of fulfillment. It takes a strong mind or spiritual guidance (like Gandhi's nonviolent struggle did) to maintain self-sacrifice when fulfillment is absent.
Moreover, in a fast-paced society, people get used to harvesting fruits from a one-off investment. When mobilizing people, organizers love to frame the mobilization as “This is our last stand!” or as an endgame. The framing raises both organizers’ and protesters’ expectations, and produces more desperation when they encounter setbacks. The reality is that one contention of nonviolent struggle doesn’t always yield an overall success; it often takes 10 times more escalations and contentions to achieve a goal.
In the absence of consideration for what was accomplished, frustrations can fester, affecting both the psychological wellness of activists and the prospects for future struggles. Activists can lose enthusiasm because they don’t want to recall pain from past failures; they lose creativity because there are fears that untested tactics might cause an even bigger tumble. Worse, activists tend to suppress their trauma to show they are still capable of organizing.
That’s a mistake. From a strategic perspective, neglecting the wounds will adversely affect the movement. We have to acknowledge our missteps and learn from them. We must face the reality of setback, share the feeling of misery and realize that the starting point to healing and recouping our strength is in understanding that the success of a nonviolent movement is seldom determined by a single episode of contention.
In their book, This is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, Paul and Mark Engler note, “Activists are notoriously poor at celebrating their victories.” They’re right; activists should celebrate victories. At the same time, it is not embarrassing to admit failure and frustration.
We can win together, we can lose together. Most importantly, we can be true to ourselves and to others. And we can try again.
Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung was an organizer of the 2014 Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. Working on mass demonstrations calling for electoral reform and political rights, he was the spokesman of Civil Human Rights Front. He is a recipient of the 2017 ICNC Curriculum Fellowship Award.Read More