There’s a common saying among senior policemen: if you want to start a riot, send in the riot police. The quickest way to make a fight is to look and act like you want one.
By Lunar New Year’s Day 2016 a lot of bad water had flowed under the bridge since Occupy. Police regularly beat protesters with batons, and pepper-spray them with impunity. Many protesters are hog-tied as if they were knife-wielding maniacs, reportedly beaten at police stations, and then released without charge later on, or put into endless cycles of bail roll-overs.
On a personal level, I have been directly targeted with pepper spray in what was essentially a calm area of a protest, even though I had broken no laws and was neither cautioned or arrested. Just recently, my complaint to CAPO and the IPCC was rejected: the conclusion was the officer was not at fault in squirting the OC foam into my eyes.
The statement even said that there was ample and good evidence to show the officer’s actions were reasonable and fair. The report didn’t give any actual evidence. For the police, CAPO and the independent body that is supposed to watch over them, it seems perfectly reasonable for someone who hasn’t committed any crime to suffer indiscriminate violence from the police if he is near a protest. They’d call it collateral damage. Many people are now in this unfortunate category because unchecked police violence is the default setting at protests. Based on the maxim that violence begets violence, the chickens certainly came home to roost on Monday night.
Most people are ignorant of the swing to violence by police upon unarmed protesters in Hong Kong. Others may know about it but remain apathetic. A small group actively support it, and a growing number are utterly appalled by it and want to fight back. Fighting back is always going to be contentious. Hong Kong is far more tolerant of institutional violence against citizens than it is for citizens fighting back and standing their ground. Or as writer Ya Mingchan put it eloquently on Commercial Radio recently, “Why are people so tolerant to those in power and harsh to the powerless?”
So, that’s where we find ourselves today, reflecting on the violence of the Lunar New Year. The common thought seems to be a sense of shock. People are incredulous. Is Hong Kong now changing for the worse? But the change is only there for people who have ignored the reality. CY Leung’s government, backed up by a willing police force, have been waging a campaign of real and psychological violence against anyone who dares to stand against them.
Right now, the police force is being rocked by dissent from its lower ranks because they were found so utterly wanting when faced with a similar level of violence directed against them. They have become used to dispensing violence with impunity. On Monday night, some officers literally broke ranks and ran from the frontlines. Some commentators are now calling for rubber bullets, gas, water cannon… more violence. They can’t comprehend a solution that would involve reducing violence and deescalating the situation. The dominant culture of the police force in Hong Kong is now so warped that some of them would have Hong Kong look like the West Bank, where disenfranchised rock-throwing kids are shot at by semi-automatic weapons.
There’s another significant factor at play here. Many have no understanding of what truly constitutes the Rule of Law within a civil society. They are actively pushing a Rule By Law. The common law that we have in Hong Kong was created to protect citizens from corrupt governments, not to protect governments from citizens. The ultimate function of the law is to create a just and fair society, and judges are not the henchmen of government whim.
Contrary to this, the message from CY’s administration is that Hong Kong is a city of laws that must be obeyed, and breaking any laws will not be tolerated and will be dealt with harshly. This is rule by law. These different ways of interpreting the law lead to very different worlds.
Hong Kong is now full of cases where the law is not applied evenly among all citizens, and excess by cronies is rampant. For police, the justice system begins with them. Before a person even reaches court, he gets a good dose of violent justice from the police.
This is a very depressing situation that will almost certainly get worse before it is fixed, but it can be fixed with enough determination. In civil societies, independent investigations, often led by senior judges, can try to identify and then rectify the root causes of social problems. Unfortunately, in Hong Kong independent investigations into large-scale protests like Occupy or the Lunar New Year riots will never happen. The government refuses to be held accountable, and the police force is happy to catch the wave of unaccountability.
This refusal to accept accountability can be seen in the Police Union’s brazen statement that police officers are justified in throwing stones at citizens. Either throwing stones at people is illegal for all, or legal for all. When you start adulterating the law on the hoof and adding in exceptions to further your cause, that’s when the law becomes meaningless, and society teeters on the edge of chaos.
Citizens who care about this should get out on the street and demand change. Lead the way in a non-violent revolution to take Hong Kong to a better place. Everyone agrees non-violence is much more powerful than violence. However practising non-violence in front of the computer or television is called having a cup of tea. Practising non-violence when faced with the violence of the State is where its power comes from. This is what Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught. They didn’t stay home and condemn the violent behaviour of others. They led the way as agents of change. So, if you don’t want to see kids hurl stones at police in the future, you need to get out and show them the right way.