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Hong Kong LegCo storming: as Martin Luther King put it, ‘riots are the language of the unheard’

By Holly Fernyhough

I knew that July 1, 2019, was going to be monumental. Like many others, I watched in shock as demonstrators stormed the Legislative Council (LegCo) Complex, set about graffitiing the walls and draping the colonial-era flag of Hong Kong over the President’s chair. Whatever I was expecting to happen it was not that.

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The graffiti on a column in the legislature reads: “It was you who taught me peaceful marches are useless.” Photo: Thammakhun John Crowcroft/HKFP.

Amidst the chaotic scenes being uploaded to social media faster than I could scroll, one particular piece of graffiti – mercifully translated into English – caught my eye: “You taught us that peaceful protests are useless.”

Martin Luther King Jr is often considered to be synonymous with peaceful protest. In a televised interview on September 27 1966, he explained that “non-violence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice.”

Indeed, the Hongkongers marching and protesting have been largely non-violent, with Christian prayers and hymns somewhat emblematic of that message. A running theme of the past few weeks has been that of a Hong Kong unified in its grief and its determination to be seen and heard by legislators, and events have generally passed by peacefully.

However, scenes that showed the desecration of the Hong Kong emblem and LegCo prompted many users on social media to distance themselves from the anti-extradition bill movement completely.

As Chief Executive Carrie Lam herself put it in her 4am speech to the Press on July 2, the activity at LegCo was an “extreme use of violence and vandalism” that shocked and saddened many. Suddenly the Hong Kong that had been so unified just a few weeks before when a reported two million people went to the streets with their demands seemed very divided.

Carrie Lam

Carrie Lam at Tuesday morning’s press conference. Photo: GovHK.

What some may not be aware of is King’s thoughts about riots – a contentious term over the last few weeks. King called riots “the language of the unheard.”

Should people find themselves being ignored continuously by their representatives, what other way do they have to express themselves? Is it any wonder people are frustrated at being unheeded? What alternatives do they have to express their wishes? That is the sentiment behind the graffiti staining the white pillar inside the LegCo building, and the cause of the damage on July 1.

King’s commentary on riots doesn’t end there. In the same interview, he explained: “the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro.”

In other words, if an oppressed people are faced with an unchanging situation, it is the fault of those in power. Any action taken constitutes violence is therefore caused by the people with the ability to change things. The implication of this is that legitimate change must be had to prevent repeat occurrences of July 1.

Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King Jr. (centre). Photo: Wikicommons.

Rather than seeking to penalise, the government would do well to engage with demonstrators and initiate the changes being demanded. That would emphasise and encourage what Lam referred to in her address as “the core values we attach to peace and order.”

In this case, there are no prizes to be won for guessing who are oppressed, and who are those with the capacity to listen and make changes.

Sympathy for the protestors who broke into LegCo is slowly flourishing online. Perhaps those who found themselves inside the Chamber on the so-called “Handover Day” can find comfort in the knowledge that they are victims of circumstance and are not the so-called “bad guys” in this situation.

As Dr Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Riots do not develop out of thin air.”


Holly Fernyhough is a graduate of English and Philosophy and holds a PGCE in Religious Studies. She lives in Hong Kong and currently teaches English as an Additional Language and Philosophy.

Hong Kong LegCo storming: as Martin Luther King put it, 'riots are the language of the unheard'