By Johnson Yeung
I want to tell a story about me and violence.
On July 21, I was dragging my body back home at midnight after a long day of protest. I lay in my bed, my partner was asleep, and I scrolled up and down on my phone in the dark. My newsfeed was awash with footage of mobs holding metal rods and hitting train passengers indiscriminately in Yuen Long.
These thugs, later confirmed to have triad backgrounds and links to a pro-Beijing lawmaker, were beating people under the watch of the police. Some were escorted personally by riot police to safe havens.
I barely slept that night, adrenaline in my body kept me awake. My mind kept rehearsing how I would defend the passengers if I was on the train.
The next day, an atmosphere of terror overcame Hong Kong. Shops and malls were closed early fearing another attack. During lunch, a colleague invited me to protest at the area where the thugs were based. I nodded immediately, finished my lunch in five minutes, grabbed a PVC pipe and put it in my backpack.
I was ready to get into a scuffle. Not only was I prepared to fight, but I was also looking forward to encountering the thugs so I could bring justice to them.
In the end, I didn’t encounter any thugs that day, but I still remember the impulse to use violence.
Are the Hong Kong protests becoming more violent? Yes. And although the demonstrations are largely non-violent, the use of force against the police, vandalism and vigilantism are becoming more frequent. And I have a clear idea why this is happening: it is because justice has not been served over the past four months.
The police have been systematically violating rights and hurting people. More than 1,000 people have been injured, a journalist is set to lose her sight in one eye, one man’s arm was broken during an arrest while some say they were sexually abused by law enforcement.
Speaking of law enforcers, a reporter has been hospitalised after a thug stabbed her in the lung, a teenager could spend his whole life in a wheelchair because hired gangs cut his tendons. And on Monday, a young girl was injured after a taxi driver appeared to deliberately run over protesters.
Now 80 per cent of the population are demanding an independent inquiry into police brutality, according to a Ming Pao poll, and the government responds by invoking emergency powers and banning people from wearing masks.
And keep in mind, we didn’t choose the government. The emergency power has destroyed the very last of the checks and balances that prevent Hong Kong from turning into a truly authoritarian city. It has shut down every single potential peaceful channel to resolve the political crisis.
The people are not just going to sit there and be butchered. They will resist. Remember how Hobbes describes the state of nature? No government, no laws, no common power to restrain. Sounds familiar? That’s Hong Kong nowadays: people concede to the state a monopoly on violence because they trust the state will use violence according to the law – but this social contract has been burnt to ashes by the government.
On many occasions, I feel the impulse to throw a petrol bomb. I have pictured in my head how to take a pistol from an officer’s holster. And do you know what is stopping me from doing so? It’s because I am carrying the name of my organisation that is committed to non-violence, and because I believe a largely non-violent movement has a better chance of success.
Most importantly, I convinced myself that justice would be served in the long run. That doesn’t mean everyone can and should think as I do.
I feel impatient. And there are people who believe finding justice within the system is a joke. For them, vandalising a store owned by a crony of the government, or hitting a pro-government supporter who attempts to attack others is a way to find some justice.
The violence should not be condoned – it should be stopped, starting with state violence. Hong Kong is in a state of emergency, and the law that was once respected by its citizens is melting.
I am not asking you to tolerate violence, I am asking you to understand it. Martin Luther King once said, “Riot is the language of the unheard.” Without understanding where it comes from, you are not hearing what the people are saying. Justice is what we are entitled to, and it should be returned right now.
Johnson Yeung Ching-yin is a human rights advocate in Hong Kong, an exco member of Amnesty International, and former convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front.