Hong Kong’s unprecedented protests & police crackdown, explained
September 29, 2014

Protest marches and vigils are fairly common in Hong Kong, but what began on Friday and escalated dramatically on Sunday is unprecedented. Mass acts of civil disobedience were met by a shocking and swift police response, which has led to clashes in the streets and popular outrage so great that analysts can only guess at what will happen next.

What’s going on in Hong Kong right now is a very big deal, and for reasons that go way beyond just this weekend’s protests. Hong Kong’s citizens are protesting to keep their promised democratic rights, which they worry — with good reason — could be taken away by the central Chinese government in Beijing. This moment is a sort of standoff between Hong Kong and China over the city’s future, a confrontation that they have been building toward for almost 20 years.

On Wednesday, student groups led peaceful marches to protest China’s new plan for Hong Kong’s 2017 election, which looked like China reneging on its promise to grant the autonomous region full democracy (see the next section for what that plan was such a big deal). Protest marches are pretty common in Hong Kong so it didn’t seem so unusual at first.

Things started escalating on Friday. Members of a protest group called Occupy Central (Central is the name of Hong Kong’s downtown district) had planned to launch a “civil disobedience” campaign on October 1, a national holiday celebrating communist China’s founding. But as the already-ongoing protesters escalated they decided to go for it now. On Friday, protesters peacefully occupied the forecourt (a courtyard-style open area in front of an office building) of Hong Kong’s city government headquarters along with other downtown areas.

The really important thing is what happened next: Hong Kong’s police cracked down with surprising force, fighting in the streets with protesters and eventually emerging with guns that, while likely filled with rubber bullets, look awfully militaristic. In response, outraged Hong Kong residents flooded into the streets to join the protesters, and on Sunday police blanketed Central with tear gas, which has been seen as a shocking and outrageous escalation. The Chinese central government issued a statement endorsing the police actions, as did Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, a tacit signal that Beijing wishes for the protests to be cleared.

You have to remember that this is Hong Kong: an affluent and orderly place that prides itself on its civility and its freedom. Hong Kongers have a bit of a superiority complex when it comes to China, and see themselves as beyond the mainland’s authoritarianism and disorder. But there is also deep, deep anxiety that this could change, that Hong Kong could lose its special status, and this week’s events have hit on those anxieties to their core.

This began in 1997, when the United Kingdom handed over Hong Kong, one of its last imperial possessions, to the Chinese government. Hong Kong had spent over 150 years under British rule; it had become a fabulously wealthy center of commerce and had enjoyed, while not full democracy, far more freedom and democracy than the rest of China. So, as part of the handover, the Chinese government in Beijing promised to let Hong Kong keep its special rights and its autonomy — a deal known as “one country, two systems.”

A big part of that deal was China’s promise that, in 2017, Hong Kong’s citizens would be allowed to democratically elect their top leader for the first time ever. That leader, known as the Hong Kong chief executive, is currently appointed by a pro-Beijing committee. In 2007, the Chinese government reaffirmed its promise to give Hong Kong this right in 2017, which in Hong Kong is referred to as universal suffrage — a sign of how much value people assign to it.

But there have been disturbing signs throughout this year that the central Chinese government might renege on its promise. In July, the Chinese government issued a “white paper” stating that it has “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong and that “the high degree of autonomy of [Hong Kong] is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership.” It sounded to many like a warning from Beijing that it could dilute or outright revoke Hong Kong’s freedoms, and tens of thousands of Hong Kong’s citizens marched in protest.

Then, in August, Beijing announced its plan for Hong Kong’s 2017 elections. While citizens would be allowed to vote for the chief executive, the candidates for the election would have to be approved by a special committee just like the pro-Beijing committee that currently appoints the chief executive. This lets Beijing hand-pick candidates for the job, which is anti-democratic in itself, but also feels to many in Hong Kong like a first step toward eroding their promised democratic rights.

Full article
Photo 1, 2, 3

The message that the Missouri grand jury has now sent to young African Americans – from Ferguson to my classroom and the rest of the world – is that black lives do not matter, that your rights and your personhood are secondary to an uneasy and negative peace, that the police have more power over your body than you do yourself.
We’ve been humbled at how so many folks across the country have come together under this banner. It’s been used in a whole bunch of different ways, some of which are not appropriate. All Lives Matter. Animals Lives Matter. All kinds of stuff. So when people approach us and want to change it, we ask the question — why do you want to change it? When we start to say ‘All lives matter’ we start to represent this post-racial narrative that quite frankly isn’t true. Of course all lives matter.

Language is something that is malleable and mutable and that’s one of the beautiful things about it. But we also have to think about what’s embedded in our culture, and what’s embedded in our culture is a real fear of black folks and black lives. And a real disdain for black lives. For us it’s a not about being proprietary. It’s about, 'What are you actually saying?’
—  Alicia Garza, one of the women who created the banner, “Black Lives Matter.” Read the whole interview here.

300,000+ people from all over the world marched for climate justice yesterday afternoon in New York City ahead of the United Nations Climate Summit happening this week. 

Although the march’s organization & some participating groups were problematic, the sheer number of people who flooded Manhattan yesterday was unreal. We can use these gatherings to support each other’s organizing work, connect our struggles, share stories & strategize our next moves. 

Flood Wall Street direct actions & civil disobedience to call out climate change profiteers are happening right now at Battery Park. Updates coming soon.

All photos by the awesome Jenna Pope

Police demonstrations inspire new protest songs
December 18, 2014

Stop. Hey, what’s that sound? Protest songs are taking their place alongside chants of “I can’t breathe” and “Hands up, don’t shoot” as demonstrators raise their voices to condemn the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police. There’s something happening here.

The killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have inspired a musical outpouring perhaps unseen in the U.S. since “We Shall Overcome” became a civil-rights standard in the 1960s. Older songs are being redeployed for a new generation. New compositions are being widely shared, including some from major-label artists. And holiday classics are being rewritten, such as a barbed spin on “White Christmas.”

“Facts aren’t fueling this fire. Feeling is what is fueling this fire, and until we express those feelings and those feelings are understood, we aren’t going to get too far,” said Daniel Watts, a Broadway performer who starred in a professionally choreographed Times Square flash mob in response to Eric Garner’s death on Staten Island. He’s also written two more spoken-word pieces about police brutality that others set to music.

One of the tunes gaining a following on the streets and social media was penned six weeks ago by Luke Nephew of The Peace Poets, a Bronx collective that has also has composed event-specific cantos for protests at immigration detention centers, foreclosure auctions and other demonstration sites. It has four lines, starting with “I still hear my brother crying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Now I’m in the struggle singing. I can’t leave.”

Hundreds of people sang those words last week as they blocked bridges and got arrested in New York on the night after a grand jury declined to indict the white officer who used a chokehold on Garner. That so many knew the hymn-like song, and the way it has caught on since then, might owe as much to savvy preparation as the power of the lyrics.

Nephew first introduced the song at an early November meeting of activists preparing for the grand jury’s decision. The participants agreed to share it with their members so as many people as possible could join in when the time came. A recording was posted on YouTube and links made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter.

“We said, ‘Make sure you are taking this back to your organizations. Make sure you are learning this,’” recalled Jose Lopez, an organizer with the social service and advocacy group Make the Road New York.

Gospel singer and radio host Darlene McCoy, founder of a group called Mothers of Black Sons, heard the protesters in Manhattan singing as she watched the news at home in Atlanta. She was so taken with the images of people raising their voices in unison while being handcuffed that she replayed the broadcast to write down the words.

Unaware of its origins, McCoy immediately recorded herself singing Nephew’s composition, posted the file on Instagram and challenged other singers to do the same. At least 45 people have done so, including Catrina Brooks, a former “The X-Factor” contestant from Michigan, whose rendition has been viewed nearly 750,000 times.

“The funny thing is, you have to do it in 15 seconds,” McCoy said, referring to the site’s maximum video length. “And that’s a challenge for some artists.”

Some protesters find fresh relevance in popular music of the past — Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” or Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us.”

Nephew is a bit baffled by how seldom contemporary music has been a part of American social movements in recent decades. He thinks it’s partly because people are no longer accustomed to singing together in public, partly because younger Americans can’t relate to traditional folk tunes that do not speak to their experiences.

“It’s amazing how much of a vacuum there is,” he said. “God bless the heroes of the civil rights movement. But why didn’t their children’s generation have people singing in the streets?”

Questlove, drummer for the hip-hop band the Roots, urged fellow musicians via Instagram and Twitter last week “to be a voice of the times that we live in,” noting that “protest songs don’t have to be boring or non-danceable.”

Several professionals have already released home-produced tribute songs to Brown and Garner, including Alicia Keys, Long Beach rapper Crooked I, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morelo and hip-hop producer J. Cole.

Amateurs have gotten into the act too. A group in St. Louis disrupted a symphony performance of Brahms’ Requiem by singing a “Requiem for Mike Brown” and scattering confetti hearts from the balcony.

Other protests adopt a seasonal theme with “justice carols” that reimagine holiday classics — “All I Want for Christmas Is An Indictment” and “O Little Town of Ferguson.”

But whether any of the songs come to crystallize recent events in the way Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” came to symbolize the Vietnam War era, well, it ain’t exactly clear.

“It often takes time for ideas to percolate through and for people to step back and take a breath and write meaningful tunes,” said Ian Peddie, an English professor at Georgia Gwinnett College who studies the intersection of popular music and human rights. “There has to be that period of incubation.”