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Lapsing Into CrimethInc Jargon on the Day After the Big One: One WTO Protest Story
When the moment finally explodes like overripe fruit, you will be caught unprepared, soaked in pepper spray, your camera broken. You will be grumpy and trying to get home, but you won't have the one set of keys that you're sharing with five other people--and the fucking cellphone doesn't work on this side of the Pacific.
And of course, of course you've lost all of the crew you've been running with. So you will have nothing but your heartbeat, adrenaline, and bad, bad poetry like residual CrimethInc slogans flittering uselessly through your head like fruitflies.
Somewhat jaded after a zillion identical rallies and staged marches with the same old chants, props and gimmicks, I found myself completely engaged and engulfed in a seemingly endless sea of people, running at full speed into a massive intersection, hollering at the top of my lungs "Down, down USA!" like it was the newest, smartest, most important thing I could ever say to anyone. Here we were, doing much of the same things we had been doing all week: marching down this one road, shouting slogans, being in a large group. Yet now everything was completely different.
The excitement and disobedience was tangible. Things were recognizably similar, yet there was no doubt that something had changed. I recalled my friend who lives here saying about Hong Kong: "People don't realize our power here. Maybe these WTO protests can be a beginning of changing that."
And that's what had changed: This was a eruption of people who were realizing the immensity of their power. I was surrounded by ten thousand strangers whom individually, over the week, I've grown to recognize in crowds. Some, like the Korean farmers, have graciously shared their food with me and rekindled my love for not just struggle but the people behind it. Now, surreally, I tore through the streets temporarily empty of cars and commerce, among a horde of the farmers. They drummed beats that could raise and slay demons. I kept shaking my head in amazement. They're "just" farmers, I remember. Not self-proclaimed guerrila artist vanguards, public relations consultants, military strategists, nor acclaimed musicians. "Just ordinary people." It sure raises the bar for the rest of us on what it means to be "ordinary people."
The farmers light something on fire and charge the police line with it. The police retreat, visibly nervous and unprepared. We pick up bamboo sticks, wooden blocks and flagpoles on the road and slam into the riot shields again. We drag away the barricades and run with them into the police, this time actually dispersing them. The crowd roars.
Earlier today at the barricades by the protest cage the cops stood near the top of a huge iron gate, decimating us with water cannons that pumped something the press distinguished from familiar old pepper spray by ominously titling it "water with a chemical that causes burning." Now the cops were backing up in fright. I'm screaming and cheering like everyone else. The giant mob breaks into several groups and each smaller group (of at least 100-200 people each) and peeled off in different directions. I stick with the group of Korean farmers who wielded the flaming thing. There are also some Via Campesina folks, with their flags. We sprint down a street.
In front of the giant Immigration Tower the Korean drummers are pounding on their instruments with such focused ferocity and passion that all I can remember is that slogan from way back when:
We will celebrate the death of your institutions with such fierce dancing.
I hate how the mere phrase "drumming and dancing" conjures images of hippies. The Korean farmers drum and dance like tornado-catchers, demon slayers, firecrackers.
And then, they just have such good style.
"All together now!" one red-faced farmer who had been drumming shouted into the crowd, motioning for us to repeat. We had all been running. It was right after a confrontation with the police. Now we were in a new intersection, surrounded by Hong Kong onlookers.
"ALL TOGETHER NOW!" the crowd shouted back.
"Hong Kong citizens!"
"HONG KONG CITIZENS!"
"Nice to meet you!"
"NICE TO MEET YOU!"
When the cops close in on us on both sides we run into some shopping mall courtyard, and a showdown ensued. We pull handfuls and clumps of pointsetta debris out of the manicured marble raised-bed decorative garden and chuck them at police, watching the soil slide down the plexiglass in front of their helmeted faces. I curse my pathetic throwing arm. The police open fire with tear gas cannisters. We kick them back but some explode and then in the uber-dramatic, choking fog that makes protest pictures so spectacular we are choking and crying, hunched over. Every time I get tear gassed I think afterward: "Oh, that really wasn't so bad." But every time it happens all I think is: "Oh god, I'm dying."
After a gasping, wheezing, stumbling retreat into some other decorative foliage I emerge on the street that we would end up occupying for the next five hours. Of course, I never know these things in advance. So every moment following is crystallized in total confusion and over-the-top profundity as we eat together, try to communicate across languages, and watch the police advance and retreat, cocking their guns at us (loaded with rubber bullets, we hear), then pulling back.
A gaggle of hundreds of Hong Kong locals watched us from the sidelines with interest and some enthusiasm. They stood beyond the security fences and from above, in one of the overhead walkways that are so common here. Later on I learned that the intersection that we were holding was a major thoroughfare and that we were a mere block and a half away from the convention center. The walkway above us from which people (a faceless huddle of people shapes) watched us was same walkway the delegates used to get to their hotels and to do some shopping at the ritzy malls.
"WE LOVE HONG KONG!" the farmers roared from their seated positions in rows on the ground. Unbelievably, they made a heart shape by curving their arms above their heads with hands pointed down.
"DOWN, DOWN WTO!"
The night was bitterly cold- like the weather in the Bay Area, the days are warm if you stand in direct sunlight, but the nights get chilly enough that if you're caught outside with just your day clothes on you'll be fairly miserable. We all shivered in still-drying clothes as the wind howled through the intersection.
"As you know, it is very cold tonight. But it is a beautiful night tonight because of the solidarity here," one woman announced through a small sound system to the rows and rows of us. There were over 1,000 of us. We lay down and stretched our hands in the air. I looked up to see my one white-gloved hand (a friend had given me one of hers to help me stay warmer), and the sky, segmented by tall buildings. In my peripheral vision I could see dozens of other outstretched hands reaching for the sky.
The next hours were a haze. I saw not one person make a move to leave the intersection, despite the heavy, threatening police presence. The Koreans led another impromptu street party. We line danced in winding circles, did something similar to "Red Rover" except that we all held hands in a circle, which resulted in cheerful pandemonium. The Koreans brought out the good old American flag with the skulls instead of the stripes--the one that has "Fuck!" written on it. Always a crowd pleaser, people boogied down, stomping on it until it was nearly destroyed. I thought I would get hypothermia from my wet clothes; but then someone gave me a jacket, and eventually, to my utter amazement, my Carhartts dried.
We listened through countless speeches made by faceless (from my location in the crowd) speakers. Their emotion-filled, disembodied voices reverberated through the intersection in Korean, English, and Cantonese, suspending us in the present, forcing us to focus on why we were here--and not on the police who beat their shields in horrible unison as they assumed their formations, preparing to attack us.
I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that although "our" lives (as Korean farmers, Thai migrant workers, Hong Kong university students, American-born-Chinese and Asian activists) were so impossibly different and no doubt our struggles are as well, that for this night we all shared these strange, volatile moments. As we held the moment and the space together, I reflected on how improbable the whole situation was really, and I remembered why I come to these things, long after I have grown sick of one-dimensional protest slogans and get irritable moving slowly in crowds.
These giant summits and demos, in addition to whatever else they do, bring out the very best of what it can mean to be human- and the very worst of what we're capable of: these oppressive institutions that humans have created. All of these aspects are magnified a million times and play out simultaneously, at a head-spinning pace. We slow-moving individual mortals are left confounded, triumphant, awkwardly trying to make sense of how we can have the greatest effect possible while all of our hopes, fears, and dreams are encapsulated in every late night plan, street fight, boring concensus meeting, act of reckless passion. The pressure is on for us to assume roles that feel appropriate to the level of urgency that exists, directly proportional to the looming potential of disaster that would definitely result from inaction. Sure that pressure exists every day, but rarely do we have the opportunity- or the will- to actually demand from ourselves the full range of compassion, boldness, and action that we are capable of. I know that it takes examples such as the migrant workers here--many of whom have sacrificed their tenuous livelihoods as domestic workers in order to perserve and organize in the face of unbelievable oppression--to remind me what actually makes sense in the world and why I do want to be alive in this stupid, fucked-up world.
And so I am surrounded by police lines after midnight, sitting amongst rows and rows of farmers who have come here to, as one speaker put it, "take our last stand against the WTO" because they were literally fighting to exist. And then, here I am. Some scrappy kid who stays up all night writing--perhaps to prove that I exist as well. And then our struggles for existence are so vastly different. This idea of solidarity: it feels more meaningful than anything else I've found as a way to try to deal with all the oppression and inequality in the world; yet I can't help but be concerned about the ability to throw the word around in a way that only flattens and distorts what it could signify. Because in the end, someone always gets to go home--literally and figuratively.
At 3am I managed to get out (using my NoRNC Indymedia pass, unbelievably) while the Korean farmers and some supporters (who more or less chose to stay) were arrested. Certainly the Korean farmers didn't think it would be necessary for others who had a choice, to go to jail. At least that was what one of the Korean Peasant's League leaders told a friend when she informed him that several kids from Hong Kong were choosing to be arrested with the farmers. Since I could escape, why wouldn't I? The martyr role is old and tired, and I would get even less work done if I was being detained.
Nonetheless, I couldn't help feeling shitty as I walked through the lines and lines of heavily armed police who waved me past multiple barricades. The effect was surreal. Here I am, clearly a weird protester kid whose septum ring and one set of clothes are a fairly dead giveaway about my role here. I had spent the whole night and past few days running around antagonizing police whenever possible; now I was permitted to leave while the Koreans awaited arrest and maybe deportation. The reason I was permitted to leave? Clearly it was my US citizenship. It was obvious that repression would be applied on the basis of nationality in this scenario. (In the US it's usually race, right?)
Earlier in the night during the occupation, a friend of mine who maintains the Target WTO website here got a call from another friend who had heard from another person who was inside the conference.
"There's absolute chaos here!" he shouted on his end of the phone conversation. "The delegates are scared shitless. Police have locked and barricaded the front entrance. The talks are in total stagnation!"
The French and Japanese delegates had to be taken away by ferry.
Handle and I--we're not hardcore so we took a cab after we meandered through the labyrinth of barricades and police vehicles. The cab ride felt like the closing credits of a long, long, weird day. The driver played some undistinctive soft rock and we stared out the windows at the city.
Wan Chai (the conference area) was eerie and desolate. Trash--footprinted flyers and trodden flags and banners--blanketed the quiet thoroughfares. Small groups of press people with badges prominently displayed, as well as the occasional crew of drunk hipsters snapped pictures of themselves posed amidst protest debris to a backdrop of shuttered and gated storefronts. Unopened water bottles and half-eaten takeout food containers lined the footpath on Marsh Road (the bridge leading to the protest pen), as if dropped in a hurry by people who didn't expect to run off.
We arrived home to watch on tv the Korean farmers being loaded onto buses.
Now it's 11pm here on Sunday, December 18- the last day of the WTO conference. Most of the protesters who were arrested are still detained and haven't been arraigned. I'm home, "doing dispatch." That means that I posted the house telephone number on the website and called it the dispatch line. As the WTO confernce wraps up there is all sorts of contradictory information going around. The AP and Reuters have announced that the WTO delegates have come to an agreement about GATS. However, Dante, who is inside, tells me that isn't true.
"I feel like I've been watching a scary movie all day. The suspense is too much," she said.