Sep 30, 2007 0
A thousand activists yelled, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” A young man—probably my age—played guitar in front of the crowd, leading us in song. In English, the guitarist admitted that he just learned to play the song an hour ago. The crowd didn’t care. Holding candles, the protesters belted out in stilted Spanish in support of the Burmese people who were taking to the streets. Every so often, we’d shout an English chorus: “The people united will never be defeated!” We were singing in Spanish and English with Cantonese speakers about a Burmese uprising. There were the activists in Che t-shirts who gesticulated enthusiastically, and there was bad protest poetry. It could have been Portland.
But there was something a little sad about the vigil. People cared deeply about what they said, but they’d been saying it for years. No one risked anything, and no one had any new strategies. With one exception, every speech contained the same predictable rhetoric. It’s not that these categories of thought are wrong, but after traveling the world many times over, they seemed tired. It’s one thing to deploy the rhetoric of the universal, but it needs to be shaped to a time and a place, given purchase in a particular location. The activists seemed to accept wholesale a certain outlook on what a protest should be and what one should say. Surrounded by four banking towers and a Ritz-Carlton, the built environment constantly reminded me of Hong Kong’s position as a rich global center of exchange. Money and ideas from across the world meet here. I imagined that they’d occasionally bump into each other, maybe creating something new or perhaps knocking something off the old idea. Hong Kong is the only place in China—one of the countries propping up the military regime in Burma—where one can safely protest. It could be an activist incubator, where new strategies are tried out, tweaked, and sent around the world for others. Instead, the protest was not just average, but an average of all the protests across the world.