“I don’t care whether our action will affect the government’s decision – I only know I have to do something to protect the place which I live in.” These words belong to a 21-year-old student in Hong Kong but could serve as the rallying cry of black mothers fighting against police brutality in St. Louis or residents of North Dakota who don’t want pipelines built near their supply of drinking water.
Just as with the massive crowds in Hong Kong, it’s inspiring to see waves of Americans challenging the status quo on issues as diverse as immigration policy, teachers’ compensation, and prison reform. The mobilization of so many people from different backgrounds and political viewpoints in response to current events underscores the universality of wanting to express oneself freely, and an urgency to reject efforts to deny people their rights to assemble and protest.
But those rights are under constant threat. Activists groups have been infiltrated by the FBI. There are widespread reports of law enforcement abuse of nonviolent protesters, including the use of shotgun-fired munitions and chemical weapons that caused serious injuries. And over 100 bills have been introduced in state legislatures in the past two years that would criminalize a range of protest related activities, from covering one’s face to prohibiting demonstrations near energy related infrastructure like pipelines. Other anti-protest bills would expand the definition of “domestic terrorism” or “riots” and increase fines and jail sentences to discourage people from exercising their First Amendment rights.
It’s not a coincidence that the Chinese government used the phrase “terrorist-like actions” to describe recent events in Hong Kong, or that the Senate tried to pass bills under the guise of national security that would have allowed states to punish American companies if they engaged in the Boycott, Sanction and Divestment (BDS) movement. Defending Rights & Dissent has vigorously opposed anti-BDS efforts, including the troubling statement by US Ambassador to Israel that said boycotts against Israel are “not free speech.”
Protest is often done in the face of tremendous adversity when other means of checking the powerful are undermined or unavailable. The cost of participation can be harassment, arrest and worse. And yet, large-scale protests persist, even when violence and misinformation are used to crackdown on dissent.
This is the case in Hong Kong, where reportedly two million people- out of a total population of 7 million- took to the streets to defend their freedoms under the so-called “One Country, Two System” framework that has governed the territory since 1997. Hong Kong has its own legal system and rights including freedom of assembly and free speech, and it’s the only place under Chinese control where people can commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when the Chinese military opened fire on unarmed protesters in Beijing.
Pushing back against powerful forces is a deep-rooted tradition that goes beyond any one government or set of power dynamics. That desire to speak out, regardless of the conditions and challenges that may exist, is a potent, undeniable force that must be expressed. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Americans and the people of Hong Kong would agree.