Sept. 11 is a day that weighs heavily in our nation’s history. It’s hard to find a bright spot. Osama bin Laden knew what he was doing when he recruited the 19 suicide bombers who flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Capitol Building. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (I am a card-carrying member, BTW) to see 911 + Military-Industrial-Congressional complex written across bin Laden’s messaging. I never bought the line that the fourth plane was headed for the White House, for what it’s worth. That’s for people who love the notion of an imperial presidency.
Speaking of that imperial presidency, with Rudy Giuliani sending out videos of white guy riot police getting ready to bust heads in the name of democracy, it might just be time to talk about innovations in nonviolent civil disobedience. And for that, we need to look to pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
For those that don’t watch the Asian news, the folks in Hong Kong have been getting pretty itchy lately. In response to an order from their government, somewhat manipulated by the Communist Chinese in Beijing, they issued an order that suspected criminals in Hong Kong could be shipped up north. Hong Kong, since its absorption into China in 1999, has operated under the “one China, two systems” policy. Extradition is a big thing. It means someone can get sent to a kangaroo court up north, and from there, to a prison camp on the Tibetan plateau for a long time.
So the Hong Kong folks took to the street, 1.7 million of them, in fact, or about 30 percent of the entire population of the city. But instead of the usual policy of holding ground and blocking areas until riot police arrested a fair number, they adopted kung fu star Bruce Lee’s philosophy of “Be Like Water.” When Chinese special riot police, known as “Raptors” would charge a position with tear gas and batons, instead of holding ground, protesters would fall back, chanting “One, two, one, two!” to synchronize the retreat and prevent people from being trampled in a stampede.
And information about the protests? It is shared on low-tech bulletin boards as well as folks using Apple Airdrop, an app on the iPhone that allows each person to pass the information along on subways – one user at a time. An elaborate set of hand signals allowed senior citizens in the rear to pass, hand over hand, supplies from first aid to umbrellas to shield the front line young folks from spraying tear gas.
Leaders? None to arrest. By using distributed techniques and empowered individuals no one, and simultaneously everyone, was empowered to make decisions following the generalized principle of “Be Like Water.” That kept the majority of protesters out in the street.
Eventually, the policy was suspended by the home government of Hong Kong. It remains to be seen what will happen next. But for those folks that say that authoritarianism as an end philosophy is inevitable, whether in China or the U.S., I’d say “check your privilege.”
There are lessons here for everyone. As Trump declares, even jokingly, the idea of president for life, it’s important for us to ask ourselves how we wish to proceed with our own experiment in democracy. The Chinese are learning a hard lesson in Hong Kong – that it’s not guns that make strength. It is the will of the people to be self-determined that is the real key lesson.
And it’s something we might ponder as we contemplate Osama bin Laden’s potentially mortal wound to our own democratic experiment. Fear and self-determination do not live in the same house. For those that desire the second, they must suppress the first. Once that happens, people will innovate in the face of those championing the first. Look to Hong Kong.
Chuck Pezeshki is a professor in mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University.