On Sunday, thousands of protesters took part in what began as a relatively peaceful protest, with participants—including families with children—marching from Causeway Bay to government offices in Admiralty, calling on the government to respond to the movement’s four remaining demands. The march was unauthorized and executed in direct defiance of a police ban, however, so it didn’t take long for it to disintegrate into violence, with radical protesters throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails at the police. In retaliation, the police fired back with tear gas and rubber bullets, using a water cannon to spray protesters with blue dye laced with tear gas to both mark and mar dissenters. Sunday marked the 15th consecutive weekend of anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
Notably, a substantial number of protesters Sunday were seen waving U.S. flags and singing the “Star Spangled Banner” in a direct appeal to the United States to use its power and influence to enact change. Some protesters called for President Trump to “liberate Hong Kong,” according to NBC News. And just last week, protesters made headlines when they called off protests Wednesday to show their solidarity in remembrance of Sept. 11. All this to say that Hong Kong’s ongoing protests and push for democracy are indelibly tied to the U.S., and the protesters’ plea to America to involve itself in the conflict is exposing the U.S.’s complicated moral obligations to democracy in a very revealing way.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is champing at the bit to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act through Congress, told The Atlantic that the protesters’ appeal to the United States is a reminder of how America is still a “symbol of democracy and freedom” to citizens around the world. “[The protesters] see a country where people vehemently disagree on public policy and say horrible things about each other, but no one goes to jail for it,” he said. (In Hong Kong, at least 1,300 people have been arrested since the protests broke out in June.)
But while this is true in principle, in practice, it is less so. Just this past weekend, 76 protesters were arrested in NYC after they staged a peaceful sit-in at the Microsoft store on Fifth Avenue to demand that the tech company stop lending its technology to ICE. Last week, protesters were arrested for staging a protest against the Senate’s confirmation of Trump’s “ethnonationalist” judicial nominee Steve Menashi, who has been outspoken about his distaste for laws furthering the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, and minorities. And remember Brett Kavanaugh? Or any number of Black Lives Matter protests? Or President Trump’s inauguration day protests? All of these examples represent people “vehemently” disagreeing on public policy; all of these examples resulted in dozens if not hundreds of people landing in jail.
Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of American democratic ideals, and one that is heralded around the world by protesters looking to push back against authoritarian governments. But in this, too, the U.S.’s track record has been spotty as of late (or quite frankly, always): professors are being dismissed from their institutions for calling the United States “a white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist system” (it is); tech companies are tasked with censoring certain phrases or images online (#FreeTheNipple); and just last month, police all but escorted white supremacists around Portland to protect them from antifa, or what Trump has threatened to dub an “organization of terror” (neo-Nazis and domestic terrorists, however, have largely gotten a pass). The idea of freedom of speech is, in fact, more precarious here in the States than we’d like to admit.
True, America in recent years has been flush with demonstrations and protests and clashes that showcase the ways in which political, socioeconomic, racial, and moral differences can spark friction — and growth — within a democratic country. But protests against our own government are increasingly falling into two camps on opposite ends of the spectrum: they are either flagged as unpatriotic or so watered down to suit moderate tastes that they lack any sort of actual impact. (Think: the disastrous Women’s March, which has devolved into a loosely organized series of demonstrations marred by leadership infighting, mockable pussy hats, and all the niceties of a friendly weekend get-together.)
And because we have come to assume democracy as a default, we often forget the near-impossibility of freedom of speech for citizens of other nations, and what it means to fight for that. The stakes are high for protesters in Hong Kong now, as they were high for the nations involved in the Arab Spring back in 2011, because civil disobedience is and was often a capital offense; in the States, by contrast, complacency has bred inordinate amounts of armchair activists who like to engage in lukewarm social media posts from the comforts of their own home, but who can easily de-prioritize protests in favor of the latest celebrity gossip.
This is what the U.S. looks like now, staying silent in the face of protests that are being carried out in the name of democracy. “[We are] fighting for our future,” one Hong Kong protester told NBC News. “After all the unreasonable beatings and massive arrests of protesters and citizens, we need to step up to fight against this government. A government who works against its people.”
It’s a statement that could be said to apply to American protesters too — those who, at their core, truly believe that it’s up to the people to make demands for change within a system that is corrupt, no matter the consequences. Because isn’t that what a true democracy entails? After all, it’s hard to argue against protesters who believe they are overthrowing an unjust government in the spirit of American democracy. And yet, the economic roots that ground these political conversations run deep, and so the U.S. government remains, for the time being, silent. (Trump has only mentioned Hong Kong in conjunction with issues of trade, playing on the tensions overseas as a way to threaten China.)
So how will the U.S. choose to show up in coming days and weeks? Will it support a people that is actually looking to America as a template for democracy? Will it quietly continue to place economic interests over those of its supposed founding ideals? Will it dare to investigate its own shortcomings? And is there ever a way to show more love for a country or an institution than to question its intentions and challenge its actions in order to make it a better version of itself?