Occupy Central marshals keep an eye over Hong Kong’s democracy protesters
When Hong Kong police fired the first round of tear gas at pro-democracy protesters on September 28, the head of Occupy Central’s marshal team, Alex Kwok Siu-kit, was not panicked.
Kwok, a seasoned unionist for more than a decade, had already tasted tear gas during protests by Korean farmers at the World Trade Organisation meeting in 2005 in Hong Kong.
From jumping into the icy waters of Victoria Harbour that year after farmers tried to swim around a security cordon, to holding off Occupy opponents from attacking protesters last month, the 50-year-old has seen a lot and is fazed by little.
But now Kwok says he is facing one of his biggest challenges – maintaining unity among the divided civil disobedience protesters themselves.
“The marshals have it really tough. They don’t even dare to put on their marshal armbands because some people have tried to disunite us,” says Kwok, his walkie-talkie buzzing now and again.
Kwok leads a team run by the Occupy Central group, one of the main organisers of the protests which have been primarily led by student groups.
Vice-chairman of one of the city’s lifeguard unions, Kwok notes that some protesters have always stressed that there should be no leaders or marshals in the civil disobedience campaign, now in its seventh week.
The result is that those protesters refuse to listen to instructions from the 50-strong group of marshals, and sometimes argue with them.
Watch: The marshals at Occupy Central, from sounding the alarm to keeping the peace
“Take the time when a small group of protesters wanted to storm onto Lung Wo Road as an example. We tried to tell them not to do so. But they just did not listen,” he says, wearing a shirt that reads ‘I choose my own government’.
Marshals and some protesters formed a human chain to try to stop the others from storming onto the road, an important traffic link on Hong Kong Island.
Kwok says occupiers can decide for themselves whether to follow instructions from marshals, but they must at least stand united.
The police, triads and other opponents of the street blockades have also made life difficult for the marshals.
One day, a group of suspected triad members and other anti-Occupy Central elements arrived in Admiralty almost simultaneously and tried to remove the barricades there.
Few police officers were around to maintain order, and Kwok was attacked by the triad members.
“I told the woman inspector that the officers have seen the people who hit me. Why didn’t they arrest the attackers?” he says.
Training for the Occupy Central marshals started about a year ago. Kwok took the volunteers to the annual June 4 vigil in Victoria Park and to the July 1 march to show them how the marshals at the events kept order.
Marshal Ryan Chan, 25, says there was a time when the protesters appreciated their work.
“At first, when Occupy Central was working together with the students, that was a time when people really appreciated us,” says Chan, a photographer who has stopped working for a month to take part in the movement.
“Then at one point, the protesters questioned what the purpose of having marshals was…During that time we didn’t wear our armbands because it made things difficult.”
Chan says the marshals are divided into teams of about seven.
Another marshal, Fish Teo, recalls protesters egging each other on to occupy Lung Wo Road.
“There were no policemen around to take care of the traffic, and [the marshals] had the reflective batons so we ended up doing it. That was during the time when people didn’t like us very much, so we just couldn’t say who we were,” says Teo, a preacher in her 30s.
“I remember spending the whole night directing traffic, simply because I had a baton. We weren’t maintaining order; more like avoiding confusion.”