‘Battlefield’ social workers between police and protesters


Jackie Chan (left), ‘Ming’ Lai-Ming Hui (right)
Jackie Chan (left), ‘Ming’ Lai-Ming Hui (right)

At scenes of conflicts,  there are usually a group of people wearing the identification badges which are not police warrant cards but the social worker identification badges. The holders of the badges have no privileges and are not spared from the beats of batons. At the time of writing, some social workers were beaten and some were arrested.

An identity and a responsibility

‘Ming’ Lai-Ming Hui and Jackie Chan say that ‘they are expected to be beaten.’ Ming believes that social workers should act as mediators between the two sides by explaining the situation to both parties at the time. ‘Sometimes it seems very tense, but it is not always the actual case.’ She recalls an incident after a demonstration in Kowloon. The protesters were departing from Shantung Street, Mongkok, there were rumours that the Mongkok MTR station had closed, and the tension escalated while fully-equipped police officers confronted the protesters. Act as an intermediary at that time, Ming told the police that the crowd were leaving. Eventually, conflict was avoided.  

Ming cites another example: the police get nervous when the demonstrators set up roadblocks. The roadblocks are for the demonstrators to protect themselves and their comrades; when the police push forward, the roadblocks buy them time to retreat. The police do not understand the rationale behind this. Misunderstandings as such strain both the police and protesters and this is where social workers can exert an intermediary role. 

Jackie and Ming, both new members of the Executive Committee of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, assert the role of social workers in social movements. 

A role to play regardless of status

In the anti-extradition movement, Ming is especially grateful to her co-workers. Social workers are standing on the front line under the spotlight, but there are also a lot of work to do behind. Her co-workers also help share some of her workloads. ‘We have different positions. Not everyone should go to the frontline. While activists are being put under arrest, some simple acts such as asking for their names and which police station is the police escorting them to, even memorising the license plate numbers of police vehicles,  are already very helpful. Bringing water and glucose candies to the scene and giving them to the persons in need is also something easy to do.’

Local communities across Hong Kong has been engaged in the anti-extradition movement, district-based rallies and ‘Lennon walls’ are ubiquitous, everyone can have a role to play.  

On June 17, ‘two million-plus one’ people took to streets. A group of protesters stayed at Admiralty and Central overnight. In the next morning, the police sent a large number of negotiators and uniformed police officers to Harcourt Road to urge the protesters to leave. Social workers mediated in between, and ultimately, the police withdrew. Ming smiles and says, ‘Everyone realized that social workers could help, they could make police leave.’ After this incident, Jackie proposed to organise a group of ‘battlefield social workers’, the job being ‘stop & talk’. Since then, these battlefield social workers have been holding loudspeakers and standing between the two sides. ‘Political issues should be addressed through politics. The police art just pawns of the government. Moreover, the police are affected by the “police culture” and driven into enmity and hatred against protesters by biased information. Consequently, they don't understand the idealism of the youth.’ Jackie observes that the police would remind each other of the presence of social workers and restrain themselves. Jackie believes that were it not for the status of social workers, they will be neglected by the police. 

From everyone asking ‘what can I do’ to forming teams

Siu Pak is an outreach social worker from the Reclaiming Social Work Movement

Siu Pak is an outreach social worker from the Reclaiming Social Work Movement, he has handled cases of ‘youths at risk’, some of them involved with triads. The experience makes him sensitive to tension at the scene, judge the situation and observe the state of the masses aptly. He recalls the march on June 9, when they haven't formed the ‘battlefield social workers’ group, the protestors were discussing to surround the Central Government Offices building again, Siu Pak and his colleagues were very worried. ‘We went from everyone asking “what could I do”, to self-organising various tasks, to forming several support teams in two to three days. It's not that complicated.’ Siu Pak thinks that the most important thing is to set up a ‘network’ that can provide support when needed. 

Working out one's role

On June 12, the social workers went on strike and staged a sit-in outside the Citic Tower building. Many of them witnessed the police clearing the scene by force. Before the police deployed tear-gas, some demonstrators were carried out with wounds, bleeding. After that, the social workers held a six-hour marathon brainstorming session, in which all the colleagues weighed in at some point. To a certain extent, the session laid a blueprint for the following support works at the scenes. In mid-June, when some colleagues saw the police abusing the power, body-searching people on the street, they stepped forward and questioned the police for reasons. In the presence of social workers, the police became restrained. Therefore, they formed an ‘anti-body-searching team’. When the colleagues learned that the police would make arrests in hospitals, some of them went to the scene in the hope of providing timely assistance, and they also formed a  team for this purpose afterwards. In addition to on-site supports, the colleagues expanded their works to instructing the people on laws regarding the arrestee, informing the protesters for the legal risks and consequences of the actions. Some colleagues offer emotional support to protesters. 

Siu Pak admits that social workers' visions and on-site needs are not always the same. Take first-aid treatment as an example. At first, the social workers thought of it as the kind of standard, everyday first-aid service, however, they realised that the first-aiders also need to deal with tear gas and pepper spray. Another example is the support for arrestees, besides the companionship of social workers, the support from ‘legal teams’ is crucial. These teams emerge more or less organically-- one notices a problem, tries to solve it, and ultimately figures out a specific approach to the problem. 

Militant and peaceful protesters support each other

Siu Pak mentions several times that what happened on-site is very different from the representation on the television. News report tends to show the most intense scenes, while Siu Pak generally sees people reminding each other, learning, advancing or retreating based on the principle of ‘be water’. Siu Pak has full confidence in the direction of action of the frontline protesters. ‘They have sound judgment. Even when there were disputes, some would cool the scene down and calmly settled the argument. Many people on the scene are cool-headed, they are very much aware of the principles and bottom-lines.’ Siu Pak recalls the fraction between ‘militant’ and ‘peaceful’ protesters during the Umbrella Movement. Describing himself as a ‘peaceful’ protestor, Siu Pak gladly sees the two groups reconciled. ‘On June 12, when the police started to fire tear gas, someone yelled that "militant (protesters) come upfront! We must protect the peaceful protestors to leave!" I was deeply touched.’  Everyone has different approaches, but over the years people have found their role and position and supplemented each other.