This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
Five university students sat on two beds in a hotel room one night in October. They were in Mong Kok, a densely urban district of Hong Kong considered a hotspot for the pro-democracy protests that have rocked the city since June. With live coverage of the protests playing on the room’s TV, and laptops and smartphones on queue, they were waiting for requests for rides home from the front lines of the rallies via the cloud-based messaging app Telegram and forum LIHKG.
They run an operation called the “Uber” of the protest movement. Telegram’s channel function allows them to reach an unlimited number of users, who can offer or request rides anonymously and with no digital record of the exchange. Following a “state-actor sized” cyberattack in June, that Telegram said appeared to come from China, the company upgraded its security settings so that users don’t need to link their accounts to a phone number.
The co-founder of the “Uber” channel, a 22-year-old student who goes by Stanley, and his 21-year-old co-administrator, who goes by Erica, say that they hear from over 1,000 drivers and 200 to 300 protesters on days when protests are in full swing.
Adults known as “parents” drive around young protesters called “sons and daughters” or “kids” for free. These volunteers come from all walks of life, from taxi drivers, to retirees, and even wealthy professionals who drive luxury cars.
Rides away from tear gas and rubber bullets are referred to as “a ride home from school,” and a parent’s vehicle is the “school bus.” Protesters say they use clever and endearing Cantonese slang to make light of the serious situation they are in.
Hong Kongers are routinely stranded as the MTR, the city’s primary public transportation, has increasingly halted service amidst clashes between protesters and riot police. The MTR Corp. is seen as pro-police, as a result of these closures and violent arrests of protesters inside stations and trains.
“That is why our channel exists,” said Stanley. “MTR is a public service, they should serve citizens, not put citizens in danger.”
A 23-year-old protester named Jess told VICE that transport suspensions and unanswered requests for regular Ubers and taxis have left her stranded and open to arrest.
“After the protests, normally the subway and the busses are all shut down,” she said. “So taking those parents vehicles becomes the only way for me to get home.”
A front line protester named Marcus said he once slept at a bus stop when he got stuck on the Kowloon Peninsula for nearly five hours with no way back to his home across the harbour on Hong Kong Island. Marcus and Jess estimate they have relied on volunteer drivers to get home more than 10 times.
Since the closures began, radical protesters have vandalised 145 rail stations, according to the police. They smashed control room windows, disabled ticket machines, and set fires in above-ground station exits, leading to more station closures and line suspensions.
The protests started over an extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be tried in mainland China. Despite the bill’s withdrawal, rallies continue over remaining demands, including free elections and an independent investigation into police violence.
At the forefront are protesters who were born after the British returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, and came of age during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Largely leaderless, they rely on the internet in their fight.
A parent driver called “Yellow” — the colour of the pro-democracy movement — started volunteering after men in white T-shirts indiscriminately attacked protesters and civilians with bamboo sticks and metal rods in the town of Yuen Long in July.
At first, he only accepted protesters without gear to minimise evidence that they were in a rally, but he now takes those with gas masks and other non-violent supplies. He drives three to four nights a week and helps with “scouting” — driving around protest sites to gauge police presence and best routes for volunteer drivers.
Since the protests began, tactics have become more violent on both sides. Protesters have thrown hundreds of petrol bombs while police have fired thousands of tear gas canisters and dangerous projectiles, including rubber bullets and 40mm react rounds. In October, police fired live rounds at protesters for the first time, seriously injuring a teenage boy.
Admin and volunteer drivers say keeping protesters safe from police violence is their top priority. On weekends, Stanley and his team set up in a hotel in a district where they expect clashes. They monitor the front lines and police movement via local news livestreams and social media. Stanley and other “helpers” go to the front lines to personally watch the situation and immediately arrange rides if necessary.
The team sends an alert through the Telegram channel, offering escape rides when a situation becomes volatile. When requesting rides, protesters submit license plates to a Telegram bot that will tell them if it is a suspected or known undercover police vehicle. Protesters with gear are assigned to “internal drivers” like Yellow who have experience driving in protest zones.
For Stanley, it is at once “the best moment in Hong Kong and the worst moment in Hong Kong.” He said that though there are indeed “people who are defending their own interests, and who are selfish,” what has come to the surface is “the humanity and the kindness of true Hong Kong people, who are defending Hong Kong’s interests.”
“For me, this is real Hong Kong,” he said.