Traffic Cones, Leaf Blowers, and Other Brilliant Tactics U.S. Protesters Are Taking From Hong Kong's Playbook

As anti-racism protests rage across the U.S., Hong Kong activists are standing by to offer guidance from afar.
June 3, 2020, 7:46pm

As a tear gas canister lands amid the chaos of a protest, a team descends on the device to cover it with a traffic cone to contain the smoke. Another group of activists douses it with water from a bottle.

It’s a well-drilled technique that’s become familiar to millions around the world through widely-shared online clips of its use in the Hong Kong protests. But this isn’t a scene from Hong Kong — it’s Portland, Oregon.

It’s just one of countless examples from the recent unrest across the United States of protesters adopting tactics refined and popularized by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which has commanded international headlines since it roared back to life in mid-2019.

Demonstrators on the front lines in Seattle this week were seen using umbrellas, which were so widely used as shields against Hong Kong police’s tear gas and pepper spray in 2014 that they became a defining symbol of the city’s protest movement.

And leaf blowers, used to waft away smoke from the devices, has been spotted at protests in Detroit:

Kansas City, Missouri:

And Madison, Wisconsin:

Jeffrey Ngo, a D.C.-based Ph.D. student and chief strategist for the Hong Kong pro-democracy party Demosisto, has documented many of the ways that tactics from his homeland’s protest movement are now being adopted in the U.S.

Ngo, who supports the U.S. protest movement, told VICE News that the tactics appeared to mainly have been gleaned from online videos from the Hong Kong demonstrations. He said one Demosisto video from last October of a middle-aged Hong Konger using a leaf blower to redirect smoke from a tear gas canister, suddenly went viral with the outbreak of the unrest in the U.S. last week.

“Now it has almost 10 million views,” he said. “I’m pretty sure U.S. protesters learned this tactic entirely online.”

The Umbrella Union, an overseas Hong Kong activist group, also told VICE News it was not aware of any organized exchange of information between the movements.

In some cases, though, Hong Kongers are reaching out to American protesters to pass on lessons learned from their experience. One Hong Kong activist has put together a website called “HKers Stand with Black Lives” that offers tips and tricks for protesters in the U.S. — from how to spot an undercover cop, to medical supplies to bring to a riot, to the best encrypted messaging apps for eluding authorities.

And on social media, Hong Kongers are chiming in with advice for Americans on how to react to police tactics. Beneath a clip of the traffic cone being used on a tear gas canister in Portland, one Twitter user offered a “PSA from Hongkongers: To people who extinguish the teargas: Everyone please get an aspirator/gas mask.”

Another person identifying as a Hong Konger gave instructions for disarming a tear gas canister, involving welding gloves and a bag of water, along with a video of the technique in action.

“Gentle corrections from experienced comrades!” said AntiFash Gordan, a U.S.-based activist.

Meanwhile, some activists in the U.S. have urged protesters to emulate Hong Kong demonstrators by bringing high-powered laser pointers to distract and confuse police.

But others noted that this tactic is extremely dangerous in the context of protesting in the U.S., where police anticipate the possibility that some protesters could be armed with guns equipped with laser scopes, which help shooters’ accuracy in low-light conditions. That’s not necessarily the case in Hong Kong, which has very strict gun laws. On Sunday night in Raleigh, North Carolina, a protester reportedly directed a laser into a police officer's eyes, and in response, cops pulled their guns on the crowd.

Looting is one difference between protests in the U.S. and those in Hong Kong. In Minneapolis, which has been the epicenter of protests since George Floyd, a black man, died after a white officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, people at the protests smashed storefronts, burned buildings, and stole goods inside. Some people at other protests from LA to Louisville to New York followed suit.

One viral video showed protesters in Brooklyn attempting to redirect the energy of the crowd away from a Target, which some were trying to loot.

In a bid to guide American protesters from afar, one activist in Hong Kong commended those efforts to prevent looting. “Very good ! Do the right thing !” they wrote, explaining that in Hong Kong, protesters often vandalize businesses that support the Chinese government but rarely loot them.

The adoption of familiar tactics on American streets has been a topic of conversation on boards like LIHKG, an online hub for discussion about Hong Kong’s protest movement. One protester, who did not want to be named, said commenters had pointed out that some of the tactics associated with the city’s protests — such as using tennis racquets to hit tear gas grenades back toward police — had been used first in earlier French protests.

He said that users of the forum speculated that Hong Kongers had refined and developed techniques adopted from those French protests, such as the use of water to neutralize tear gas canisters, due to the challenges of their specific environment, in which crowds of protesters were frequently hemmed in by skyscrapers with no way to escape the tear gas.

Demosisto’s Ngo said that while he was wary of drawing parallels between the protests in Hong Kong and in the U.S., as the causes behind them were not comparable, both movements shared “a common yearning for dignity and basic human rights.”

“Having been on the global forefront against police brutality, we’re heartened to learn that our experience and creativity have proven helpful,” he tweeted.

Cover: Protesters return to the Justice Center on the fifth night of action against police brutality in Portland, Ore., on June 2, 2020, after the death of George Floyd in police custody. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)