To be sure, many people and groups have had a role in these demonstrations. On Wednesday morning, protesters, some of whom had spent the previous night outside, flooded a main road near the government complex. Word had been passed by protesters on secure messaging apps and social media, but with little centralized organization. Soon metal barricades were turned on their sides to create makeshift siege ladders, allowing people to scramble over concrete highway dividers into the road. The scene was at first chaotic, but within a few hours, labor was being divided, supply points established, first-aid centers manned. Avenues of inbound goods emerged, snaking their way to the front of the crowd, where protesters carried umbrellas and wore hard hats as they jostled with police along a line of barricades. To communicate, demonstrators devised hand signals, relaying the need for gloves and inhalers after police fired pepper spray, before the supplies were passed from person to person to the front. Protesters moved with a sense of urgency. If the Umbrella Movement was a war of attrition, this looked to be a fast-moving street battle.
Read: The infamous date that looms over the Hong Kong protests
Still, the sheer size of the latest protests owes something to the Civil Human Rights Front. The first demonstration organized by the group against the extradition bill was held on March 31, with about 12,000 people showing up—an impressive draw and one of the largest turnouts of the year, according to the Hong Kong Free Press. But in a city with a vibrant political and activist community, where demonstrations have for years been a family affair, that was hardly something that would make global headlines. Wong Yik Mo, another vice convener, told me people in Hong Kong were dismissive of the value of those protests at the time. “And, of course, it was useless,” he acknowledged, “because the government and pro-establishment lawmakers, they continued the process of the amendment.”
A month later, however, they ramped up efforts to get the word out about the bill, and 130,000 people marched. “We finally reached the people,” said Wong, who is in his second year of involvement with the Civil Human Rights Front and said he was “enlightened by the Umbrella Movement.” The goal for last weekend’s protest was originally 300,000, then reforecast to 500,000; the group finally announced the participation figure was just over a million, whereas police claim 240,000 attended. Eventually, it “had to call for help,” Wong said. A volunteer was enlisted to begin fielding media requests, and a WhatsApp group was established for journalists, pushing out updates in Cantonese and English. That group quickly reached the maximum capacity allowed by the messaging platform.
Leung, like many demonstrators here, is a veteran of the Umbrella Movement. When the main demand of that previous protest failed and the movement stopped, she told me, she was depressed and suffered from anxiety. “I was willing to die for my city,” she said. The lessons of 2014, though, have been useful—protesters learned then “how to not trust the police, not trust the government, but trust ourselves,” she said, adding that there are now fewer divisions among demonstrators, and more unity in their aims and how to achieve them. Leung, who is in her early 30s and serves as a district councillor from the pro-democracy Civic Party, was deeply involved in the 2014 protests. She said they made her question what lengths people would need to go to in order to achieve change in Hong Kong. “I did everything I could, so what else can I do?” she said she asked herself. The shortcomings of that movement, she said, left her with a feeling of “powerlessness.”