Last week I had an interesting and telling experience at a conference, the topic of which was the exciting world of Financial Technology, or “fintech.” (I consider Capital Good Fund to be a nonprofit fintech because we leverage technology to deliver financial products to the low-income; I recognize there is a measure of irony in referring to fintech sardonically despite my work revolving around it.) The opening speaker, whose ebullient enthusiasm for the topic was difficult to digest for two reasons—it was 8:30 AM on a Monday and the topic was financial services, not poetry or cooking—managed to knock my socks off with her opening remarks, albeit unintentionally. She began with the usual “good morning” and “welcome” and “thank-you-to-our-sponsors,” then went on to say: “We have a record number of registrants this year from all across the United States and the world, including from Hong Kong. Unfortunately, those from Hong Kong won’t be able to attend due to all that noise over there [emphasis added].” (1)
All that noise over there. The speaker was referring to the months-long protests in Hong Kong which were “triggered by an extradition bill that would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China” but that have since “turned into a broader pro-democracy movement.” (2) The leader of Hong Kong has already “permanently withdrawn the bill, but the protestors have vowed to continue until all their demands are met.” These demands include democratic reforms and an independent inquiry into police conduct during the protests. (3) What’s most remarkable about the movement is not only that is has already succeeded in forcing change even as it has challenged “one of the most powerful countries on the earth: China,” (4) but also that in a country of roughly seven-million, well over two-million have participated in the protests.
Think about that: 30% of tiny Hong Kong has taken on a country of over one-billion residents, a nation known for authoritarianism and absolutely no tolerance for disobedience. Not only that, but they have done so in a largely nonviolent manner and in the face of police brutality that has included “police firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and beanbags at the crowds,” as well as mass arrests and the firing of water cannons. (5) This is, in other words, one of the most awe-inspiring protest movements in human history—a stunning example of what happens when the people decide, en masse, that they’ve had it with injustice. Already the people of Hong Kong have inspired others to follow their lead, for example when hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, having learned of their governor’s sexism, homophobia, and corruption, protested in the streets until he resigned. (6) And at a time in the United States when immigrant children are being separated from their parents and thrown in cages; when the President is smearing excrement all of the Constitution; and when the rights of gays, women, immigrants, and others are being trampled upon and endangered, a number of groups—We The People, Never Again Action, Extinction Rebellion, SOS America —are attempting to organize similar movements here.
The general rule-of-thumb is that it takes 3.5% of an affected population taking sustained action to force a change. For instance, one political scientist, Erica Chenoweth of Harvard University, after an in-depth study of social change found that civil disobedience is “the most powerful way of shaping world politics—by a long way.” She concluded that “nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors…it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.” (7) What’s fascinating about these findings are their implications: it’s possible to successfully fight for justice without waiting for an election to take place or a law to be passed. Put another way, it is in the hands of a small percentage of the population—which, to be fair, still means that millions of people must take sustained, organized, nonviolent action—to meaningfully address and remedy an injustice.
Think about that! In America, we don’t have to wait until November 2020 for Donald Trump to (hopefully) be defeated and then for a (hopefully) progressive Democratic president to (hopefully) pass progressive legislation that will certainly face endless lawsuits and delays. Yes, we need that, but we don’t have time—the Amazon is on fire, children are in cages. Knowing this, people are getting organized. On September 21st there will be a We the People March in D.C. and in cities around the country; on September 27th there will be nationwide actions, such as Flood the Seaport in Boston, to call attention to the climate crisis; and Never Again Action has been protesting ICE’s inhumane treatment of immigrants at detention centers as well as at the offices of corporations—Microsoft, (8) Palantir, (9) Amazon (10)—that have lucrative contracts with ICE.
The reason disruptive protests are necessary is that business-as-usual aids, abets, and abides these large-scale injustices. As a result, they are often viewed as inconvenient by those who benefit from, or at least are not directly affected by, said injustices. And that is how we arrive at the introductory speaker of a fintech conference referring to a revolutionary movement for peace and justice as “all that noise over there.” Well, if the response to climate change, mass incarceration, immigrants in cages, and authoritarian government is noise, then let us make so much of a racket that the indifferent and the belligerent can no longer drown out our voices, deny reality, and cause harm. Let us so disrupt business-as-usual that when we’re done, the status quo becomes justice and righteousness, not injustice, greed, and exploitation.
 The protestors have occupied the airport and disrupted flights, making it hard to get in or out of Hong Kong.
 Kuo, Lily. Hong Kong enters 15th week of mass protests as unrest continues. September 14, 2019. The Guardian. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/14/hong-kong-15th-week-of-mass-protests>
 John, Tara Why Hong Kong is protesting: Their five demands listed. August 30, 2019. CNN. <https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/13/asia/hong-kong-airport-protest-explained-hnk-intl/index.html
 Kirby, Jen. 9 questions about the Hong Kong protests you were too embarrassed to ask. August 26, 2019. Vox. https://www.vox.com/world/2019/8/22/20804294/hong-kong-protests-9-questions
 Puerto Rico governor resigns after mass protests. July 25, 2019. BBC. <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49102274>
 Robson, David. The ‘3,5% rule’: How a small minority can change the world. May 14, 2019. BBC. <http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-people-to-change-the-world>
 Vera, Amir. 76 anti-ICE protesters arrested during sit-in at Microsoft store in New York. September 15, 2019. CNN. <https://edition.cnn.com/2019/09/14/us/anti-ice-protesters-arrested/index.html>
 Del Valley, Gaby. “You Have Blood on Your Hands”: Jewish Protestors Call For Palantir to Drop Its ICE Contract. September 13, 2019. VICE. <https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/qvgjj3/you-have-blood-on-your-hands-jewish-protesters-call-for-palantir-to-drop-its-ice-contract>
 12 Arrested Protesting Amazon’s Relationship With ICE. September 6, 2019. WBUR. <https://www.wbur.org/news/2019/09/06/never-again-action-protest-haymarket-cambridge-arrests>