Tear gas contained in a traffic cone.
Tear gas contained in a traffic cone.

Of course I don’t have to tell you that riots can be a force for good, since we’re about to enter an entire month dedicated to heroes who resisted police oppression. But they’re also dangerous business, especially when the Goliath to your David is armed with military gear and feels emboldened to engage in all-out violence against you.

That’s the crisis faced by protesters in Hong Kong last year, with hundreds of thousands of citizens taking to the streets to protest government oppression. What chance did those civilians stand against a police state? Well, as it turns out, a few simple items helped even the playing field.

In videos circulated online, Hong Kong protesters are shown clearly prepared for tear gas canisters. Tear gas exposure can be mitigated by covering your face with a scarf and goggles, as well as exposed skin (the chemical in tear gas reacts to moisture and oils on your skin), but the canisters themselves can be neutralized as a threat.

Some Hong Kong protesters used a simple traffic cone method when canisters came their way. Individuals designated as “firefighters” carried traffic cones and quickly placed them over the canister to create a “chimney,” then poured water inside to extinguish the pyrotechnic device. A more effective — but riskier — method evolved as well: Protesters used heat-resistant gloves to pick up canisters and place them into a metal thermos full of water or mud. Of course, canisters can cause burns if handled, and getting that close to the canister means that those people needed to wear more protective gear.

Umbrellas did triple-duty in Hong Kong: Not only did they shield crowds from sprays of harmful gas, but they can also hide faces from surveillance. And media-savvy protestors recognized the opportunity that an umbrella presents as a highly mobile protest sign when messages were affixed to the material.

Surveillance was a particular threat in Hong Kong, where facial recognition technology is widely deployed. But cameras proved particularly vulnerable to laser pointers, which when used in large numbers render the sensors in cameras useless. Police pointed out that they can be used to cause permanent damage to property — as well as to vision if a very high-powered laser gets into a person’s eye.

Those are just a few of the low-tech tactics used by Hong Kong protesters.

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They also swapped clothing (including masks) to make it harder to track and identify individuals, built slingshots, bought items with cash so their movement couldn’t be traced through credit card transactions, and designated a limited group of people to serve as intermediary messengers when person-to-person contact was deemed risky.

As the protests evolved, some came to be guided by a principle that was known as “be water,” with participants flowing from place to place to swiftly to be contained. Groups often gathered and dispersed so rapidly police couldn’t keep up with them, using encrypted messages through apps like Telegram.

When the protests were at their height several months ago, U.S. officials at the Pentagon expressed their “100 percent” support for those demonstrating for freedom in Hong Kong. In fact, video showing the traffic-cone method for dousing tear gas was shared by Voice of America, which is funded by the U.S. government. Thanks guys!

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