Tear gas canisters spin on the street, the eyes of citizens burn, quelled slightly by the water that is poured into them. The sound of gunfire rattles bones. Bombs strapped onto bodies go off, people die. These are events that we read about in the news, we watch the three-minute news packages presented to us. We sit behind our screens, in the safety of our homes, so far removed. This breeds a certain kind of apathy. We are aware but we can’t act, so we don’t feel.
It’s a decent day in late September, a typical day of class. Across from me, my classmate Annie sits with her face buried behind her screen. She is frantically refreshing her Facebook news feed. She’s looking for updates. Halfway across the world, her classmates are marching for democracy in the largest case of civil unrest Hong Kong has seen since 1997. The police have come down hard on the protesters; blinding them with pepper spray and tear gas, and dispersing crowds with rubber bullets. Amongst them, her friends, her schoolmates, her comrades.
A second classmate sits next to her; searching for answers she wouldn’t be able to find should she look for them on the sites she’s familiar. Her government, on mainland China, have heavily censured all reports on the uprising. To her, the citizens of Hong Kong are gathering on the streets to commemorate China’s national day. Today they sit united in understanding that the climate is changing, in a random classroom during their semester abroad.
“It reminds me of the Maidan Revolution in my country last November. And the smell of tear gas, I will never forget it,” someone chimes in. Oksana, in her heavily accented English, refers to the protests in her home country of Ukraine. The mere mention of the on-going struggles and flagrant breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty stings her skin and makes her eyes glisten with pain. The two women find comfort in the discussion. The situation in both lands breeds a sickening sense of familiarity.
We pass around a phone, on it an aerial picture of the massive swarm of Hong Kong citizens that surround the city centre. The three girls from Egypt lament how it looks a lot like the protests of Tahrir Square in Cairo, what to them is a monthly affair. The never-ending entrails of an uprising that has not fulfilled its goal, constantly visible on dusty streets.
There is a surge of emotion now. Separately, this event would have barely skirted our consciences. Again people attempt to stand up, only to be forced to sit back down. Again aggression, fear and exhaustion. Again just another large protest in some far-flung place, too far removed to incite any real emotion, opinion, or concrete action.
But before us now, sitting as a group of journalism exchange students from a multitude of nationalities, the conflicts are real. The bombs, the protests, and the people are real. None of us are at ground zero, but the connections we make pushes us to realize that the things we read and the images we view may be affecting someone we know personally. We are now forced to look at these events through their eyes. The distance is removed. The apathy is removed.