Clad in black T-shirts and face masks, a small group of protesters emerge from a subway station at the North Point district of Hong Kong and begin to dismantle nearby roadworks.
Trailing sidewalk gates, traffic cones and signposts, they carry the items to a local police station where they begin to build a barricade. Over the course of the next 20 minutes they will block off the entire street, stopping traffic as more protesters gather, before suddenly dispersing as police sirens wail louder as they approach.
“We’re going around to stop the police from catching us,” says one woman, who asked to not be named, as she observes the barricade-building.
“Our aim is not to let the police arrest us. We need to be like water.”
“Be water” – a take on a famous Bruce Lee quote to be “formless, shapeless, like water” – has been a rallying cry of the leaderless protest movement since demonstrations in Hong Kong began on 9 June, but it appeares to have been perfected over the past weekend.
For three consecutive days, tens of thousands of protesters took part in an amorphous protest movement that would flare up in one district only to die down and reemerge with intensity in another district a short while later.
“Be water” can feel chaotic, with people running from one train station to the next, but it is backed by a highly disciplined strategy. Protesters are often following alerts on Telegram and a website documenting police locations or protest groups needing backup.
“If we find stopping in one place is not workable, we will go around to different place to block the gate of a police station or a government department,” the North Point protester told The Independent.
The tactic has come to play a critical role in the Hong Kong protests, now in their ninth week, and a change from initial protests such as a massive event on 12 June that felt like a battle between protesters and riot police.
The emerging strategy, however, is more guerrilla-style, and a way to avoid the increasingly heavy-handed police actions that have seen hundreds of people arrested and more than 1,800 rounds of teargas fired over nine weeks – including 800 on Monday alone – as the once peaceful Asian financial capital has become the centre of a political crisis.
Mass protests first began when Hong Kongers rallied against a now-suspended legislative bill that they feared would have infringed on their civil rights, and which unleashed a wave of anger and longstanding grievances with the Beijing-backed government.