Protesters Face the Limits of Their Power

Hong Kong Protesters Face the Limits of Their Power
Disorganized and divided, the pro-democracy movement is losing steam.
By Suzanne Sataline
December 2, 2014
Foreign Policy

HONG KONG — By 5:00 a.m., the pre-dawn chill of December’s first day had blown in from Victoria Harbour in central Hong Kong and crept onto the sleeping protesters on Lung Wo Road on the northern lip of Hong Kong Island. Some youth nestled their heads on backpacks, while others shivered under metallic blankets that flapped in the breeze. Sitting on the highway median, protester Heman Cheung, 24, shared a cigarette with two other men. His eyelids heavy, he studied the 20 or so police officers guarding the driveway to the city’s government center. He exhaled slowly. “Perhaps it’s a mistake,” said Cheung.

Eight hours earlier, around 9:00 p.m. on Nov. 30, Cheung and a few hundred other young men and women had tried to surround the city’s government headquarters, a desperate ploy in a fight for open democratic elections in a city that many fret is increasingly resigned to Beijing’s dictates. When the tactic didn’t work, protesters surged onto a major transit route, quickly building barricades from plastic pallets, and waited for the police to chase them off, which they did.

It has been like this for just over two months in Hong Kong, a city of gleaming skyscrapers and staggering wealth where protesters are camping in tents on major commercial streets, trying to get residents to join a crusade for open elections within mainland China’s orbit. The protest initially found wide sympathy in Hong Kong, but since then has been steadily losing support as Hong Kong government officials refuse to talk and residents have tired of the inconvenience created by protest occupations. To keep the movement alive, demonstrators have resorted to increasingly brazen, even theatrical, tactics to convince city officials to pay them heed.

But those gambits, too, have failed to achieve the promise of democracy, and the movement has continued to suffer crippling blows over the past several days. On Dec. 1, a court considered an injunction request that could soon level the occupation camp set on a major highway. Later that day, Joshua Wong, the head of student activist movement Scholarism, started a hunger strike, hoping to prod the city’s government to negotiate. On Dec. 2, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a group of old-guard democracy advocates, urged students to go home and regroup. All were signs that the two-month-old strike may end in the coming days — perhaps without any concessions from city leaders.

Cheung, a DJ and musician, has been one of several protesters who thinks that the student-led protest has been mismanaged. It had been too tentative and confused, they said, subject to making hasty decisions that crumble from poor planning. The pattern was on display the night of Dec. 1; Cheung said students hadn’t thought about how many people they would need to encircle the government center and hold off the police. And when police quickly cut off walkway access to the complex, the leaders had decided to take Lung Wo, a major east-west transport route that was too vast for the protesters there to hold.

Around 9:00 p.m., two student groups had dispatched supporters to surround government headquarters. Police in riot gear lined up, facing off against teens and young people wearing yellow construction helmets, and clutching wooden and cardboard shields, even a wok with arm straps. After a clattering of batons on umbrellas, raised to shield them from pepper spray, several demonstrators were helped away, clutching bloodied heads. One man hoisted a protester’s slack body over his shoulder.

Volunteer medics swaddled one young man’s head in gauze. The 20-year-old City University student, Kim Ng, said a police officer had pushed aside his black helmet and pounded his skull repeatedly, leaving him with a two-inch gash. “The officers are out of control,” said medic Max Choi, a 31-year-old EMT who said he had been beaten on the neck one night.

A few minutes after 10:00 p.m., a river of protesters streamed onto Lung Wo Road. The move had been tried several times before without success. Students soon erected quick versions of their trademark barricades of metal gates, pallets, and lots of plastic ties. Police hoisted warning signs and asked the students not to swear. “Fuck you!” the crowd cried.

The bravado crumpled by 2:30 a.m. Firing pepper spray, police pushed the crowd into Tamar Park, a speck of green along Victoria Harbour. A few of the 200 protesters who remained hurled bottles as they ran. Blood dribbled down the face of one police superintendent. Cornered by two police cordons, some demonstrators urged the police to join them. “When Hong Kong falls, you will suffer, too,” one man cried. Another called out, “How can you trust the Communists?” and, “You can’t stop us all.”

Police urged the crowd to leave. A few did. The rest lined up along the road as a hesitant rain began. Protesters hoisted umbrellas, shouting, “We want universal suffrage.” Tang Wing-Yu, 20, led the cheer. “Tonight we need to do something. We need to fight,” she said. Around 3:20, students amassed on the road’s eastern end. In minutes, about 200 remaining agitators once again flowed onto the road. The more experienced rebels watched warily, as officers retreated into nearby buses, where they would nap and ready themselves.

As dawn approached, Cheung waited for defeat. “We’re going to lose the road again and about 20 people will be arrested and more people will be beaten,” Cheung predicted. He spoke with a faint French accent that he attributed to hanging out with friends from that country. He learned about outwitting the police, and anticipating their responses, from time spent at the Umbrella Movement’s sister campsite in Mong Kok, where activists sparred several times with officers. Police had cleared that protester area in the bustling commercial hub days earlier, touching off violent standoffs with police. Cheung pursed his lips and exhaled. “It’s police setting a trap,’’ he decided. “We didn’t occupy [the road] at all. We’re just waiting to get arrested.”

Cheung has a deep interest in international politics — he calls it a hobby — and lately he’s been following the Catalan independence push. He said he didn’t expect to enlist in the “whole revolution” movement in Hong Kong. He thought he’d join for a few hours on Sept. 28, the day police lobbed tear gas canisters at the crowd. “Then I saw the students staying with their books. And I felt sort of responsible to stay longer.” Soon he was helping to manage protest supplies at a camp station.

Cheung listened when a fellow protester insisted that if the citizens didn’t fight now, it would be their last chance. Cheung didn’t agree. “A revolution takes 30 years,” he said. “We are just the first generation. It’s like an education for the next generation.”

A little before 5:00 a.m., Cheung grabbed his bullhorn to issue instructions to the crowd. “Even if you’re beaten, I hope you will stay to the last moment,” he told the crowd.

Privately, Cheung sounded less confident. Through the night he had stayed in touch with 17 teammates through an ear bud and walkie-talkie that he kept hidden in his jean jacket. Some of the crew had done some reconnaissance in other neighborhoods and found large police contingents that would quickly shut down any new encampments. Protesters needed to grab small bits of territory and hold them, Cheung said. They hadn’t learned from Oct. 16, he said, when youth made roadblocks from culvert covers, and a huge battery of officers swooped in, chasing down and beating people. Trying to take Lung Wo and the tunnel beneath the park had been a “stupid decision,” he said. “We don’t have the human resources to occupy so much,’’ he said. “Yet people keep trying to expand.” The leaderless movement, he said, “is making this into chaos.”

Still, there he was on roadway’s median before dawn, his voice thin from fatigue, his thin frame aching, about to lead young protesters, many of them students, against men with military training wielding plexiglass shields and pepper spray. Cheung smiled weakly. “You got to have so-called experienced people,’’ he said. “We’re trying to organize, but obviously we don’t have enough people.” He stopped and corrected himself. “We tried. I’m still trying.”

Police regrouped at 6:50 that morning. Dozens of officers lined up on the government drive near the road, wearing riot helmets, shields, and thick gloves. The protesters donned their donated construction helmets, surgical masks, and silicone goggles. One protester was ready to head to work, dressed in a suit and dress shirt. In minutes police with batons barreled out of the government center driveway, encircling the protesters from behind, chasing them off the road, through a park, and past government offices. Many stragglers were clubbed.

Officers pushed them into the encampment on Harcourt Road, storming a quickly erected barricade. Soon, student leaders said what many protesters knew: The Lung Wo operation had been a terrible mistake.

Cheung emerged from the crowd, his skin pale. “We have the right to protest,” he said, staring at the shaken students. The government, he said, had shredded any last thread of a relationship with her people, he said. “Somehow, we thought if we could keep the revolution peaceful, it might lead to some changes,” he said. “I can’t promise this is a peaceful revolution anymore.’’

Hong Kong Protests Turn Violent

Hong Kong Showdown

Pro-democracy protests enter a nasty new phase following a violent pre-dawn police raid.

By Suzanne Sataline

October 15, 2014
Foreign Policy

The city’s youth were at it again. On the night of Oct. 15, hundreds of young democracy protesters converged on Lung Wo Road near the government center, prepared for what they hoped was the next step in bringing democracy to the Chinese territory. First, they needed heavy objects.

The protest known as the Umbrella Movement — a student-led effort to ensure free and open elections for Hong Kong’s head of government in 2017 — had suffered setbacks of late. After nearly three weeks of occupying the city’s business core, the number of people taking part had shrunk. Government officials had refused to discuss changes to an elections plan that will let Beijing vet the city’s next leader, then canceled all talks with student leaders on Oct 12. On Oct. 14, it took police less than an hour to level the protesters’ dramatic barricades of bamboo, wood and concrete on Queensway, a commercial hub, returning the street to vehicles. So some of the remaining protesters decided to grab the government’s attention by taking a roadway near the government chief executive’s office.

At the eastern end of Lung Wo, a hundred or so protesters fashioned a new barricade in a manner fast becoming their signature — a matrix of steel barriers, heavy plastic gates, and wood. Then someone discovered that culverts on both sides of Lung Wo’s highway were covered with thick blocks of roughly 18 square inches — blocks that most anyone could lift. Protesters lay row after row of the slabs on the highway. Dozens of helpers, some fresh from work, knelt on the tarmac and joined the blocks with plastic ties. Sweat stained their dress shirts.

“It’s like the China Great Wall!” said Chester, a 21-year-old, slightly mangling his English. With all the photographers snapping pictures, many of the young people in the tunnel wore surgical masks and asked that their surnames be withheld to prevent future problems with police.  Around the fourth row of blocks, a group of about 15 youth, dust clinging to their clothes, debated if the slabs should be set upright, or laid down. Some protesters acknowledged that they could not fend off police forever. Terence Lau, a 26-year-old assistant engineer, observed the debate. “The government,” he said, “is crazier than us.”

Around two o’clock, a cry arose from the crowd. “Police!” people shouted. The trill of whistles pierced the air. The protesters raced from the tunnel, donning safety goggles and masks. After 10 minutes, a sea of bobbing blue lights drew closer from the road’s western end. Word raced through the crowd. More police were coming from the east. And a cluster of white lights emerged from the walkway along Victoria Harbour. None had helmets — a good sign, I thought. That meant no tear gas. Hundreds of officers, with round riot shields, began pushing the crowd backwards, toward the tunnel. Another contingent pushed protesters in the other direction. Suddenly, the officers coming from the shore amassed a few feet from a group of us in Tamar Park, a small patch of lawn and trees atop the highway tunnel. The officers addressed the crowd over a bullhorn.

“They say we are here illegally,” said Lock Cheung, a freelance videographer. “Police say if they don’t leave, they will use spray.” The crowd hissed. “Gangsters!” Cheung urged us to be careful. The police, he said, “don’t follow any rules anymore.”

In minutes, police were several feet from us, yelling and shining flashlights in our faces. Along with Cheung and David Feith, a Wall Street Journal writer, I took off. The incessant, unintelligible screech of a female officer’s voice filled the air.

The line of officers ran toward us, but they were spread out along the water. Somehow, they tramped past me. I was behind the police cordon and I heard David calling to me: “Get out of there.” A male cop pushed me, and then a female officer hurled me toward some trees. I tore through bushes, past clumps of officers standing over people prone on the ground. That’s when I realized what the female voice had been saying: “This is a police line. Do not cross.”

I ran until I reached a metal barrier, the edge of a highway construction site. I turned to face the officers, holding my press badge high. I could see nothing but the flashlight beams. “Tell me where to go. I’m a reporter! I’m not crossing your fucking line.” Piercing cries distracted the cops. A few dozen feet away, a tall man was restraining a skinny young man in a teal sweatshirt and shorts, who was clearly cursing. A male officer grabbed him by the shoulder and rammed him to the ground. The officers pounced on him, binding his hands with plastic ties. I saw another set of officers sitting on top of someone else.

Running along the metal wall, I encountered a burly man with black curly hair and a beard. His face was bright red and his eyes were clamped shut. He said his name was Daniel, he was from New York, and that he’d been videotaping when a cop hit him with pepper spray. I took hold of his wire rim glasses, coated in orange goo. With two other men, we led Daniel around the fencing and police ordered us to head back toward the government complex. There the cops had pushed hundreds of protesters who were jammed between some temporary metal structures and the large network of barricades that they had created. Some young people, in their panic were climbing over the road blocks. In the mob, I let go of Daniel’s arm and lost him.

The police had stop screaming and the crowd hurried through a path and into the driveway of the office of the Chief Executive. The police had succeeded; they had pushed the protesters off Lung Wo Road and retaken the area. Soon cars and taxis buzzed past.

Stunned and exhausted, the protesters lay in heaps on the curbs and walkways. Many fell asleep. Several people mentioned seeing people kicked and beaten with fists and batons. The protesters shared their videos showing police shoving their riot shields into people’s chests. “I’ve never seen anything like this in Hong Kong,” said Adrian Gauci, who is 22. “People were just holding umbrellas and they were just hitting them.”

On Lung Wo, a new shift of police officers marched in, the boots crunching the plastic ties littering the street. “They’re like triad members,” said Cheung, the videographer I had met in the park, referring to Hong Kong criminal gangs. “We take their territory and they have to take their territory back. It’s like the 80s or 90s Hong Kong gangster movies.”

Hours later, we would all see the video: A local television crew captured police leading a man to a secluded corner where officers take turns kicking him, as another cop stands guard. A lawyer and colleagues later identified the man as Ken Tsang, a member of the pro-democracy Civic Party. In all, 45 people were arrested early Wednesday, and a team of pro-democracy lawyers told the media that five or six of those collared complained that police had punched or hit them.

Protest participants and organizers have fretted in the last two weeks that the democracy movement was fizzling, its fans fracturing without clear leadership. Some of the public, inconvenienced by blocked roads, have slammed protester actions, with some thugs attacking demonstrators sitting at major crossroads. The students pulled back from earlier demands, such as the resignation of C.Y. Leung, and focused on election rules to let the public nominate chief executive candidates — a request that Beijing has flatly rejected. Despite this, the city has been unable to end the protesters’ quixotic crusade. Sit-ins are still going on at three smaller sites.

Wednesday morning, the police action may have revived the democracy movement’s solidarity. Thousands of people came to Harcourt Road in Admiralty, and student leader Joshua Wong described the force as “thugs.” The crowd cheered.

The Barricades of Hong Kong

Hong Kong Protesters Are Digging In

Pro-democracy demonstrators are fortifying barricades with wood, bamboo, even cement.

By Suzanne Sataline

October 13, 2014
Foreign Policy

Outside of the Admiralty subway station in downtown Hong Kong, about 30 young people sat on the pavement near a large and dusty pile of plaster, plasterboard, and wood, which someone had scrounged from an office renovation nearby. Wearing cotton gloves and safety masks, the young men and women pulled nails from thin slats. Some used bricks to nudge the iron from the wood. The dust rose and the sound glanced off steel beams overhead. The building of new barricades had begun.

Pro-democracy protesters who call themselves the “umbrella movement” took some hard blows on Oct. 13. Two weeks after commandeering a highway and part of three shopping districts, bringing a good deal of commerce and traffic in Hong Kong to a halt, student leaders offered a deal to the city. They would allow cars into the Admiralty area in downtown Hong Kong if the city would let protesters meet in Civic Square, near the government headquarters.

Instead, the city continued to insist that the protesters, who are demanding universal suffrage in the Chinese territory and the ouster of the city’s head of government, C.Y. Leung, were breaking the law. Police arrived at Admiralty early on the morning of Oct. 13, cutting plastic ties and removing metal police barriers that students had strung together. Hours later, dozens of thugs arrived and started pushing the metal gates, as well as some protesters. Area office workers watched from nearby bridges, some filming the melee. A crane rolled to the scene and scooped up metal barriers.

But far from being cowed, students soon began re-building their barricades out of anything else they could find.

Instead of abandoning their posts, protesters are once again digging in.

With the nails removed, the youth piled the wood onto a handcart. Two young men wheeled it past a new barricade — one with pieces of wood interlaced with metal and large swaths of beige carpet fastened over the contraption. The men zoomed out to Queensway, a wide road where a crowd of about 200 had gathered. A trellis of bamboo scaffolding jutted skyward, rising from a heap of metal and plastic street barriers topped with wood slats and metal rods, knotted with plastic wrap, steel wire, and bundles of plastic ties. The bamboo rods reached higher than a nearby pedestrian bridge, the ends sawed off to make them sharp. Every head was tipped upward, toward two men who balanced on bamboo scaffolding while knotting a series of plastic ties.

The crowd burst into applause. “This is Hong Kong! They will never beat us!” cried Chris Wong, 26, a healthcare worker. A New Yorker in his 20s named Joe stepped up to the barrier, narrating the scene into his cell phone pressed to his ear. “It’s like Les Mis,” he told the caller.

Innana Chow jumped deftly from a horizontal bamboo pole to the street. A compact man with cat-like grace, he was one of five scaffolding workers there Monday night, none of whom knew the others. But he said they had similar goals. “I want to build something to protect the students,” said Chow, who is 25.

At the base, a team of about 30 construction workers — deeply tanned, with long, lithe muscles — re-checked the plastic ties at the barricade’s base. They don’t work together, but all are friends on Facebook in a group started by construction worker Kruzo Cheuck as a way to socialize. Cheuck said the workers didn’t like that their trade association leaders had blamed the student movement for a recent lack of work. Construction jobs had slowed, and 2,000 workers have been idle, through no fault of the protesters, he said. “We came because we think we are being used,” said worker Manson Lau.

Instead, the workers taught the youth how most anything could be used to block vehicles and protect their turf. Metal bars were joined with chains or wads of twist ties slathered in glue and swaddled in plastic wrap — to make it impossible for the police to simply cut them free. Bamboo poles, brought by the workers, were in abundance. At one barricade, about 20 rods affixed to the metal barriers jut straight out like swords. The ends were sheathed in plastic wrap or bottles, to prevent passersby from injury.

When the crew ran short of metal structures at the east end of Queensway, a central tram route, the team created a matrix of bamboo rods that threaded through trash bins. Wet cement affixed the contraption to the pavement. About 150 feet away, eight police officers stood watching. “We should get the ‘Occupy Best Design of the Year’ award,” exclaimed Max Lee, a 28-year-old environmental consultant. “I don’t think a tank can get in,” said friend Desmond Wai, 30, an assistant manager at a fashion company.

Around one o’clock in the morning, a crew of young workers readied their final barrier of the night — wall after wall of bamboo, metal, and plastic and wood pallets. Workers had dragged large planters from elsewhere to the inside of the maze.

I asked a young man with a skull and bones neckerchief over his mouth if he knew the designer. “I’m pretty sure it’s me,” said Jason Yim. The 23-year-old sound engineer said he was in Mong Kok on Oct. 5 when crowds who opposed the democracy protesters beat up student occupiers in the busy shopping district, leading to 19 arrests. Police said eight suspects had links to the city’s triad underworld. The occupiers, some who sleep at the sites all night, needed to ensure the gangs wouldn’t return.

Thinking of how to shore up roadblocks, Yim recalled a favorite childhood pastime. “I said, ‘why don’t we put it together like Legos?'” Most of the barricades have held in Mong Kok and they will hold in Admiralty, he said — should the government, the police, or the triads return. “I’m pretty sure it’s wisely designed.”

Hong Kong’s Sit-in Encounters a Class Problem

Occupy Central Encounters a Class Problem

By Suzanne Sataline
October 3, 2014

On a steamy Friday evening, splendid air conditioning and the promise of a bargain drew hundreds of shoppers to Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay district. All week, the district had been the site of a satellite protest that had spun off from the massive gathering outside of government offices. In Causeway, students participating in protests begun last Friday had blocked traffic by tying together metal barricades, turning one of the city’s most polluted districts into a freewheeling pedestrian zone filled with singing, chatting youth. Into this scene walked some twenty beefy men in tight formation, wearing surgical masks.

They shoved aside the metal gates, sending some crashing to the ground. One guy in a light-blue T-shirt grabbed a skinny student around the neck. Another masked man punched and stomped on a student. Police arrived wearing neon vests, and students beseeched them to make arrests. According to witnesses, officers took the men away, but didn’t arrest them on the scene. Standing nearby an hour later, a twenty-four-year-old named Colin Au was still seething. The men, he claimed, were paid enforcers. “The plan of the government is to try to scare us away, to use every means to stop the occupiers from coming onto the street,’’ he said, to the nods of people around.
Across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island, a mob attacked students and supporters at another encampment, injuring several people. The violence in the area of Kowloon had begun in the afternoon, when a large group of men descended on the few remaining protesters at a satellite gathering in Mong Kok, a sprawling shopping district that draws tourists and the city’s working class. Well past midnight, live television broadcasts showed what appeared to be adult men pouncing on and pummeling students. Residents screamed at the outnumbered police officers who were attempting to break up fights and make arrests. When officers cleared narrow paths through the crowd, leading out shaking students, people in the crowd shoved and hit some, screaming, “Go home!” Police arrested nineteen people and confirmed that eight of them had triad backgrounds. By dawn, protesters had begun to rebuild their camp.

The goals of the main protest group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, had been to paralyze Central, the main business district, and to convince China to scrap a restrictive elections process that would let Beijing screen a few candidates to run for chief executive in 2017. Protesters vowed to strangle the financial heart of the city, choking off access to international banks, financial-service firms, and luxury stores like Prada and Chanel. But college and high-school students preëmpted those plans, starting with a boycott of classes in September, and the protests took root in the nearby Admiralty district instead. There, police used tear gas on demonstrators—a decision that, as I wrote for this site on Wednesday, helped grow the protests.

With Admiralty crammed, the students and other protesters branched out, hoping to spread their message to other neighborhoods. They created a protest zone east of the main movement, in Causeway Bay, and north of the island, in Mong Kok, drawing in some elderly and working-class residents. People remained enthusiastic and generally supportive across two days of holidays, but when Friday broke and work resumed, many other residents were in no mood to slog through longer commutes in hopes of forcing C. Y. Leung, Hong Kong’s chief executive, to resign, or Beijing to relent on its electoral policies. On Friday, Leung refused to step down, and after the violence began a student group withdrew from talks that had opened a day earlier.

Most everyone in Hong Kong has been inconvenienced by the occupation. Bus companies have halted or modified routes, putting pressure on the city’s already jammed subways. And the detours and roadblocks have disproportionately affected those who drive, including many blue-collar workers. With a large span of highway hosting a protest encampment, cars and taxis have been forced into circuitous routes around the base of the island’s mountains. Tradespeople and deliverymen, and the tiny stores and restaurants that depend on them, have lost hours and money. In a place where practicality is a virtue, the quest for self-governance might appear frivolous to them. Paul Zimmerman, a district councillor for Causeway Bay, told a crowd on Friday that he had received complaints about people unable to get to work or see doctors. “Slowly you will lose your support,’’ he said.

Occupy Central, at the outset, was a movement of university students, professors, and young white-collar workers. It now has a class problem. Around the corner from the Causeway Bay attack, on Jardine’s Bazaar, a shoving match lasted for more than an hour. Before a hundred or more onlookers, men screamed at the few remaining democracy advocates, attired in the black shirts and yellow ribbons that have become their de-facto uniform. “You want to get democracy? So do I!” a man in a purple polo shirt shouted in Cantonese. “But I have a right to go to work!”

Tear Gas On the Streets of Hong Kong


Tear Gas On the Streets of Hong Kong

By Suzanne Sataline
October 1, 2014

On Tuesday night, a college student named Kathy Tang stood on what would normally be a clogged central highway in Hong Kong, asking fellow protesters if they were equipped with this week’s must-have accessory.

“Do you need an umbrella?” she asked. Amid the mass movement to bring democracy to a city under Chinese rule, the eighteen-year-old student at the Hong Kong Design Institute had assumed the task of guarding protesters against rain, tear gas, and heatstroke. She fanned the crowd with a large piece of cardboard with the word “recycle” written in Chinese characters, as a friend spritzed water on their heads. The effect was delightful. The quest for suffrage need not be sweaty.

“The government will not respond to us,” Tang said. “Maybe they’ll use their force, their tear gas again.” Standing beside her, Benny Liu, also eighteen, said that the students could not retreat. “We need to fight! If there’s some worse situation, they will call in the Chinese Army. If they call in the Chinese Army, then there will be”—he lowered his voice—“a 6/4.”

With tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents now participating in the protest, which had begun in earnest on Friday, after a planned week-long university boycott triggered a citywide student strike, Liu was voicing a worry I’d rarely heard expressed among the students: What was to stop the Chinese government from deploying a force similar to the one used against students on 6/4—which is common parlance for June 4, 1989? Each year Hong Kong holds the world’s biggest commemoration for the hundreds of demonstrators who died in Tiananmen Square. Liu pointed to the grim building that loomed over our heads, which housed the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army. “The door is open,” he said, “but they don’t listen to us.”

“Stay overnight with us!” Tang said, her voice rising with glee.

The idea behind Hong Kong’s Occupy movement (known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace, or Occupy Central)—to compel democratic change by flooding the central business district with demonstrators—was long considered the pipe dream of flakes and wonks. One pro-democracy lawmaker, who goes by the name Long Hair, is better known for ​​his demonstrative tactics than for the cogency of his arguments. Other activists had buried their arguments in academic papers about constitutionalism in China.

In the first days of the protests, city officials made three errors. First, they arrested a slender seventeen-year-old university freshman named Joshua Wong and held him for two nights. Wong had rallied students in 2012 to successfully protest the use of a Communism-infused curriculum in public schools. (He and another student activist in Hong Kong were the subject of a recent documentary called “Lessons in Dissent.”) Then, police choked off the bridges and sidewalks that led to the government area in an attempt to prevent more protesters from joining. This prompted thousands of people to scale the barriers along Connaught Road, one of Hong Kong’s major transportation arteries, halting cars and buses. Then came the third mistake: someone—it’s still unclear who—gave the order for police to fire chemicals into the crowd.

I was there during three of the first attacks. On Sunday afternoon, outside of the Admiralty subway station, a river of people were gathered under the bright sun. Most of us were on the roadway, unable to see the helmeted officers assembled before the park that led to the legislative chambers. The force faced the front line of protesters, some of whom were clutching inverted umbrellas. Toward the rear we heard yelling, and students at the back formed a brigade, passing water bottles, saline solution, paper towels, and more umbrellas. The kids at the front had been tear gassed.

“Oh my God, this is pretty fucking crazy!” shouted Kayi Kwok, a student at Hong Kong Baptist University. She had hoisted herself onto a concrete barrier and was filming the scene with her smartphone. “What kind of government is this?” A middle-aged man ran up to me. “It’s coming! Tell the whole world, look what they’re doing to us!” Many on the street coated their arms in plastic wrap and donned hygienic masks or wrapped towels around their mouths. Those who didn’t have silicone safety masks unspooled cellophane around their faces and eyeglasses.

The crowd trafficked in rumors. The cops would squeeze us from both sides. They would attack us with rubber bullets. Tanks would roll in. A few students showed images from Facebook of a lone tank moving down an anonymous highway. A few minutes after sundown, someone shouted, “Riot police!”

A hundred or so people darted up the highway’s westbound flyover and peered over the railing. A paramilitary unit marched in: black boots, olive jumpsuits, plexiglass helmets, and tear-gas guns. The troops halted on the lower access road, a dozen yards from our faces. One of the protesters must have seen a nod or the twitch of a hand, a silent order. We flung ourselves away from the railing. I tripped, and a college student offered me his hand.
We lurched up the two-lane road, our vision hampered by the sweat under our safety masks. Then the sounds came—pop, pop, pop. Acrid smoke filled the air. We gasped and coughed, staggering up the roadway. We heard the sounds again, then again. Turning, we saw plumes fall on the larger crowd on the main highway and heard screams as people tried to scramble over concrete barriers, away from the gas.

At the railing, after the smoke cleared, John Meldrum, a resident of more than two decades, recovered quickly. The decision to use force, he said, was cruel but effective. “Hong Kong people felt they didn’t have a voice under the British,” he said as more smoke plumes arced into the crowd below. “They don’t have a voice under their own people. And now they don’t have a voice under China.”

That night, the police returned and hit protesters with more tear gas. In a press conference the next day, police officials disclosed that eighty-seven rounds had been deployed.

As China’s National Day, on October 1st, approached, secondary-school students joined the strike, as did the city’s largest teachers’ union. Employees at many companies walked off their jobs, and sister protests sprung up in the Causeway Bay commercial district and a working-class area called Mong Kok. More adults streamed into Admiralty district—bankers, importers, real-estate salesmen, teachers. Occupy Central with Love and Peace called for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, to resign. Donations to the protest arrived by cart, motorcycle, and truck, each load greeted with applause. It became impossible to take ten steps on Connaught without a college student pushing crackers, water, safety masks, or tissues on you. Medical students and nurses manned ad-hoc MASH units, equipped with hundreds of bottles of saline to irrigate burned eyes.

The protests developed a certain rhythm. By day, the streets filled with younger students, housewives, and bemused office workers. After five, younger workers, artists, and college students packed the area, gossiping among clusters of friends.

Tensions were highest before dawn, particularly early on Tuesday. After 2 A.M., word began to circulate through the crowd in the Admiralty that police had been seen in nearby Wanchai. On cue, thousands of people began wrapping their arms and faces in cellophane and tightening disposable particle masks around their noses and mouths. The area became very quiet. And then we sat, waiting, like extras in a bad sci-fi movie: “Night of the Plastic People.”

Many dozed off at around 4 A.M., so I left and wandered onto an east–west corridor, Queensway, a tree-shaded thoroughfare lined with corporate offices. Teams of students were pushing metal barriers into intersections, arranging them in a lattice pattern and securing them with plastic ties. They had managed to block off nearly every intersection in the main business district. Occupy Central had found a way to truly clog the heart of the city, without needing bodies at each spot.

A twenty-six-year-old, Hong Kong–born physician named Jake Chan stood by, wearing scrubs and two surgical masks, scanning the street appreciatively. He worked at a hospital on the mainland. His sister had been gassed on Sunday, and he said that he felt compelled to lend his skills to help the students. His boss had given him permission to take leave. He was partway through a twelve-hour shift at a nearby medical tent.

“It’s brilliant,” he said, watching the students push barriers in place. He feared that China would act, though, and harshly. “I think of Tiananmen,” he said. And so, he added, did the students: “They know what they’re doing—the inferences and the consequences.”

Questions and Doubts After a Record Swim

Celebration Gives Way to Questions and Doubt
After a Record Swim

September 8, 2013
By Suzanne Sataline

Perhaps it was inevitable: Minutes after Diana Nyad, the 64-year-old marathon swimmer, landed on the sandy shores of Key West, Fla., succeeding in her fifth attempt to swim the straits from Cuba, fellow swimmers unleashed a barrage of censure and doubt.

Swimmers asked: Was she truly unaided during all those hours in the open sea, with only her crew observing? Based on her GPS data released by her team, how did she manage to swim nearly 53 hours, crossing 110 miles, given that her average speed was 1.7 miles per hour at the start and end of the swim? And were her two handpicked independent observers truly independent?

In the week since Nyad arrived in Key West to international acclaim, apparently becoming the first person to swim the 110-plus-mile route without a shark cage, doubters have multiplied. They have gathered on marathon swimming Web sites and other sites to criticize Nyad’s methods and her team’s transparency and to raise questions about the veracity of her claims.

Nyad said she was not surprised by the questions and criticisms.

“I’m an absolutely aboveboard person who never cheated on anything in my whole life,” Nyad said. “When someone does something they’ve been trying to do for a long time and you know how difficult it is, it’s only logical. I hope they’re not questioning if I’m an honest person.

“They want to know how the facts came down so they can understand it. They have every right to ask all these questions, and we have every intention to honor the accurate information.”

Her swim was not documented by independent news media, as were her previous attempts. Nyad acknowledged that the news media had wearied of the story because she had failed so often. Nor did members of Nyad’s crew take continuous video of the swim, a strange decision to some marathoners.

“If I was doing a swim that had never been done before and everyone thought impossible, I’d have a video camera on me continuously,” said Evan Morrison, the San Francisco founder of, an online community of more than 700 athletes.

But Steven Munatones, a former marathon swimmer and swimming official who has served on Nyad’s earlier crews, said he had no doubts.

“I am 100 percent satisfied based on the GPS data, marine information, written information and personal interviews that she did the swim,” said Munatones, of Huntington Beach, Calif.

Munatones said he intended to review all the data from Nyad’s crew with a panel of other swimming experts, including the president of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, so they could answer all the questions being raised. The federation president, Forrest Nelson, said he had agreed.

Munatones’s involvement has added to the pique voiced by some marathon swimmers — a notoriously independent lot who cross waterways of 10 miles or more. Several have asked how Munatones and Nyad’s official observers could be impartial, because they all knew Nyad before the swim and Munatones had served on her previous crews. (Munatones says he considers observers part of any swimmer’s crew, a contention that many would fault.)

Marathoner online forums have buzzed with speculation as to whether Nyad got a power boost by climbing aboard her boat. (She says no.) They have posited that by helping her don a protective silicone mask for jellyfish and a special suit to ward off stings, her crew helped her in ways that other channel associations would prohibit. (Nyad says the crew never buoyed her, and thus the swim was “unassisted.”)

The biggest source of grousing pertains to Nyad’s speed and distance covered and the amount of push she got from the currents. Her previous attempts were undone by bad weather and uncooperative currents, which tend to sweep eastward toward the Bahamas. Nyad is a plodder; she says she averages less than 2 miles per hour. She swam at 1.7 m.p.h. when she left Cuba on Aug. 31 and again when she neared Key West.

One marathon swimmer, Andrew Malinak of Seattle, used Firebug, a Web development tool that inspects code, to glean Nyad’s GPS data from the swimmer’s official Web site. He surmised that Nyad was traveling at an increasingly speedy clip on the swim’s second day — from 2 m.p.h. to more than 6 m.p.h. around 31 hours into the swim. After her crew made the data available with time stamps, Malinak revised his work and said that Nyad’s top speed was nearly 4.5 m.p.h. for a stretch. The pace was inconsistent, he said, with surges and then valleys, plunging her times to 2 m.p.h.

“The rapid increase and two subsequent rapid decreases in her speed, combined with the already fast pace, still leave me skeptical of her swim’s authenticity,” said Malinak, a geotechnical engineer in Seattle, who has swum around Manhattan.

Fellow swimmers have asked if it is possible that Nyad was on a boat when those surges happened.

Nyad and some on board her flotilla said no. Her navigator, John Bartlett, a custom boat builder in the Florida Keys, says the fast water flows were predicted by a Connecticut physical oceanographer. Some of the fastest currents unfolded around noon on the swim’s second day, moving at 3.8 knots, close to 4 m.p.h.

“They’re always that fast in the axis, the center of the flow,” said Bartlett, who crewed for Nyad on earlier attempts.

“I didn’t record our speed per se at given moments,” Bartlett said about his written logs. “I was doing an average speed — calculated from the beginning.”

Bartlett said that currents varied, and that the team had worked Nyad sideways and northward through the currents, a technique called crabbing. “Everyone is saying, Wow, she was going fast; how is that possible?” Bartlett said. “The currents were going fast.”

The currents eased up to 1.4 knots on Day 3, but the direction was more northern, and thus more helpful to Nyad.

“That’s how the speed increased,” Bartlett said. “The direction of the current was better.”

Nyad said: “We were definitely traveling north at a faster speed than what I can do on my own. I just got lucky.”

Besides getting fair weather, with just a short squall to slow her, Nyad also benefited from great currents, which she hit at the ideal time, said Mitchell Roffer, a biological oceanographer and owner of Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service in West Melbourne, Fla. Roffer, who independently checked the currents after the swim when the criticisms mounted, said Nyad was swept along by a moving gyre, a large counterclockwise rotating current that moves from the Gulf of Mexico into the Keys, taking Nyad on a fast ride. It forms less than once a month, he said.

“She hit it at the ideal time,” Roffer said. “Rather than angle and have to fight it, in this case she actually rode with the current.”

Bartlett, her navigator, cautioned the people crunching numbers. GPS data culled by Malinak from what was recorded by spot trackers set on the deck of the escort boat is far less reliable than the information from the professional GPS units Bartlett used. The spot trackers are “designed to be a convenience so the public can watch the progress, but they’re not infallible and not precise,” he said. “If there’s a discrepancy between what I have on paper and the spot trackers, you can just disregard the spot trackers.”

Critics say the observers — typically people who have never met the athlete — are unknown in the swimming community, odd for such a high-profile event. Munatones was supposed to observe the swim.

On earlier outings with Nyad, Munatones said he “did everything including getting sponsors, organizing the crew, blogging, and jumping in the water and helping feed her.” But when the team decided that the conditions were perfect, Munatones was on a plane to Tokyo. Nyad said she had to scramble to find two substitutes, both Key West locals who did not have a history of swimming or observing record crossings.

One, Janet Hinkle, a licensed Key West boat captain, said she got the call at the last minute. She said she had met Nyad in 2011, providing her with a home to live in before a swim. Hinkle had never observed any swim, but she said she got tips from Munatones and said she was unbiased.

“I believe she asked me because I would be an objective observer,” Hinkle said. She said she never observed Nyad getting on board the boat during the swim or being pulled by a craft.

Nyad’s fans have called the critics “haters” who are jealous. Nyad has long been a lightning rod among swimmers who object to the publicity she seeks and the tactics she employs — like letting her crew remove her stinger suit and apply lotions. Many swimmers say those violate the most common rules of the sport, those followed by English Channel swimmers.

“Nyad owes the swim world a look at her data and absolute transparency about how she was able to cross a waterway that has crippled other, younger swimmers,” said Bonnie Schwartz, a New York City resident who crossed the English Channel in 2005. “We’re her peers. She’s not above us.”

Extreme Swimmers Tackle the Ocean’s Seven

Extreme Swimmers Accept The Challenge of ‘Ocean’s Seven’

By Suzanne Sataline
October 16, 2010

ON THE SAN PEDRO CHANNEL — The fishing boat idles five miles off the California coast. Anne Cleveland bobs in the dark chilly waters. After three hours in the drink, she has stopped swimming. She shivers.

“Gut it out!” yells Paula Selby, an official on board. She’s overseeing Ms. Cleveland’s swim between Rancho Palos Verdes and Santa Catalina Island in the Pacific Ocean.

Ms. Cleveland complains that her neck is raw from the salt water and that she has a queasy stomach. She takes a few reluctant strokes and stops, treading water. “How much longer?” she asks.

Oh, about 21 hours.

“She said she was going to cry and scream,” says training partner Grace van der Byl, watching from the boat. “If we get past six to eight hours, she’ll be fine.”

The 21-mile Catalina crossing is a mere warm-up. Ms. Cleveland is training for the so-called Ocean’s Seven, swimming’s take on mountain climbers’ “seven summits.” It is attracting a small cult of aquatic fanatics.

Marathon swimmers once proved their might by crossing the English Channel between Dover and northern France. For some, scaling the nautical Everest has become as routine as a weekend hike. Nearly 1,200 people have swum those 21 miles, including grandfathers, children and amputees.

Steven Munatones, a coach and marathon swimming guru, thought swimmers needed more challenges, so he devised the Ocean’s Seven — a list of channels that a well-rounded marathoner should master — and posted it on his website devoted to distance swimming.

There’s the English Channel, for old time’s sake; as well as the Catalina crossing; Cook Strait in New Zealand; the Tsugaru Channel in Japan; and the shortest, the Strait of Gibraltar, about eight miles between Spain and Morocco. Most swimmers say the toughest are the Molokai Channel in Hawaii, at 26 miles, and the frigid North Channel between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Mr. Munatones chose them for their geographic and climatic diversity, extreme hardships and the intricate planning needed to succeed. If 70% of the Earth is water, “we have yet to really scratch the surface,” says Mr. Munatones, publisher of the Daily News of Open Water Swimming and other websites he runs from his home in Huntington Beach, Calif.

A dozen swimmers have taken up Mr. Munatones’s dare, he says, since he posed it in 2008, and others have expressed interest.

He tracks swimmers’ progress on his blog. Swimmers must schedule their own attempts with the local groups that set rules, and in some cases verify, each crossing. He counts swims done before he created the challenge.

James Pittar, 41, of Sydney, Australia, has five crossings and is the furthest along, though he is blind. This month, he ditched his Molokai attempt after five hours in high waves.

Forrest Nelson, 45, of Los Angeles has crossed four, and would like to attack the Irish channel next.

Channels crossed by Ocean's Seven swimmers

“I call it a sickness,” says Mallory Mead, 24, of Indianapolis, who has finished two. She is seeking sponsors to help pay for her meticulous plan. “You do one, and then all you can think about is how you’re going to top that.”

Some of the channels are ice-cold. Some are very warm. Above the surface and below, dangers lurk. Swift currents, fog and swells can swamp a swimmer. Medusas, or jellyfish, can sear skin.

Six years ago, Ms. Cleveland plowed through biting winds and four-foot chop on a trip from Dover to Cap Gris Nez and back, a double English Channel crossing in 28 hours and 36 minutes. Last winter, at 54, she began thinking: What if she made the Catalina crossing twice — a 42-mile jaunt?

She would be the first person to swim the round trips of both major channels — a “double double” in swim parlance. It would prep her, she thought, for tougher Ocean’s Seven swims.

Catalina can rattle seasoned swimmers, and this season it has been troubled water.

A third of the 41 solo swimmers this year didn’t finish, with colder-than-normal sea temperatures, in the low-60s, says Ms. Selby, a board member of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation. The group sets the crossing rules.

Ms. Cleveland grew up swimming in La Jolla, and trains up to 37 miles weekly in the pool and sea. She sells real estate, and the sour market has helped free her time.

The day of her big swim, graphite-colored clouds blanketed the sky. Ms. Cleveland was wearing a Lycra suit approved by the channel federation, which bans anything buoyant or insulating. A silicone cap covered her platinum hair.

Ms. van der Byl slicked Ms. Cleveland’s chest and freckled arms with a mixture of zinc oxide and flesh-toned surfer’s sunscreen. “War paint,” Ms. van der Byl said, “to scare all the fish off with.” That’s the swimmers’ euphemism for sharks.

“See you guys tomorrow afternoon!” Ms. Cleveland said.

At 5:20 p.m., she walked into the teal blue waters and started swimming toward Catalina Island.

For nearly three hours, she freestyled with gusto, holding more than two miles an hour. The swells were gentle. Dolphins glided by. She said little to her friends who kayaked alongside. According to the rules, she couldn’t touch them or the boats. Every half hour, a kayaker tossed her a carbohydrate drink. She rolled onto her back, chugged the liquid, and resumed her pace, all in 20 seconds.

After nightfall, Ms. Cleveland complained of cramping. She couldn’t keep down the liquid.

An hour later, she stopped. “I can’t swim anymore. I’m cold,” she said in a small voice.

“You got to keep cranking to stay warm!” Ms. Selby said.

For five minutes, Ms. Cleveland stopped and started. She paddled toward the stern, as her boat mates told her, no. She wavered, then touched the boat’s metal step.

Ms. Selby called it quits at 9:28 p.m.

Ms. Cleveland stayed in bed for a week with flu symptoms, then swam a one-mile race, just for fun. “In two years I’ll have another one of those Ocean’s Seven,” she says. “I can’t stay away.”

Houses of God Turn to the Book of Bankruptcy

In Hard Times, Houses of God Turn To Chapter 11

By Suzanne Sataline
December 23, 2008

EASTON, Md. — The auctioneer told the small crowd huddled outside the Talbot County Courthouse that the property would be sold “as is” — rectory, bell tower, oak pews and rose-tinted stained glass windows included.

“Who gives $700,000, 700, 700?” he called out. One man, a representative for a local bank, raised his finger. The auctioneer tried in vain to nudge the price up. “Sold!” he cried. St. Andrew Anglican Church had just been bought by the bank that had started foreclosure proceedings against it.

“It’s probably good for my soul to be taken down a notch,” said the Right Rev. Joel Marcus Johnson, the rector of St. Andrew, after the auction.

During this holiday season of hard times, not even houses of God have been spared. Some lenders believe more churches than ever have fallen behind on loans or defaulted this year. Some churches, and at least one company that specialized in church lending, have filed for bankruptcy. Church giving is down as much as 15% in some places, pastors and lenders report.

The financial problems are crimping a church building boom that began in the 1990s, when megachurches multiplied, turning many houses of worship into suburban social centers complete with bookstores, gyms and coffee bars. Lenders say mortgage applications are down, while some commercial lenders no longer see churches as a safe investment.

“We are seeing more stress in churches than we have in modern history,” says Mark G. Holbrook, president and chief executive of the Evangelical Christian Credit Union of Brea, Calif., which specializes in lending to churches. The credit union has moved to foreclose on seven of its 2,000 member churches this year, and Mr. Holbrook says he expects to take similar action against two more next year. Before now, it had foreclosed on only two churches in its 45-year history.

Church Mortgage &Loan Corp. of Maitland, Fla., another church lender, foreclosed on 10 church properties in the past couple of years. Unable to sell any of them, the company didn’t have the funds to pay more than 400 bondholders the estimated $18 million it owes, says company lawyer Elizabeth Green. Church Mortgage filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March.

Strongtower Financial of Fresno, Calif., says two of its 300 evangelical church borrowers are in default, compared with only one in the previous 15 years.

Dozens more churches are listed as delinquent on their loans, according to a search of county court records nationwide.

Churches were long considered good credit risks, lenders say. Weekly collections tend to be steady, even during recessions, and churches feel a moral tug to pay debts. Most of the nation’s 335,000 churches carry little or no mortgage debt, and are based in buildings that were paid off long ago.

But some churches, especially those not affiliated with major denominations, borrowed briskly to build or expand in recent years. Spending on construction of houses of worship rose to $6.2 billion in 2007 from $3.8 billion in 1997, according to the U.S. Census. Now, churches are seeing congregants lose jobs and savings.

The 125-year-old Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, of Jacksonville, Fla., borrowed about $2.6 million in 2002 to add a new education wing, reflecting pool and tower. In addition, the church’s 1,200 members pledged $1 million to the building campaign, but two-thirds of that money was never actually donated, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. John Allen Newman.

A quarter of the congregants soon stopped attending church, says Mr. Newman, so weekly collections started to dwindle. He and the church leaders cut staff and electricity use to save costs, but in January, facing a foreclosure judgment of $3.3 million, the church filed for bankruptcy protection. Mr. Newman says the church hopes to settle its debts and emerge from bankruptcy proceedings in the coming months.

“There have been too many churches with a ‘build it and they will come’ attitude,” says N. Michael Tangen, executive vice president at American Investors Group Inc., a church lender in Minnetonka, Minn. “They had glory in their eyes that wasn’t backed up with adequate business plans and cash flow.”

St. Andrew, the recently auctioned Maryland church, opened 17 years ago in a former sporting-goods store in downtown Easton. The town of historic colonial mansions and sprawling farms was once home to Frederick Douglass. More recently, the town has become a retreat for Washington’s elite.

The rector of St. Andrew, Bishop Johnson, attracted like-minded conservatives who disliked Episcopal innovations, such as ordaining female priests. In 2005, the church borrowed $850,000 to buy a much larger space that had once belonged to a Roman Catholic parish.

The 1868 Gothic revival structure was large for Bishop Johnson’s congregation of 50 people. But the gregarious Midwesterner, who once raised money for a ballet troupe and orchestra, said he was confident his ministry and donations would grow. “I’m well liked, I’m a lucky man,” he says he felt at the time. He wooed real-estate agents, bankers and well-heeled locals — some of whom didn’t even attend the church — and received pledges worth $200,000.

Some donors said they were impressed with the bishop’s generous food pantry and help given to local Hispanics. For a time, Bishop Johnson said Mass in Spanish on Friday nights for workers at a crabmeat processor, and the parish also offered English classes.

“He served a part of this community that often times does not get served well,” says Lee Denny, president of the local General Motors dealership. Mr. Denny, an elder in Easton’s Presbyterian Church, donated $10,000.

But expenses mounted. There were mice in the basement and bats in the belfry. It cost about $45,000 to stanch creeping black mold. Once the local Catholic parish began saying Mass in Spanish, it drew off most of St. Andrew’s immigrant members. Weekly donations dropped to about $600 from $1,425 three years ago, says Bishop Johnson. And many of those who had pledged $200,000 toward the mortgage payments told the bishop they needed to delay their gifts, saying their stock portfolios were down.

Last February, the church couldn’t meet its monthly interest payments. The lender, Talbot Bank, a unit of Shore Bancshares Inc., foreclosed in August, seeking $950,000, including principal and unpaid interest. It was one of five properties Talbot foreclosed on in two years, but the only church, says W. David Morse, a vice president at the bank.

At the auction’s end, Bishop Johnson shook hands with Mr. Morse. “These people are not Wall Street bandits, for crying out loud,” the bishop said of his bankers. St. Andrew’s congregants will likely stay in the building for several more weeks while the bank seeks a buyer.

The transaction gave James C. Andrew, the auctioneer, some pause. He was married in the building in 1997 when it was a Catholic church and his two children had been baptized there. “I’ll probably wind up with coal in my stocking for Christmas,” he said.

Mormons Dismayed By Harsh Spotlight

Tabernacle on Trial

Mormons Dismayed By Harsh Spotlight

By Suzanne Sataline
February 8, 2008

Mitt Romney’s campaign for the presidency brought more attention to the Mormon Church than it has had in years. What the church discovered was not heartening.

Critics of its doctrines and culture launched frequent public attacks. Polling data showed that far more Americans say they’d never vote for a Mormon than those who admitted they wouldn’t choose a woman or an African-American.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in late January revealed that 50% of Americans said they would have reservations or be “very uncomfortable” about a Mormon as president. That same poll found that 81% would be “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” with an African-American and 76% with a woman.

The Mormon religion “was the silent factor in a lot of the decision making by evangelicals and others,” says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the poll. The Romney campaign ran into “a religious bias head wind,” Mr. Hart and his Republican polling partner, Bill McInurff, wrote late last month.

“I don’t think that any of us had any idea how much anti-Mormon stuff was out there,” said Armand Mauss, a Mormon sociologist who has written extensively about church culture, in an interview last week. “The Romney campaign has given the church a wake-up call. There is the equivalent of anti-Semitism still out there.”

Yesterday, the former Massachusetts governor said he was suspending his quest for the Republican nomination, following a poor showing in the “Super Tuesday” contests. Mr. Romney made no mention of his religion when he withdrew.

There were many other factors that may have contributed to his failed campaign. He didn’t gain sufficient traction among the social conservatives influential to his party. Opponents attacked him, saying he changed his moderate stances to more conservative ones to attract votes, including his position on abortion.

Some observers play down religious bias as a factor. Ken Jennings, a Mormon who was a “Jeopardy!” champion, says anti-Mormon attacks “contributed” to Mr. Romney’s problems, but weren’t the only obstacle. “I suspect there were bigger forces in play than the religion,” such as perceptions that Mr. Romney had shifted his positions, says Mr. Jennings, of Seattle. “There were principled reasons to say, ‘I like McCain over Romney.'”

Religion “wasn’t a factor in the governor’s decision to step aside,” says Eric Fehrnstrom, a campaign spokesman. “There was a lot more focus on religion early on in the race, but as people learned more about Gov. Romney, his success as a businessman and as leader of the Olympics, it receded as an issue into the background.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Romney’s campaign exposed a surprisingly virulent strain of anti-Mormonism that had been largely hidden to the general public.

In December, political pundit and actor Lawrence O’Donnell Jr. unleashed a tirade on the “McLaughlin Group” television talk show, tearing into the Mormon Church and Mr. Romney’s faith. “Romney comes from a religion founded by a criminal who was anti-American, pro-slavery, and a rapist. And he comes from that lineage and says, ‘I respect this religion fully.’ . . . He’s got to answer.”

Mormons were outraged. Hundreds complained to the show and on radio talk shows and the Internet, protesting that the remarks about church founder Joseph Smith were bigoted and unfounded.

Mr. O’Donnell, a former MSNBC commentator who plays a lawyer for polygamists on the HBO drama “Big Love,” says he has nothing to apologize for. “Everything I said was true,” he says. Although the McLaughlin Group says it will keep Mr. O’Donnell off the air for now, neither MSNBC nor HBO plans to take action against him, spokespeople say.

“The vast majority of Americans recognize that one of our strengths as a nation is our tolerance for religions that are different than our own,” says Mr. Fehrnstrom, the campaign spokesman. “Sadly, not every person thinks that way, but there’s nothing that can be said or done to change their small minds.”

For Mormons, Mr. O’Donnell’s comments were a rallying cry. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are taught not to argue with outsiders over faith. But as criticism of their church rose to new heights during the campaign, they took on their antagonists like never before, in a wave of activism encouraged by church leadership.

Mormon leaders and church members say they were initially unprepared for the intensity of attacks, which many say were unprecedented in modern times. The attacks, they say, are a sign that their long struggle for wide acceptance in America is far from over, despite global church expansion and prosperity.

On the Internet, the Romney bid prompted an outpouring of broadsides against Mormonism from both the secular and religious worlds. Evangelical Christian speakers who consider it their mission to criticize Mormon beliefs lectured to church congregations across the country. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic journal First Things, wrote that a Mormon presidency would threaten Christian faiths. Atheist author Christopher Hitchens called Mormonism “a mad cult” on, and Bill Keller, a former convict who runs an online ministry in Florida, told a national radio audience that a vote for Mr. Romney was a vote for Satan.

“It seems like it’s been open season on Mormons,” says Marvin Perkins, a Los Angeles Mormon Church member who lectures about the history of blacks in the church.

Mr. Romney was reluctant to speak publicly about his religion. Eventually, senior advisers persuaded him to do so to allay voter concerns about how it might affect his decision-making as president. Comparisons were made to a campaign speech that John Kennedy, who became America’s first Roman Catholic president, delivered to an audience of Baptists. Although Mr. Romney’s December speech was well-received by political pundits, it did little to move his polling numbers.

That same month, M. Russell Ballard, one of the church’s 12 apostles, or governors, urged students at a graduation at Church-owned Brigham Young University to use the Internet and “new media” to defend the faith. At least 150 new Mormon sites were created and registered with the site “People were haranguing us on the Internet,” Mr. Ballard said in an interview. “I just felt we needed to unleash our own people.”

Normally insular church leaders, with help from Washington-based consultant Apco Worldwide, began a public-relations campaign last fall, visiting 11 editorial boards of newspapers across the country. In another first, the church posted a series of videos, some featuring Mr. Ballard, on YouTube to counter a wave of anti-Mormon footage on the site.

Many Mormons were excited by Mr. Romney’s candidacy. “There’s a member of the tribe that’s up there,” Nathan Oman, an assistant professor at William and Mary School of Law, said last month, adding that he had not yet decided whom to vote for. “What happens to him is a test of whether or not our tribe gets included in the political universe.”

Mormonism began in 1830 after Joseph Smith, a farmer in upstate New York, said an angel led him to some golden plates that contained a “New World gospel” — the Book of Mormon. Mormons regard themselves as Christians, but some Christian denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention, do not. They regard as heresy the Mormon belief that Mr. Smith was a prophet and that the Bible was not the final word of God.

The faith’s early history was marked by tension and brutal forced exiles, sparked in part by the practice of polygamy by some church members. After Mr. Smith was arrested in Nauvoo, Ill., a mob killed him and drove off his followers. The Mormons fled to Utah. Polygamy fed repeated conflicts with the federal government until the church banned the practice world-wide in 1904. The church has flourished in recent years, and claims 13 million members world-wide.

Mr. Romney’s candidacy revived old lines of attack and mockery of some of the church’s unusual practices, such as secret ceremonies, the wearing of special undergarments, and the baptizing the dead in the belief that it will help them join family members in heaven.

Among the most active critics were practitioners of evangelical Christian “apologetics” — speakers and writers who make their mission to actively defend their faith. For some of them, that involves criticizing Mormonism.

At the Life Point Bible Church in Quincy, Ill., last month, evangelical apologist Rocky Hulse told 35 members that Mr. Romney should not be considered a Christian. Mr. Hulse, a former Mormon, told the group that Mormons believe in more than one god and that they believe God impregnated Mary in the normal fashion, not by granting her a virgin birth. The audience sat rapt.

Scott Gordon, president of the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, a Mormon group, says Mr. Hulse is wrong on the facts. Mormons pray to one God, he says, and believe, like most Christians, that Mary was a virgin. Mr. Gordon went on talk-radio shows to rebut claims of other apologists.

In December, while campaigning for the Iowa caucuses, former Baptist preacher and Republican candidate Mike Huckabee asked a magazine reporter: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” The Southern Baptist Convention, Mr. Huckabee’s denomination, posts essays on its Web site saying Mormonism is a non-Christian cult.

Mormon church leaders, who repeatedly asserted the church’s neutrality in elections, had tried to keep out of the political fray. Church spokesman Michael Otterson says they couldn’t ignore Mr. Huckabee’s comment. Members said it implied that they were devil worshipers. Phones were ringing off the hook at church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

“Jesus Christ and Lucifer are indeed offspring of our Heavenly Father and, therefore, spirit brothers” from a pre-existing world, the church said in a statement. “Christ was the only begotten in the flesh.”

“I’m not impugning the motives of a political candidate,” Mr. Otterson said. “But the result of the question was to confuse the situation, not to enlighten.” Mr. Huckabee swiftly apologized to Mr. Romney for the comment. He handily won the Iowa caucuses, helped by huge numbers of evangelicals.

(Mr. Huckabee himself may face voter opposition for his religious views. The January Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 45% of Americans have concerns about an evangelical Christian as president.)

Soon, the Mormon Church began posting its videos on YouTube — 22 so far. One clip, for example, showed Mr. Ballard, the church apostle, answering the question “Are Mormons Christian?” It has drawn 26,000 views. By contrast, a cartoon clip from “The God Makers,” a 1980s film that mocks Mormon beliefs, has been viewed 945,000 times.

Mr. Ballard’s call for more new-media activism inspired dozens of new Web sites. On, several Mormons of different political views write about the presidential race. Founder Mike Rogan, of Chandler, Ariz., says he started the blog “to combat some specific misconceptions about Mormons,” including that all Mormons are “conservatives with a mindless ‘sheep’ mentality.”

Mr. Hitchens, the best-selling author of “God is Not Great,” wrote last fall that Mr. Romney owed voters a discussion about “the mad cult” of his church. Similar commentaries inspired Ryan Bell, a Salt Lake City attorney, to start a Web site, Romney last summer. “Every faith has wacky doctrines,” he says, adding that the press seems fixated on his faith’s more sensational side.

Mormon fury boiled over after Mr. O’Donnell’s appearance on the “McLaughlin Group,” when he called Mr. Smith a proslavery criminal and rapist. He said Mr. Romney “was” a racist because he was a member of a church that discriminated against blacks until 1978.

Mr. Bell and others responded on their Web sites that church founder Mr. Smith, who faced many charges in his turbulent life, including treason, was never convicted of any crimes. (At least one Mormon historian says he was found guilty of a misdemeanor as a minor for fraud, but others say incomplete court records make it impossible to determine.)

The allegations about blacks stung the most. Many Mormon historians say Mr. Smith welcomed blacks from the church’s inception, had ordained some blacks, and ran on an abolitionist platform for president in 1844. Blacks were barred from being church leaders, they say, by his successor, Brigham Young. Many Protestant churches, Mr. Bell pointed out, were segregated well into the 20th century. In 1978, the church lifted the ban on blacks becoming leaders.

Mormons called on the “McLaughlin Group” to take action against Mr. O’Donnell. Host John McLaughlin decided that Mr. O’Donnell, who appeared seven times last year, will be kept off the air for now, says Allison Butler, the show’s managing director. Any apology to Mormons must come from him, Ms. Butler says.

Although Mr. Romney’s withdrawal from the race is likely to quiet the controversy for now, many church members believe the turmoil of the past year will have lasting effects.

“There will be a long-term consequence in the Mormon church,” says Mr. Mauss, the Mormon sociologist. “I think there is going to be a wholesale reconsideration with how Mormons should deal with the latent and overt anti-Mormon propaganda. I don’t think the Mormons are ever again going to sorrowfully turn away and close the door and just keep out of the fray.”



Health Claims Boost Supplement Firm


True Believers

Health Claims by Sales Force Boost Supplement Firm

By Suzanne Sataline
May 11, 2007

When doctors found a tumor in Angie McHenry’s bowel in the spring of 2006, they told her that her cervical cancer had become terminal. But her uncle, Stephan Huffman, gave her some hope.

Mr. Huffman, a retired high-school teacher, is a sales associate for Mannatech Inc., a publicly traded company that markets vitamins and nutritional supplements. He and his wife persuaded Ms. McHenry to swallow, each day, 32 Mannatech tablets and six scoopfuls of the company’s Ambrotose, a derivative of aloe vera and larch-tree bark.

“He said it would knock the cancer away,” recalled Ms. McHenry, a Coldwater, Ohio, mother of three, in an interview last month. “I would go into full remission. He said he had seen proof in other people.”

Mannatech, based in Coppell, Texas, relies on an army of enthusiastic consumers of its nutritional supplements to sell the products to family, friends and others. These sellers are unsalaried, but receive commissions and bonuses from the company, based in part on their recruitment of other sellers. Some of them make sweeping claims about the power of Mannatech products to provide relief from serious diseases.

In the eight years since Mannatech went public, several questions have loomed large for company executives and board members: Are nonemployee salespeople pushing its products in ways that violate Food and Drug Administration guidelines? And how far should Mannatech go in policing its free-lance sales force?

About half of Mannatech’s supplements, the company says, contain nutritional sugars it calls “glyconutrients.” The body needs simple sugars, but some scientists say there is no proof that sugar supplements provide health benefits. Mannatech say its glyconutrient mixture, called Ambrotose, “supports the immune system.” Because none of the products are approved by the FDA for the treatment of disease, it isn’t legal for anyone to market them as such.

Mr. Huffman, who sold $1,200 of Mannatech products to Ms. McHenry, says he doesn’t recall telling her they would “knock her cancer away.” He adds, though, that “in many instances,” Ambrotose “encapsulates the cancer.”

Ms. McHenry consumed the tablets and powder for two weeks last year, she said, until nausea made them difficult to swallow and her oncologist persuaded her to quit. Mr. Huffman says he returned her $1,200 to alleviate hard feelings. Ms. McHenry died on April 20.

“Nobody is claiming these products by themselves are providing a treatment for disease,” says Mannatech Chairman and Chief Executive Sam Caster, one of the company’s founders.

Mr. Caster identifies himself as a Christian, and some customers are drawn to the company for that reason. He and his wife, Linda, refer to Mannatech as a blessing, and say God spoke through her to give him the idea for the company. Many top salespeople share their religious beliefs. Marshall Howard, a salesman who says he’s a Christian, recently told hundreds of associates at a gathering that they were “chosen” people in the “glorious mission of Mannatech to change hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Such fervor is visible when Mannatech devotees, many of them nonsalaried sales associates, gather for an annual company-sponsored event called MannaFest. At this year’s gathering, a four-day affair held in Dallas in March, at least 10 people came on stage one night to testify that after taking Mannatech products, they recovered or found relief from conditions ranging from paralysis to tumors to lesions. Another 25 people said they took glyconutrients and found relief from afflictions such as leukemia, arthritis, cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome and cancer.

Mr. Caster says the consumer testimonials are perfectly legal because none use the words “cure,” “treat” or “mitigate” in referring to diseases. Mannatech product labels, which are reviewed by the FDA, state that the products are “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

Mr. Caster says that message is repeated frequently during conference calls with associates. He says he and the company abide by all laws, and train associates to do the same.

Nevertheless, scrutiny of the company’s marketing has been increasing. The Federal Trade Commission has logged at least 30 complaints about Mannatech since 1998 alleging deception, making false health claims, and improper sales practices. The FTC has brought no action.

After reports about the company’s sales tactics caused its stock to drop in 2005, shareholders filed lawsuits in state and federal courts. Several have been consolidated as a federal class-action in Dallas federal court. It alleges that executives knew about and ignored improper health claims by employees and salespeople, and that Mr. Caster overruled recommendations by the company’s regulatory-compliance committee to discipline big sellers who made such claims.

Mr. Caster says the company has fined some associates as much as $25,000, and has terminated some for making improper claims. “Does something like this ever get away from us?” he says. “Well, of course. Those are the types of things that we’re out there looking for, and that we’ll catch.” He says the company intends to vigorously defend itself in the litigation.

The Texas attorney general’s office indicated in a memo last October that it had been investigating Mannatech for possible health-law violations since 2005. The memo, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, said the state “anticipated filing suit against” Mannatech for alleged violations, including “unproven health claims.” To date, the attorney general has taken no action. A spokesman for the attorney general declined to comment.

Mannatech’s vitamins, powders and capsules aren’t sold in any stores. The company sells them over the Internet, and through a large sales force of free-lancers. It has no salaried sales force. Companies whose salespeople are independent, and are paid based on their own sales and those of other sellers they directly and indirectly recruit, are known as “multilevel marketers.”

Mannatech has more than 100,000 active sales associates, arrayed in a hierarchy. Mannatech pays commissions to associates based on the purchases of the associates they recruit and others down the line from them. To be eligible for financial bonuses, an associate must buy $100 in Mannatech products each month. Top Mannatech associates have earned as much as $1.6 million a year, according to compensation information shared with associates at MannaFest.

Books, home and beauty products, and cleaning materials have long been peddled in this fashion. These days, so are many nutritional supplements. Multilevel marketers accounted for $4.4 billion of $22 billion in sales of dietary supplements in 2006, says Grant Ferrier, editor of Nutrition Business Journal.

Mr. Caster helped start Mannatech in 1993. Months later, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Under that law, makers of dietary supplements aren’t currently required to document that their products are safe or effective. But it bars them from claiming, without FDA approval, that any product can treat, cure or prevent illness.

Mannatech went public in 1999, and sales have grown steadily. Last year, Mannatech earned $32.4 million on sales of $410 million, compared with $1.9 million earned in 2002, on sales of $141 million.

Early on, Mr. Caster and his wife turned to friends and prayer partners to sell products and recruit other salespeople, according to Ms. Caster’s self-published book, “Undeniable Destiny.” Steven Barker, a professor of veterinary medicine at Louisiana State University who served as a Mannatech director from 1998 to 2002, said the board was concerned about religious influence on marketing.

“People would become overzealous and start making claims that this was manna and it had miraculous properties, that it was God’s gift,” says Mr. Barker. “Sam is a very religious individual, and he would listen to people making claims they thought were miraculous….The board wanted him to tone it down. They didn’t want it to become a revival, some kind of ultrareligious event.”

Roger E. Beutner, a retired engineer who served on the board until 2003, says “exaggerated” claims about product benefits made some directors uncomfortable.

Co-founder Charles “Skip” Fioretti, then chairman and chief executive of Mannatech, worried that the FDA could take action on unproven claims, says Mr. Barker. In addition, there was tension between Messrs. Caster and Fioretti over business issues. In 2000, the board removed Mr. Caster as president after what he says was a clash of values with Mr. Fioretti. Mr.

Caster became co-chairman, but quit weeks later. Mr. Fioretti did not return calls seeking comment.

Mr. Caster’s supporters were upset, according to Mr. Barker, and Mr. Caster returned as a director within weeks. Mr. Caster says he made it clear that he and his wife intended to talk about their faith when speaking about the company. Eventually, more of his supporters joined the board, and by 2002, Mr. Fioretti had left. Mr. Caster became chairman, and later, chief executive.

These days, God and the Bible are mentioned frequently by some sales associates during meetings and conference calls. At this year’s MannaFest, one associate led a training workshop called “Leadership Lessons from Moses,” which used quotes from Exodus. At “Leadership Skills from a Biblical Perspective,” associate Dottie Anderson described “Jesus as the first network marketer.”

To sell the products, many associates rely on testimonials and case histories. At Mannatech conferences, H. Reginald McDaniel, a Dallas-area pathologist and the company’s former medical director, sells various reports containing case histories. He says he has chronicled hundreds of cases of patients with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, allergies, and cystic fibrosis whose health improved, and some whose symptoms disappeared, after taking glyconutrients. “I’d be derelict if I implied everyone with an improved diet gets a turnaround in health, yet a significant number do,” he says.

During the “testimonials” program at this year’s MannaFest, a mother showed slides of her two sons in hospital beds. After taking glyconutrients, she said, they are now free of brain seizures. A young man walked to the microphone and told the crowd that he had been paralyzed from a car crash before taking Ambrotose.

Jordan Scott, a wan 13-year-old from Lubbock, Texas, said that when she was a toddler, cystic fibrosis frequently left her choking on mucus and battling lung infections. She began taking glyconutrients, she said, and she can now play the oboe, and she placed third at a cross-country meet. “A doctor said I have the lungs of a healthy child,” she said, sobbing and thanking God, as the audience applauded.

Mr. Caster says Mannatech products are “not a cure for cystic fibrosis….I think dietary supplements can improve the quality of life.”

“I have never, ever said” that testimonials “should substitute for science,” Mr. Caster says. Health benefits reported by users, he says, help “guide us in our research.” Mannatech says it is conducting studies on the benefits of using its products.

Some researchers says they doubt that Ambrotose offers any health benefits. Hudson Freeze, who studies complex carbohydrates as a professor of glycobiology at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, Calif., contends the body can’t digest Ambrotose because humans lack the enzymes necessary to break down the plant fibers it contains into simple sugars.

Mannatech has said it has completed a study that shows the body can break down glyconutrients, and that it is slated for publication in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. The journal’s managing editor, Barbara Nell Perrin, says it will publish an abstract of the study that will not be peer-reviewed.

Mannatech associates often post messages on Web sites, including the MannaShare forum on, seeking tips on selling Mannatech products to people with specific afflictions, including cocaine addiction, hemophilia and Down syndrome.

“If anyone anywhere has any information — studies, testimonies, anything — on glyconutrients and esophageal cancer — PLEASE e-mail it to me,” Mannatech associate Joan Francis, of Batavia, N.Y., wrote in January on one forum, after her father had been diagnosed with the disease.

After posting the message, Ms. Francis says, she consulted with several doctors who recommended amounts of Mannatech glyconutrients to take. Dr. McDaniel, the company’s former medical director, was one of them, she says. Ultimately, she persuaded her father to forgo chemotherapy and take Mannatech supplements.

Her father, George Schaefer Jr., says he was skeptical, but agreed to try. He bought about $700 worth of supplements over two months. Recently, on the advice of his son, he stopped taking the products and switched to chemotherapy, Ms. Francis says.

Betty Wiggins, a Durand, Mich., grandmother who identifies herself as a nurse, says she has advised more than 3,000 people over the past five years to take Ambrotose for everything from vomiting to cancer. For lung

cancer, for example, she says she recommends 100 grams of Ambrotose per day. “I don’t have anyone who hasn’t fully recovered from any illness,” she says. “You aren’t supposed to say someone is healed, for some reason.”

The Texas Department of Health Services periodically reviews Mannatech’s product labels and promotional materials, among other things. Cynthia Culmo, a former director who oversaw Mannatech inspections, says that recommending Ambrotose to treat a disease, or specifying dosage amounts beyond the guidance given on the label, are “likely” violations of federal law.

Mr. Caster says he did not know about Web sites that suggest dosage amounts.

For the desperately ill, the Web sites can be seductive. Jackie Wells, a nurse in New Mexico, was diagnosed last year with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the degenerative nerve disease that killed Lou Gehrig. A Web site suggested treatment with glyconutrients, and she consumed $130 of Ambrotose over six months. She has lost use of her arms and now relies on her husband to feed her and brush her hair. “I felt like somebody had taken advantage of me,” she says.

After Jeffrey Cook of Sleepy Eye, Minn., was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, two local Mannatech associates gave him a DVD containing testimonials, recalls his wife, Jane. “The video showed a guy with the same type of cancer,” says Ms. Cook, a licensed nurse. “It had healed him, basically.”

The associates, Melissa and Pat Schroepfer, sold Mr. Cook $1,000 worth of glyconutrient products, says Ms. Cook. Mr. Cook died last October, a month later. The Schroepfers reimbursed her the money. Melissa Schroepfer declined to comment, and Pat Schroepfer, her father, didn’t return calls.