“I saw them on TV cook just sausage with rice. I thought this is not good, so I came to help.” Chef Suzie* is standing next to the kitchen in one of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s canteens. The campus is under student control, but it feels like mini self-government. This place has been the site of the most vicious confrontations in the city’s student rebellion. For now, however, there is a lull, and the young people have a chance to regroup. Susie is not a student. But, like many others, she wants to do whatever she can to contribute to their struggle. Three canteens across this sprawling campus are feeding an immense occupation. They need cooks and Suzie stepped up because, well, she thought their fighting was good, but their culinary skills were shit. And good fighters need good food.

Che’s not a student either. He graduated from a different university last year and now has a job. Like Suzie, he watched the vision of riot police on Tuesday invading the campus, laying people out with rubber bullets and choking them with tear gas. More importantly, he watched them hold their ground. So now he is here – not out of pity, which never helped a soul, but out of respect and a desire to be part of the ferocious collective power that the activists have put on display. “I just make sure they have enough food and drink and rest and energy to fight”, he says. “That’s my job today.”

Two young men sit at the cash register desk, which has become a donation station. A wad of notes is in front of them, collected from the open box on the counter. Where does the money come from? “Mainly the locals just come in to help out.” Is watching the donations their job here? “Now, yes. But we rotate jobs. We just ask someone to swap. As long as the money is always watched, we can do other jobs. I have been doing cleaning before this.” Outside, six students walk along the pavement picking up rubbish with tongs. “This is our home and we want it to look nice”, says one. “And be hygienic!” Were they assigned, or is this spontaneous? “We do it ourselves”, says another. “Like our support just comes from the public – it just happens. So we make it happen. No-one tells us.”

Locals are donating or loaning whatever they can to back the occupation. Hundreds of umbrellas – which Hong Kongers have made one of the greatest mass-defence urban conflict instruments of the 21st century – hang from railings everywhere. Students load onto trolleys crates of vegetables delivered by sympathisers. People turn up with their cars volunteering to be couriers. “Locals come with food, tools, first aid kits – even bikes and motorbikes for us to use”, Ed, a young linguistics student, says.

Maintenance and security workers have gone, and all vehicles have been seconded. There are at least six buses – now graffitied with slogans such as “HKPF, how do u like our big black bloc?”, “FUCK POPO”, “Ideas are bulletproof” and insignia from the 2005 film V for Vendetta. There is also a bunch of vans and god knows how many scooters to go with the ones on loan from locals. People drive around constantly in the vans, moving materials to reinforce barricades. “We don’t have all the keys, so they have been hotwired. Students have put their skills to very good use”, Ed says, showing me how on a nearby vehicle. “We move people and all sorts of things quickly with these.” Staring at the ground for a moment, he changes register:

“It is stupid, but a lot of us feel like we are learning more from this than we do from [university] lessons. It’s not what we want, but so it is. Cooperation, helping each other, cooking – even driving! Some students don’t have a license, but they are learning how to drive a bus to get people around campus quickly when we need them. I have cried several nights because I am touched by the sense of unity. The whole thing is built on trust; all the Hong Kongers helping. I don’t know him. I don’t know her. [He’s pointing at passing students, voice breaking.] But we are working together ... We don’t know each other personally, but we are allies.”

Piles of paving bricks have been turned into mortared walls across the entrance down from Tai Po Road. “Because the war stopped yesterday, we wanted to build something strong before it starts again”, Fiona says. She has come from Hong Kong University. Many students are shifting campuses temporarily to help here. Some stay several hours, others several days. Everyone says stay safe.

At one of the round-a-bouts, an alumnus, an undergraduate in the 1990s and now an English teacher, relates how at this spot yesterday there were 20 activists making Molotov cocktails. He wasn’t a happy unionist: “They were not thinking about safety. The equipment was poor – and someone was smoking a cigarette 10 metres away! I said be careful! Be careful!”

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Away from the canteen and the middle of campus, the mood is slightly different. The police roadblocks have been absent for maybe 24 hours. So the students have set up their own. The four main entrances are heavily barricaded. One is the University train station. I wrote yesterday that the eastern line, which services this station, was shut down by the government to stop supporters getting here. That’s not true. The students destroyed the station. Before that, they threw from the overpass whatever they could on the tracks and torched the train that is still sitting here to make the line inoperable. Why? “No work, no study, no shopping – the city must be shut down”, an activist says.

At the intersection of Lai Ping and Tai Po roads, masked students check bags and IDs to keep state operatives out. “No police, there’s peace”, Ed says. Activists here are referred to as the front line. People choose their own role in the movement. If you want to clean, you clean. If you want to drive, you drive. If you want to make posters, you make posters. If you want to fight, you join the front line. A few are wearing body armour almost indistinguishable from riot cops – but for the track pants and runners. Two medics are dressed in army fatigues with knee and shin pads. Everyone is so young and polite. All bags are checked for weapons and everyone is questioned as they file through a gap in the barricade. The security detail bow with respect once they confirm you’re clean. At the entrance to Chung Chi College, further up Tai Po, another very polite young man holding a baseball bat asks for ID. More respectful bows follow.  

The number two bridge on the other side of campus is, along with the train station, the most important piece of real estate. This is where the police broke through on Tuesday and it is heavily guarded. The bridge spans the eight-lane Tolo highway, which has been shut with barricades below. Control this bridge and you control the road. On a lookout structure flies a flag: “Free Hong Kong. Revolution now”. On the siding is more graffiti: “We never surrender”. (The Polytechnic in Hum Hong is doing the same. The overpass they control runs over the cross-harbour tunnel entrance, which is also blockaded. They intermittently torch the toll booths. This morning, behind the umbrellas put up to hinder photographers, piles of stone and bricks and dozens of Molotov cocktails were ready to launch if the police tried to clear the road below.)

Nearby, someone has strung up a banner with US Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell on it: “Sooner or later, the rest of the world will have to do what the protesters are doing – confront Beijing”. Is this representative of the activists’ political loyalties? Hardly. But it is representative of a certain anything goes attitude prevalent among protesters. And because the students are up against a formidable enemy in Beijing, their desperation for allies can lead them in peculiar and contradictory directions. It also feels representative of the seeming absence of any serious political debates. The attitude appears to be: let everyone think freely, as long as they agree with the five demands. Beyond this, it is all about tactics and organisation. In the heat of the moment, that’s understandable. But this radicalisation has been going for months, longer perhaps, and there is still little to suggest – at least to an outside observer – that clear ideological poles are emerging. Just an intense and near universal hatred of the cops and determination not to give in to Beijing.

The situation gets tense fast when word comes in that police are nearby. How close? “A few kilometres over there – three police cars.” The students have spotters everywhere. Everyone at the bridge puts on a breathing apparatus. A group of young women grab metal bars. Back at University station, someone is megaphoning for all front liners to get to the barricades. Another group of young women and men, skinny and between five and five-and-a-half feet tall, walk by with baseball bats.

Standing alone is a man in his late forties. Does anyone know his son? Has anyone seen him? He’s worried. He ought to be. The international students have packed their bags and are all leaving. The remaining staff are leaving too. Soon, it will just be these kids and whoever can be mustered in solidarity. Soon, the police are going to take back the Tolo highway. What else are they going to take?

*Names in this article have been altered to protect the participants.