Mimi Lee is an organizer of the Torontonian HongKongers Action Group.

Like millions of people around the world, I have been moved by the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong over the past several months and appalled by China’s refusal to grant basic rights to Hong Kongers that we take for granted in the West. In recent weeks, the NBA’s bowing down to Beijing, instead of supporting the Hong Kong protesters, has been disturbing. 

On Tuesday night, with the start of the NBA season, I plan to join about 100 volunteers in giving Toronto Raptors fans a chance to show their support for those seeking democratic rights in Hong Kong.

As one of the several thousand people in Toronto who were born in Hong Kong, it has been wrenching to watch, from more than 7,000 miles away, how the protesters have been beaten and attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets for seeking freedom from Chinese domination.

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In July, friends and I erected a “Lennon Wall” at Toronto’s Union Station, where passersby could post sticky notes expressing their support for the Hong Kong protesters. The wall was like one erected during pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014, which was itself an homage to a wall in Prague, dedicated to John Lennon’s memory, during the Velvet Revolution against communist rule in the 1980s.

As the Hong Kong protests continued throughout the summer, groups of supporters grew in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada, thanks to social media. But the regime in Beijing apparently has its own supporters in Toronto. When we held a rally for Hong Kong in August, dozens of angry counterdemonstrators tried to drown us out with chants of “One China” and “Hong Kong belongs to China.” That was a little scary, but when the NBA controversy erupted — after the Houston Rockets’ general manager tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protesters, and league officials, LeBron James and other well-known players rushed to placate China — we knew we had to do something. 

Heading into the long weekend for the Oct. 14 Canadian Thanksgiving, a friend sent a link to me for an article about a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers — James’s team — who planned to distribute thousands of “Stand With Hong Kong” T-shirts at the first Lakers’ regular-season game on Tuesday. Sun Lared had hoped to raise $20,000 on GoFundMe, and amassed more than $40,000 in pledges. 

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“It would be cool if Toronto and L.A. could do a joint action,” my friend said. Just like that, over the course of 24 hours we got in touch with Lared, who offered helpful tips, and we researched custom T-shirt pricing and launched a GoFundMe page for “The North Stand With Hong Kong” T-shirts.

The turnaround time for most of the T-shirt printers we reached was two to three weeks, which we didn’t have. We found a printer who could do a rush job of 5,000 T-shirts in a week, and we set a goal of 28,000 Canadian dollars (about $21,000). It was more money than any of us in the group could afford, and there was no guarantee that the GoFundMe campaign would raise enough to cover the cost. We agreed to spread the risk among ourselves. We’d need to have the money for the printer by Oct. 15, the day after the holiday. We had basically three days to raise the funds.

At first, donations only trickled in. Was it because of the holiday weekend and people weren’t paying attention, or had we misjudged the public? As we pushed hard on social media, more donations came in and we thought things were going well, but then they slowed down. By Oct. 14, when we had planned to end the campaign, we had a respectable CA$20,000 (about $15,000). But we would need to scale back the number of T-shirts, which was disappointing. 

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Then a miracle happened: A Hong Kong newspaper wrote about our efforts, and donations surged. We kept the GoFundMe page going until 7 a.m. on Oct. 15, raising CA$34,000 (about $26,000). Instead of cutting the size of the order, we could increase it to 7,000 T-shirts.

We were delighted, though our online efforts had also drawn a backlash, with much of the criticism asking why we were trying to bring politics into sports. First of all, politics and sports have overlapped for decades, but in this instance with the NBA, politics was already very much involved, including the league’s distancing itself from a team executive who had dared to support the Hong Kong protesters and China’s threats to end the NBA’s lucrative sponsorships and promotions.

If you happen to be in Toronto or Los Angeles on Tuesday and are going to an NBA game, please grab a T-shirt on your way in and put it on, exercising the free speech that is denied to the people of Hong Kong.

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