A few nights ago, as the numbers were swelling on the streets of Central Hong Kong, I stood mere feet from Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old student leader, as he addressed thousands of fellow protesters. As an American working here I could not follow the Cantonese, so I turned to look around me. A stirring silence filled the air as young people lifted their heads, listening intently and, at times, cheering.

Each of them was imbued with the passion Joshua Wong radiated. They were tenacious. They were not led en masse by a propagandistic campaign; they were not cajoled by peer pressure. Nor did social media rally them: social media became the glue through which these idealists joined hands and sang. A poster draped over one of the Occupy bridges read: “You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one.”

At this historic crossroads, facing a steadfast regime in Beijing and an unyielding Chief Executive at home, many doubt these demonstrations can have concrete impact. Yet the critics’ yardstick is out of tune with the realities of social change. Will universal suffrage be granted before the 2017 elections? Unlikely, but the seeds planted by this outcry will reap fruits that we will yet see. Why? Because it has become easier — much easier — to imagine a freer Hong Kong.

That is the true success of these protesters, and it has already been charted: the unprecedented movement across Admiralty and Mong Kok, at day and at night, in the rain and in the wet, excruciating humidity — that movement constitutes a statement: it has been placed in a bottle to drift in the sea of global consciousness.

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And it will drift, because they do not intend to let their now-conceivable dreams dissipate. They are not the product of a moment, acting spuriously from emotion. It’s why the students refuse to storm police barricades: they did not come to believe in universal suffrage yesterday. Nor are they wandering among the masses recycling bottles because they worry about world opinion: they recycle and clean after themselves for the same reason they protest: love of country. Their civility is the very root of their gathering — not the reluctant behavior induced by the limelight. And they have come to know the full meaning of self-determination. Knowledge begets imagination, which begets further imagination.

The memory of Tiananmen Square grips us not because the lone man outmaneuvered the tank — he didn’t — but because he stood fast in front of it, dared to challenge it, carved possibility out of oppression. He imagined. We are compelled by that spirit still today: by the conviction that spurred those other students, from that time not so long ago, to say: “Enough.”

“Enough” is the narrative of the American Civil Rights Movement — which seemed impossible — laughable — when first conceived in the soil of racism and bigotry. It came to be because the actions of a few prompted the actions of many — and while setbacks were recorded, belief in equality under the law could not be defeated.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” said Martin Luther King, “but it bends toward justice.” And true, it will always bend toward justice, but we have to make it such. We have to bend the arc, hasten its pivot — assure its curve from the other side of history. We do this by resolving to transform possibility into action — and to renew our vigor when the tide rises next.

As the protests in Hong Kong fade and the students return to their homes, let the light of this week permeate and build in our hearts. One day it will usher progress. And we’ll sing.