A march against alleged police collusion with local gangs escalated into direct clashes between protesters and police Saturday afternoon in the Hong Kong district of Yuen Long.
After several hours of peaceful marching, riot police fired tear gas and pepper spray at tens of thousands of protesters who had ignored a police ban to march in the area where armed thugs attacked commuters, protesters and journalists six days earlier.
Some protesters carried makeshift wooden shields. Others stepped on pictures of Li Peng, the recently deceased former Chinese premier who backed the Tiananmen Square massacre of student protesters in 1989.
“Black cops! Black cops!” the crowds chanted, their anger honing in on Hong Kong police and perceived collusion with local gangs called triads.
Jason Choi, a 22-year-old student, said he believed the government was working with triads to attack and intimidate protesters. “We want to let them know that the triads don’t run things. To let the police know, to let everyone know, to let the government know. You’re not going to scare citizens by bringing the triads out.”
When one police van tried to drive through the crowds, protesters wearing black shirts, yellow hard hats and face masks swarmed around it and smashed the windows, spray painting its sides with names of triad groups.
By 5:30 p.m., police were firing tear gas into densely populated residential streets as protesters threw paint, traffic cones, and umbrellas at them.
Eddie Chu, another pro-democratic lawmaker who represents rural areas like Yuen Long, said he was trying to mediate between police and protesters.
“Today protesters are very afraid that the triads will come out at night to beat people, so we hope they won’t just act against citizens, but also help protect citizens,” Chu said. “The police have promised me that they’ll stay tonight.”
Hong Kong is in its seventh week of protests against a proposed extradition bill which would allow suspected criminals to be sent back to mainland China. The territory’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam has delayed the bill and called it “dead,” but protesters are demanding that it be formally withdrawn.
Amid escalating clashes with police, protesters’ demands have expanded from anti-extradition to calls for investigation into alleged police violence, release of political prisoners, Lam’s resignation and universal suffrage.
The Yuen Long protest comes a day after thousands staged a sit-in at the Hong Kong airport‘s arrivals hall. Passengers met a sea of protesters singing, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and waving “Free Hong Kong” signs in multiple languages.
Hundreds of men dressed in white had rampaged through a mass transit station in Yuen Long last week, beating people at random with metal and wooden sticks and hospitalizing at least 45. Hong Kong police have since arrested twelve people in connection with the attacks and said at least 9 of them were related to local organized crime groups.
Public anger has fixated on police officers’ late arrival and failure to prevent the attacks last Sunday. Police said their manpower was stretched due to pro-democracy protests happening on the other side of the city.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government and Chinese central government in Beijing have condemned protesters as “violent.” Chinese state media has broadcast selected clips of clashes without showing the peaceful marches, portraying participants as troublemaking youth manipulated by foreign powers.
Police refused to give permission for Saturday’s protest, citing security concerns. Tens of thousands of protesters marched in sweltering heat anyway, many wielding umbrellas to protect from the sun as well as expected clashes with police or local gangs.
Piki Cheung, 30, said she came out with her husband — despite being six months pregnant — because she is a Yuen Long local.
“Of course I’m scared. If I got hurt, or if my baby got hurt, what would we do? If the father of my child got hurt, what would we do?” she said, beginning to cry. “But I’m also scared about the future — what will we do? I don’t want my baby to be born and live in a society where you don’t even have freedom.”
As night fell, police closed in on protesters, pushing them back to the Yuen Long mass transit station. Protesters began telling each other to leave, even as some confronted the police, throwing bricks and helmets at officers who shot pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets at them.
“If we just stand there and don’t hit back every time they beat us, they’ll just get more and more fierce,” said Choi, adding that he wouldn’t leave until all the protesters left together.
A 16-year-old student who asked to be identified only as Emma said her parents had been against recent protests until last week’s thug attacks.
“After seeing the Hong Kong police working with the people in Yuen Long to beat people, they know Hong Kong isn’t what it was before. They now really support me,” she said, adding that she attends every protest and sees them as a “last stand.”
“Once Hong Kong becomes like the mainland, there’s no turning back,” she said.
Special correspondent Chor reported from Hong Kong. China correspondent Su reported from Beijing.