A peaceful march in the town of Yuen Long to condemn an attack by suspected gang members on commuters turned violent as Hong Kong riot police fired teargas and rubber bullets on the crowd and used batons to beat protesters.
Almost 300,000 protesters and residents on Saturday afternoon defied a police ban to descend on the town in Hong Kong’s western New Territories. They marched to the mass transit station where masked men in white T-shirts had chased and beaten passengers the previous Sunday. By evening, the march had turned tense as demonstrators pushed close to villages surrounding the town, where some of the triads believed to be behind the attack are based. Police shouted warnings through loudhailers telling people they were involved in illegal gatherings and ordering them to leave immediately.
After hours of standoffs near two of the villages, police fired volleys of teargas at protesters, who tossed some of the canisters back. Police also appeared to fire tear gas and rubber bullets at journalists.
The protesters – many of whom were wearing black T-shirts and hard hats and were armed with shields made from boards of wood and surfboards, as well as hiking sticks – retaliated by throwing umbrellas and water bottles. Others hurled rocks and bottles at the police. Demonstrators dismantled roadside barriers and built makeshift barricades between them and the police. Most demonstrators left by about 7pm as news spread that police had deployed a special tactical squad to clear the streets and protesters saw reinforcements arriving, hemming them in. Hundreds of protesters remained, however, and continued to face off with the police late into the night, regrouping in the Yuen Long train station and along the main road.
In one episode that protesters and critics have begun comparing to the attack on passengers in Yuen Long last week, a special tactical unit rushed into the train station where protesters had gathered, some getting ready to go home. The police fired tear gas and pepper spray on them, while beating some with batons.
“The police rushed in without any warning. They were hitting and hitting, they were beating protesters and regular people continuously for at least 20 seconds,” said Mathew Lam, 18, who said he had seen five people injured.
Protesters tried to use a fire extinguisher to push back the police. At least one protester was pushed to the ground, bleeding. Blood smears could be seen on the floor in the station lobby. “It was terrible … it was the same as what happened last week in Yuen Long station,” said Stephy Chan, 19, who was in the station at the time. “Last week it was the men in white. This time it was the police,” she said.
Hong Kong’s hospital authority said 17 people had been hospitalised following the clashes, including two who were in serious condition.
Earlier, a group of protesters had smashed the windows of a Lexus near the train station after spotting wooden rods similar to those used against passengers last Sunday, leaving fliers criticising the police on the bonnet.
The Hong Kong government said in a statement in the early hours of Sunday that protesters had also vandalised a police car and hadblocked roads. The government said it “strongly condemned the protesters for breaching the public peace and breaking the law deliberately”.
“The police will take serious follow-up actions with those violent protesters,” it said.
The police had issued a statement earlier on Saturday reminding protesters that they were participating in an “unauthorised assembly” and could be punished with up to five years in prison.
Amnesty International condemned the police’s response to protesters. Man-kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said: “There were repeated instances today where police officers were the aggressors; beating retreating protesters, attacking civilians in the train station and targeting journalists.”
He added: “Such a heavy-handed response now appears the modus operandi for Hong Kong police and we urge them to quickly change course.”
Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region of China, is facing its worst political crisis in decades. The protests, which began over a controversial extradition bill, have evolved to take in other demands, including a police inquiry into the violence in Yuen Long last week.
Residents, activists and opposition lawmakers have accused the government and police of colluding with the triads in an attempt to suppress protests, a charge vehemently denied by Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam.
Those attending the rally on Saturday said they were not there to make political demands, but to speak out against violence. Protesters surrounded the police headquarters chanting: “Black police” – a reference to the triads, known in Chinese as “black societies”.
“It’s not so much about democracy as it is about trust,” said Fong, 30. “If every Hongkonger chooses to stay at home, then we will surely die … This is the way Hongkongers show their trust to each other – by showing up and standing up for each other.” The attack in Yuen Long and the response by authorities have added fuel to the protest movement, with rallies planned for Sunday and threatened “industrial action” from civil servants and other groups.
Observers say the escalated tensions also raise the likelihood that Beijing will push the Hong Kong government to take a harder line on the protesters. In a rare move, police denied the demonstrators’ application for the rally on Saturday in Yuen Long.
Authorities also rejected a request to hold one on Sunday in Sheung Wan, near where police fired teargas and rubber bullets on demonstrators who had defaced China’s representative office in Hong Kong.
Protesters have vowed to hold the rallies anyway and to continue the movement. Max Chung, who helped organise the rally on Saturday, said he believed residents had shown their resolve: “Hongkongers have stiffened their backs to say no to authoritarianism.”