HONG KONG >> Hong Kong police today fired tear gas, swung batons and forcefully cleared out protesters who defied warnings not to march in a neighborhood where last weekend a mob apparently targeting demonstrators brutally attacked people in a train station.
Protesters wearing all black streamed through the Yuen Long area, even though police refused to grant permission for the march, citing risks of confrontations between demonstrators and local residents.
By nightfall, protesters and police were once again facing off in the streets, as they’ve done previously during the summer-long pro-democracy protests in the Chinese territory. Demonstrators threw objects and ducked behind makeshift shields, and police officers shot plumes of tear gas into the air.
For the protesters, it was a show of defiance against both the police and the white-clad assailants who beat dozens of people July 21, including some demonstrators heading home after a mass protest.
Police said some of the attackers at the train station were connected to triad gangs and others were villagers who live in the area. Demonstrators accused law enforcement of not acting quickly enough to protect the victims and even colluding with the mob, an allegation that police have firmly denied.
The streets of Yuen Long became a sea of umbrellas as the march began Saturday afternoon. A symbol going back to the Occupy Central protests that shook Hong Kong in 2014, umbrellas have become tools to help protesters conceal their identities from police cameras as well as shields against tear gas and pepper spray. Some also wore masks.
“Hong Kong police know the law and break the law,” protesters chanted as they made their way through the streets.
Max Chung Kin-ping, one of the rally’s organizers, said there were 288,000 participants. The police had yet to release their turnout figure, which is generally lower than organizers’ estimates.
Less than three hours after the start of the march, police fired tear gas to try to disperse crowds that had ignored authorities’ appeals to leave the area. Police said in a statement that they were clearing out the protesters, who were “holding iron poles, self-made shields and even removing fences from roads.”
Some protesters also endangered police officers’ lives by surrounding and vandalizing an occupied police vehicle, the statement added.
As the demonstration rolled into the evening, officers in riot gear faced off with protesters using pieces of wood as shields. Live footage from broadcaster RTHK showed protesters on one street forcing back riot police by throwing umbrellas and waving rods at them. On another street, officers repeatedly raised warnings and fired tear gas at masked demonstrators who were standing their ground.
Soon afterward, many of the protesters dispersed, but others stayed put. A group of officers appeared with batons and held up banners that read, “Stop charging or we use force.” At least one woman was knocked down when police used the rods.
Later in the evening, protesters encircled a smashed-up car. The windows of the car were shattered and its body was covered with posters denouncing the police. It was not immediately clear who owned the vehicle or who destroyed it.
By the waning hours of Saturday, some protesters remained in and around Yuen Long station. Police warned in a statement that they risked arrest.
“Police hereby reiterate that the protesters are participating in an unauthorized assembly and may be liable to a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment,” the statement said.
Late Saturday night, police wearing heavy-duty helmets and wielding batons suddenly charged into the train station, where a few hundred protesters had taken refuge from the tear gas.
Some officers swung their batons directly at demonstrators, while others appeared to be urging their colleagues to hang back. For the second week in a row, blood was splattered on the station floor.
A few hours before the march started, a man was arrested in Yuen Long for injuring someone with a knife, police said.
Massive demonstrations began in Hong Kong early last month against an extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to face trial in mainland China, where critics say their rights would be compromised. The bill was eventually suspended, but protesters’ demands have grown to include direct elections, the dissolution of the current legislature and an investigation into alleged police brutality.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 under the framework of “one country, two systems.” The arrangement promises the city certain democratic freedoms that are not afforded mainland citizens, but some residents say these liberties have been steadily eroded in recent years after the arrests of booksellers and democracy activists.
A distrust of China’s Communist Party-led central government in Beijing has undergirded the protests this summer. After the march last weekend, a group of protesters vandalized Hong Kong’s Liaison Office, which represents the mainland government. They spray-painted the building’s surveillance cameras and threw eggs and black ink at the Chinese national emblem, an act that Beijing has vehemently condemned.
Some Yuen Long residents participated in Saturday’s march, while others stood outside with signs warning protesters not to enter. For their part, demonstrators pasted calls for democracy on sticky notes around the area.
“After the violence (last Sunday), as a resident of Yuen Long, I think I have the responsibility to come out,” said a 24-year-old man surnamed Man. “After all these protests in past months, the government still hasn’t responded to us.”