HONG KONG — Hong Kong riot police fired tear gas and baton-charged protesters who retaliated with a barrage of stones, bottles and bamboo poles on Saturday (Aug 24), as a standoff in a working-class neighbourhood descended into violence, breaking an uneasy peace that had lasted several days.
It was the first use of tear gas in about 10 days amid protests that have persisted for nearly three months.
Earlier thousands of demonstrators, many wearing hard hats and gas masks, marched through the industrial Kwun Tong area, where they were blocked by dozens of riot police with shields and batons outside a police station.
Frontline protesters – known as “braves” – pulled together a barricade of traffic barriers and bamboo construction poles. As the afternoon wore on some fired stones from slingshots, prompting a charge from police, wielding batons and pepper spray.
Tears gas swept across the road as protesters retreated, leaving a trail of broken bottles and at least one small fire in their wake.
Several of the black-clad protesters were detained as officers swept through, with police justifying their charge on “a large group of violent protesters” who had set fires and hurled bricks at cops.
Tension flickered throughout Saturday’s march, where dozens of the most radical demonstrators known as “braves” had gathered, battle-hardened by the street campaign that has lasted several months.
“I understand being peaceful will not solve the problem,” 19-year-old student protester Ryan told AFP, giving one name.
“The government won’t respond to peaceful protest. If I am arrested it is because I come out to speak for justice.”
The city had appeared to have pulled back from a sharp nosedive into violence, with the last serious clashes taking place a week and a half ago just after protests paralysed the financial hub’s airport.
Hundreds of thousands marched peacefully last Sunday, as a key protest group sought to regain the moral high ground in a city shocked at the level of violence.
But Saturday’s face-off underscored the dangerous deadlock into which the city has sunk – with the government unmoving in the face of protester demands, and demonstrators stubbornly refusing to leave the streets.
Protests started against a proposed law that would have allowed extradition to China, but have bled into wider calls for democracy and police accountability in the semi-autonomous city.
Hong Kong’s police force have become the target of the protesters’ ire for their perceived heavy-handed response to the months of demonstrations.
As evening fell, scores of “braves” dug up bricks and tied metal barriers together a few hundred metres from the police as they appeared to dig in for more clashes.
One frontline protester explained his motivation for joining the street struggle.
“The government chose not to solve the problem through communicating with the protesters,” Lueng told AFP.
“I don’t see our future facing this regime, so gradually I stepped closer and closer to the front line.”
Protesters say Hong Kong’s unique freedoms are in jeopardy as Beijing tightens its political chokehold on the city.
Soaring living costs and few job opportunities have also driven many of the mainly young protesters to the streets.
Older Hong Kongers are divided on the motivation and tactics of the movement which has brought unprecedented chaos to a city once known for its safety and stability.
“The youngsters who come out have put their future at stake … they are doing this for Hong Kong,” said 65-year-old Dee Cheung told AFP earlier, before explaining why he joined the protests.
“There might be some things we don’t agree with, like the ‘braves’ who tend to charge. But let’s think about why they do that?”
At the airport, all those seeking to enter the terminal had to show valid boarding passes and passports. Train stations feeding the airport, as well as roads to it, were largely clear early on, with a light police presence along some access routes.
Cathay Pacific Airways, which has become the biggest corporate casualty of the protests after China demanded it suspends staff involved in the demonstrations, protested against a planned rally by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions around the airport’s “Cathay City” HQ on Monday.
“We have reminded our people that the injunction granted to the Airport Authority of Hong Kong also covers Cathay City, which is the operational hub for our global operations and as such includes facilities that are absolutely critical to our flight operations,” it said in a statement.
” … We have also reiterated to our employees that there is a zero-tolerance approach to any support for or participation in illegal protests, violent activities or overly radical behaviour,” it said.
There is no sign of a let-up almost three months after the anti-government demonstrations began.
On Friday night, thousands of chanting protesters formed human chains around the city in a peaceful protest dubbed the “Hong Kong Way”.
Organisers said 135,000 people took part in the demonstration, inspired by one in 1989 when an estimated two million people joined arms across three Baltic states in a protest against the then-Soviet rule that became known as the “Baltic Way” or “Baltic Chain”.
Friday’s protest, which included people shining lights on sidewalks and atop Kowloon’s Lion Rock mountain, followed warnings from Beijing and city leader Carrie Lam to stop the demonstrations and restore order.
Authorities have so far refused to meet any of the protesters’ five key demands, including calls for an independent inquiry into police brutality, a full withdrawal of the extradition bill, and full democracy.
Organisers are planning a host of protests in the coming weeks including a mass march, a city-wide strike and class boycotts at universities.