Two members of the Hong Kong protest movement have spoken out about what made them don black clothing and protective gear to fight back against well-equipped riot police at the movement’s front line.
“Suddenly, there was this young boy in a yellow helmet who fell to the ground right next to me, bleeding from the head,” a 16-year-old protester who gave only a nickname, A Jan, told RFA. “I thought then that the police are supposed to protect citizens, so why were they being so violent towards us?”
“From that day onward, I decided never to do peaceful protest again,” she said.
A 22-year-old student protester, who gave only a nickname A Lok, said he felt the same way.
“The police kept on escalating their violence, even against rational forms of protest like rallies and sit-ins,” he told RFA. “That’s why we also have to use force, so as to protect these rational forms of protest.”
He said the frontline fighters of the protest movement have self-organized into teams of around a dozen people, which sometimes work together, when groups of protesters are under attack, especially from tear gas.
Some members of A Lok’s own team have been arrested.
“Arrested protesters get mistreated in police custody,” he said, adding that some had been left with serious bleeding without basic medical attention for more than four hours.
But he said he won’t give up until Hong Kong has fully democratic elections.
“We need a chief executive who was chosen by us, because only a real Hongkonger like that will be able to be a true leader for us,” A Lok said. “This is the crux of the matter.”
Both A Jan and A Lok said they strongly identify as Hongkongers, an attitude that seems widespread among many in their age group, but that they aren’t anti-Chinese.
“It’s pretty clear that Hong Kong isn’t going to the dogs because of China, but because of the [ruling Chinese] Communist Party,” A Lok said.
When facing off against riot police, who have the full backing of chief executive Carrie Lam and Beijing to crack down on the protests, young protesters have developed a number of ways to defend themselves from tear gas, including enclosing canisters in a bowl or traffic cone, hitting them away with tennis rackets, and pouring water on them.
“The simplest way is to drown them in water, or to drop it into a container full of water,” she said. “Some people use tennis rackets, to hit them back [towards police].”
Hong Kong police have fired thousands of canisters of tear gas — a chemical weapon that is banned for use in wartime by international conventions — at protesters on the city’s streets since June, often in enclosed spaces or at crowds that are already trying to leave the area.
In return, protesters have set fire to barricades, fought back with their own batons during baton charges by police, and lobbed petrol bombs.
A Jan regularly dons the now-familiar trademark garb of the protest movement — black clothing, black face-mask, helmet and respirator — to face off with riot police at the front line of street protests, buying valuable time for unarmed protesters to leave peacefully.
She said her parents had been supportive of her involvement at the start of the anti-extradition protests, but that their attitudes had changed when police started using hard-line tactics to suppress the movement.
“There was one time when I and some others were getting dressed up in our gear in the Admiralty Centre,” she said. “A group of people were there, most of them elderly, and they warned us to be careful, again and again, then started weeping.”
“They hugged us and told us to take care of ourselves. I wanted to cry too, but I couldn’t, because that would have made them cry even more. But I was so moved by it,” she said.
The protests, now in their third month, are exacting a heavy psychological toll, A Jan said.
“If I’m going to come out onto the streets, then I am mentally prepared for this to be a fight to the death,” she said.
London-based rights group Amnesty International has called the response of the Hong Kong police force to the protesters’ civil disobedience and political vandalism “outrageous” and “repressive.”
The group said that while an independent and effective investigation into police actions would be a vital first step to resolving the standoff, the protests came after a “steady erosion” of rights and freedoms in the city long before Lam put forward plans to allow extradition to mainland China.
It said both the Hong Kong government and the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing had been chipping away at the traditional rights and freedoms that Hong Kong was promised for years.
Freedoms under threat
The Civil Human Rights Front said its application for a peaceful demonstration to mark the fifth anniversary of the start of the 2014 Occupy Central movement for fully democratic elections had received a police “letter of no objection.”
Former lawmaker Nathan Law of the pro-democracy party Demosisto on Thursday called on U.S. senators to support the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, warning that the city’s rule of law, human rights and freedoms are under threat.
“Our prosperity and dignity as a society are built on the success of the rule of law, the protection of human rights, and freedoms,” he told Congress. “Hong Kongers clearly understand that these values are extremely fragile and are being eroded by Beijing,” he told a congressional hearing on the bill.
“Instead of alleviating the tension, the Hong Kong government has been hiding behind the police force,” he said. “To make matters worse, thugs with ties to organized crime have also been involved with inciting violence against not just protesters but random passers-by just as the police look away.”
Law, who was a key figure in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, said fellow protesters had hung up a large banner on the last day of the occupation emblazoned with the words “We Will Be Back.”
“We have made good on that promise,” Law said.
Protests that erupted in June in Hong Kong against plans by the city’s government to allow extradition to mainland China have grown into a broader movement, even after Lam pledged to scrap the plan by withdrawing the planned legislation.
The protesters’ five key demands are: the formal withdrawal of planned amendments to extradition laws; an amnesty for arrested protesters; an end to the description of protesters as rioters; an independent inquiry into police abuse of power; and fully democratic elections.