“THEY FIRED plastic bullets at us!” Breathless from running, a young man holding a white flannel over his face shakes his head in disbelief at the response of the police. Other youngsters lie on the floor washing the residues of pepper spray from their faces. Similar scenes have played out throughout Hong Kong on June 12th, after violent confrontations between riot police and mainly young protesters.
Tensions had been rising for days over plans by the Legislative Council (Legco) to pass a law allowing Hong Kong to send suspected criminals to mainland China, where many fear they would not get a fair trial. Before 9am, with little resistance from the police, protesters closed large roads surrounding the government district. Cars were abandoned where they sat in traffic jams. Outside Legco a line of priests led the crowd in a chorus of “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”. Others berated policemen for turning against their fellow citizens.
The protesters’ intention had been to prevent legislators from joining a meeting to speed up the passage of the bill. In that, they succeeded. Just after 11am, when the meeting was due to start, its postponement was announced. But the crowds were not appeased. Calls from the government asking them to disperse went unheeded.
Many were veterans of past Hong Kong protests, having joined student demonstrations in 2012 and pro-democracy ones in 2014. Experience had shown them what they needed, and most came suitably equipped: masks, goggles and scarves for protecting mouths, eyes and bodies from pepper spray and tear gas; and the ubiquitous umbrellas, symbols of Hong Kong’s protest movement since 2014. One protester, Ricky, spoiling for a fight, said: “Unless you come down and are prepared to take risks, don’t come.” Shouts of “ga yau!”, a call of encouragement literally translating as “add oil!”, or “keep it up!”, rang out as spare umbrellas and yellow construction helmets were passed up to the front line of protesters.
Hong Kong’s riot police are a fearsome sight. All wear thick arm-length gloves and carry batons and plastic shields. Some carry weapons to fire rubber bullets. For most of the morning they seemed intent only on forming a tight circle to protect the offices of the chief executive, the civil service and Legco. Around 4pm, however, as protesters barged their way past police lines into the Legco building, police lost their patience. Some fired tear-gas canisters. Soon afterwards they fired rubber bullets and small bean-bags filled with birdshot.
A running battle continued up and down the flyovers and roadways of the Admiralty district. Clouds of stinging gas could be felt blocks away. As hundreds of demonstrators fled in every direction, many took shelter in shopping malls and office buildings, scrambling over the makeshift barricades they had erected earlier in the day.
Although they came prepared for trouble, protesters were surprised at the level of aggression shown by the police. Though nobody was killed, one young woman on the front line was moved to draw a comparison with the Chinese Communist Party’s massacre of protesters around Tiananmen Square 30 years ago—an event widely commemorated in Hong Kong last week. “We can’t believe that this kind of thing can happen in Hong Kong,” she said. “Citizens try to fight back but we have nothing.”
After the police had cleared and sealed off the area around Legco, apparently taking group selfies to celebrate, protesters gathered in huge groups elsewhere, disrupting traffic. Office workers joined the throng. One demonstrator, Zoe, argued that “Most people here... their parents wouldn’t want them to be fighting with the police. But they choose to come anyway and fight for the democracy of Hong Kong.”