HONG KONG – Hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to Hong Kong’s streets on Sunday, defying a ban on the assembly, before being violently dispersed by police tear gas and water cannon.
As a police water cannon filled with stinging blue dye blasted protesters along a major thoroughfare in Kowloon, it also hit a small group standing guard outside a mosque – an important spiritual nexus for the city’s largely South Asian Muslim community – leaving bystanders choking and vomiting.
Protesters meanwhile vandalized businesses perceived as pro-Beijing, threw molotov cocktails at police stations, set barricades on fire and smashed up subway stations in chaotic scenes that have become familiar to the city after five months of sustained protest.
The huge turnout, estimated by organizers at around 350, 000 and including familie s, children and the elderly, demonstrated how the movement continues to have widespread support, despite the increasingly violent tactics used by protesters andescalating use of force by police.
Marchers created a colored sea of umbrellas through the narrow streets of the city’s Kowloon area, which are lined with malls and international hotels. Some were waving Catalonia flags in solidarity with the pro-independence protests in that region of Spain.
In contrast to previous demonstrations, however, the situation quickly escalated with clashes occurring long before sunset. By late afternoon Sunday, protesters had begun tearing up bricks and throwing them at police stations along with molotov cocktails.
In mark of their increasing sophistication, protesters also produced power tools to buildsturdier barricadesto hold back police, drilling metal railings into the road surface itself.
The months of protests began in opposition to anow-scrapped bill that would have allowed extraditionsto mainland China, what the Hong Kong government said was in response to a brutal murder of a young Hong Kong woman by her boyfriend in Taiwan. He has since voluntarily surrendered to the Taiwanese authorities, despite the lack of extradition treaty.
Protests have now swelled into an all-out rejection of Hong Kong’s leaders, who many believe are only acting in Beijing’s interest, and revived a demand for direct elections in the semiautonomous territory.
“We don’t care whether they will approve the march or not, our fight for justice in the face of tyranny goes on anyway, ”said Victor, 24, who returned to his home city from New Zealand to participate in the protest. “The movement is spreading everywhere, all around the world.”
The protest came days after the leader of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), Jimmy Sham, was attacked by a group of men wielding hammers in the Mong Kok neighborhood.
The beating left Sham splayed on the street covered in blood. It was the second time in recent months that Sham, who is contesting a seat in next month’s local elections, has been targeted. Sham was released from hospital on Sunday, and will continue to need medical treatment and physical therapy.
“The message was clear that someone or some forces behind the scenes are trying to threaten protest organizers and democracy activists, ”said Eric Lai vice convener of the CHRF. “We cannot identify who was behind the attacks, but the objective is to create a chilling effect on those who are making demands for justice.”
Founded in September 2002 in opposition to proposed national security legislation, the CHRF is an umbrella organization made up of numerous civil society groups. While the protest movement has remained leaderless and largely decentralized, the group has played a major role in organizing the largest marches.
Rumors spread online that the attack on Sham was carried out by people who appeared to be South Asian, prompting fears that ethnic minorities could be targeted for reprisal attacks. In response, protesters called for greater outreach to non-Chinese Hong Kongers and to remain vigilant against attempts to incite violence against them.
Volunteers, minorities, protesters and other locals, stood at the gate to the Kowloon Mosque during the protest, holding signs pleading for people not to attack any ethnic minority people or buildings. While some handed out supplies others led chants and passing marchers loudly cheered them on.
Only a few hours later, however, a police truck unleashed a cascade of blue water at the mosque hitting the people who had been standing outside to protect it.
Passersby were left choking and vomiting, and the steps of the mosque turned blue.
“It is ridiculous, the police just went mad, ”said Jeremy Tam, a pro-democracy lawmaker, his pants and shoes soaked blue. “We came here to protect the mosque against protesters but it was the police that did this. Why make such a scene when it was just peaceful? ”
Nawaz, a 36 – year old Pakistani man who has lived in Hong Kong for a quarter century, emerged to see the blue-stained road after the cannon had sped past.
“I have such a bad feeling seeing this,” he said. “This is our religion, how can they do this? Only the police is giving us pressure, not the protesters. ”He declined to give his family name for fear of backlash from authorities.
Tense scenes unfolded outside the Tsim Sha Tsui police station by early afternoon, as protesters marching past shouted chants calling the police gangsters and demanding the force be dissolved.Police use of forcehas emerged as a key issue for many in Hong Kong, who believe officers are acting with impunity to suppress the movement .
Shortly after a protester urinated on the station’s gates, police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Tear gas streamed down the Ladies Market, a popular tourist attraction, sending unprotected stall-holders and shoppers scurrying for cover, some assisted by protesters and volunteer medics.
Facing the possibility of being penned in by police, many found sanctuary in little businesses that support the protests, huddled in overflowing restaurants, cafes and bars where they could change their clothes and wait for reports on Telegram indicating how they can get away safely while avoiding the police.
Sunday’s protest, initially planned to show opposition to a recently enacted lawbanning the use of face masksat public gatherings continued for hours from a planned starting point in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood. April, 27, and her boyfriend William, 29, stood near a park where protesters first gathered. The two said they had held off getting married or having kids out of concern over the direction of Hong Kong and the possibility of raising children in a city where Beijing’s grip is tightening.
“The situation for future generations is turning worse very quickly, we are really worried, ”April said. “If we don’t fight today there won’t be a future generation.”
As night fell around the Kowloon Mosque, a group of volunteers began clearing the pools of caustic blue dye, using cloths to remove it from the mosque’s metal gates and brooms to sweep it into drains. Some gagged as they worked but the crowd of volunteers continued to grow by the hour.