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Police blast mosque with water cannon as tens of thousands protest in Hong Kong

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2019-10-20 Shibani Mahtani, Ryan Kilpatrick Ho, Timothy McLaughlin
A journalist reacts as police sprays water during an anti-government protest march in Hong Kong, China, October 20, 2019. © Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters A journalist reacts as police sprays water during an anti-government protest march in Hong Kong, China, October 20, 2019.

HONG KONG —Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to Hong Kong’s streets on Sunday, once again defying a police ban on the assembly and undeterred by a brutal attack against a leader of the organization that called for the march.

The huge turnout, which included families, children and the elderly, demonstrated how the movement now in its fifth month continues to have widespread support, despite the increasingly violent tactics used by protesters and escalating 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. Police by the early afternoon had warned that the march was illegal, and used tear gas to disperse protesters shouting insults outside a police station.

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, while peaceful marchers ferried material up to the front line.

In mark of their increasing sophistication, protesters also produced power tools to build sturdier barricades to hold back police, drilling metal railings into the road surface itself.

a man holding a baseball bat: People hold Catalan pro-independence flags as they take part in a pro-democracy march in the Kowloon district in Hong Kong on Oct. 20, 2019. © Philip Fong/Afp Via Getty Images People hold Catalan pro-independence flags as they take part in a pro-democracy march in the Kowloon district in Hong Kong on Oct. 20, 2019.

Police used cannons shooting water laced with a blue irritant against protesters, sending people fleeing down side streets, some doubled over vomiting. When it went past the Kowloon Mosque, the truck unleashed a cascade of blue water in its direction, hitting several people who had been standing outside the place of worship to protect it.

Passersby were left choking and vomiting, and the steps to 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?”

The months of protests began in opposition to a now-scrapped bill that would have allowed extraditions to 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, and I am proud to be taking a stand with them.”

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 organization had applied for a permit from the police to hold the protest, but were denied — an increasingly common response from authorities who cite the threat of violence and disruption to public order.

a large crowd of people walking on a city street: Thousands of protesters march during a rally in Hong Kong, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. © Mark Schiefelbein/AP Thousands of protesters march during a rally in Hong Kong, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019.

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.”

“Even if our rallies are banned, hundreds of thousands of people will still show up. People will be much angrier,” Lai added.

Founded in September 2002 in opposition to proposed national security legislation, the CHRF is an umbrella organization made up of numerous civil society organizations. While the protest movement has remained leaderless and largely decentralized, the group has played a major role in organizing the largest marches.

The group began organizing protests against the now scrapped anti-extradition bill this spring, steadily gathering momentum as they worked across various neighborhoods to spread the word about the legislation.

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.

Minorities also stood outside Chungking Mansions, a cramped complex of shops and budget accommodation that has long served as a hub for the city’s South Asian and African communities.

“There was a post saying people would attack ethnic minorities and CK Mansion and the mosque so we wanted to show protesters that were in this together, we are also one of them,” said a student volunteer of South Asian descent, who declined to give his name, as he handed out water to protesters outside Chungking Mansions. “This is an important opportunity to emphasize ethnic unity in Hong Kong and in this movement.”

Sham, in an open letter to Hong Kong on Sunday, urged the city’s residents to “protect each other.”

“I believe that everyone who joins this path to democracy are our brothers and sisters, regardless of nationality, language, color and race,” he wrote.

Protesters holding flags of the U.S. and Britain march toward the Tsim She Tsui police station during a rally in Hong Kong, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019 © Vincent Yu/AP Protesters holding flags of the U.S. and Britain march toward the Tsim She Tsui police station during a rally in Hong Kong, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019

Tense scenes began unfolding outside the Tsim Sha Tsui police station by early afternoon, as protesters shouted chants calling the police gangsters and demanding the force be dissolved. Police use of force has 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 there.

Sunday’s protest, initially planned to show opposition to a recently enacted law banning the use of face masks at public gatherings, was cross-generational, and 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.”

Angel Men Chan, a 50-year-old volunteer outside Chunking Mansions, said her parents left mainland China five decades ago to “get away from authoritarianism and oppression.”

“Now, the same thing is happening here,” Chan said, wearing a blue I Heart Hong Kong T-shirt. “Hong Kong deserves better leadership. We are better people. We are not China; We are Hong Kong.”

shibani.mahtani@washpost.com

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