This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Hong Kong police faced mounting criticism on Monday after a number of officers pulled out their handguns, pointing them at journalists and local residents during an anti-extradition protest in the city’s Kwai district, while a second protester was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.
Video footage from the scene showed a handful of police officers in riot gear aiming their .38 handguns at a crowd of people that included journalists and civilians clad in regular clothing.
An older man was kicked in the lower abdomen by one officer after standing in front of the group and begging them not to shoot.
A clip shot from another angle showed another officer rushing to restrain his colleagues and encouraging them to withdraw from the standoff, which came after a group of protesters charged the police, attacking them with long poles and beating some of them to the ground.
Police also deployed a water cannon for the first time against protesters in response to a petrol bomb attack on Sunday, according to video posted to Twitter by Globe and Mail reporter Nathan VanderKlippe.
Asked why they had used petrol bombs, two people presenting themselves anonymously as front-line protesters said it was to “slow the police down.”
“Furthermore, police claim they escalate their violence because of ‘protesters’ provocations’, but the government’s silence to 2m protesters’ demands is the biggest provocation of all,” the protesters said in comments reported on Twitter by Hong Kong University law student Elson Tong.
Assistant Police Commissioner Mak Chin-ho said one officer had fired into the air, while six officers in total had held up their revolvers after protesters charged them repeatedly with metal poles, long sticks, and road signs on Sunday night.
“Their use of force was indeed necessary and reasonable,” he told a regular news briefing on Monday.
Social media posts said police had also shot a second protester in the eye with a rubber bullet on Sunday, accusing them of reckless shooting, a claim that has been backed up by rights groups including London-based Amnesty International.
“A protester wounded in the left eye by a rubber bullet shot by police in Kwun Tong,” writer Kong Tsung-gan said via Twitter, posting photos of the scene.
“Police go on & on about how their use of ‘non-lethal force’ is perfectly safe but it’s caused real injuries, the effects of which, in some cases, will be lifelong,” Kong said.
Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki accused Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam of deliberately allowing violence to escalate, saying her recent calls for dialogue in the absence of any response to the protesters’ five key demands was merely a delaying tactic.
“She is the one who should shoulder all the responsibility, and now she is trying to get away from all the responsibility and shifting the focus to the so-called platform,” Kwok said.
Protesters protect civilians
Front-line protesters have typically protected unarmed civilians throughout these protests, setting up barriers and fighting back to slow the advance of riot police, only surrendering an area when holding it could endanger their safety, according to posts on the LIHKG forum relating to the anti-extradition movement.
Many of the protesters—who are typically clad in black clothing and gas masks, protective helmets, and sports body armor—have become adept at extinguishing tear gas canisters as they land by covering them with traffic cones or metal bowls and pouring water on them, while others choose to kick or hit them back towards police with tennis rackets.
Participants in mass marches and local residents of districts where protests take place have typically stayed away from direct conflict with police who have nevertheless repeatedly fired tear gas, often from overhead bridges, directly into crowds that include people of all ages without protective gear.
Local residents have also been caught in the choking miasma that ensues when law enforcement turn up to clear an otherwise peaceful protest, with tear gas often taking people unawares in restaurants, private homes, and homes for the elderly, as well as subway stations and shopping malls.
One of the casualties of indiscriminate police shooting, a young woman who was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet found near her, has inspired protesters to cover their eye, and to chant the slogan “an eye for an eye!” at police.
Threat to public safety
Assistant Police Commissioner Mak called the actions of the hard-line protesters reckless and a grave threat to public safety, adding that 21 officers were injured in clashes on Sunday.
“The police have zero tolerance for violent acts,” Mak said.
The government said protesters had “wantonly attacked police officers with things like bricks and iron rods, and hurled petrol bombs at police vehicles and officers many times,” while others had trampled on a Chinese national flag, an act that “challenges national authority.”
“The radical protesters’ violent acts later also spread to various areas including Sham Shui Po, Tsim Sha Tsui, and the Kowloon entrances of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel,” it said.
Cambridge historian Jeppe Mulich, who was at the protests on Sunday, said police had escalated violence wherever they went, saying the authorities were using a very poor strategy when dealing with protesters whose strategy is “be water.”
“Perhaps police leaders need to have a frank conversation with the [chief executive]’s office,” Mulich wrote via Twitter. “The police cannot and should not be the only interface the public has with the government, and they cannot be used as a blunt instrument to solve a political crisis.”
Recent opinion polls have shown broad-based support for a more radical approach to the protests when used in tandem with the more peaceful mass marches that have drawn as many as two million people of all ages and from all walks of life onto Hong Kong’s streets since early June.
Some protesters have apologized for the beating and restraining of two mainland Chinese men at a mass airport sit-in earlier this month, saying that tensions were running high following weeks of police-led violence on Hong Kong’s streets.
On Saturday, protesters set up barricades in Kwun Tong, blocking traffic and toppling a number of controversial “smart” lampposts that have been revealed to contain facial recognition technology.
Police arrested 19 men and 10 women aged 17 to 52 for offenses including unlawful assembly, possession of offensive weapon and assaulting police officers, the government said in a statement on the protest.
Thousands of people also turned out across Hong Kong in peaceful protests over the weekend, repeating calls for Lam to heed their five demands across the industrial, new town, and container port districts of Tsuen Wan, Kwai Chung, Tsingyi and the Kowloon district of Kwun Tong.
The anti-extradition protesters are calling for 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.
A protester surnamed Wong said the police were “selectively” enforcing the law.
“I can’t tolerate the fact that the government is totally ignoring the people of Hong Kong,” Wong said. “It doesn’t matter if one, two or three million people come out in protest, Carrie Lam will totally ignore them. She just hides away.”
“Also, the police have been enforcing the law selectively, and I think it’s outrageous every time they aim at people with the intention of hurting them,” she said.
Amnesty International has hit out at police for firing tear gas at retreating protesters in confined areas, sometimes aiming tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper ball projectiles at their heads and upper bodies.
The group has called on international governments to suspend transfers of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong until a full and independent investigation is carried out, and adequate safeguards are put in place.
Police have been widely criticized for not intervening promptly during bloody attacks by men with links to triad criminal gangs on July 21, and for failing to charge any of those arrested with a violent offense.