This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Police in Hong Kong fired tear gas and pepper spray after hundreds thousands of people turned out in a peaceful demonstration by the Kowloon waterfront on Sunday, repeating the movement’s demands that include fully democratic elections.
An estimated 380,000 unarmed protesters of all ages wearing regular clothing marched along the city’s harborfront in Tsimshatsui on Sunday afternoon.
But while the “Never Forget” march had earlier gained police approval, riot police still flung tear gas into the middle of the crowd, which included young families, as well as charging at people who had gathered in a leisure park, prompting an angry reaction from the crowd.
“What’s going on?” one protester yelled at the riot cops. “Don’t you have any conscience at all? Don’t you have kids of your own?”
While the march had mostly dispersed by nightfall, frontline protesters in full protective gear went on to block major roads and intersections in Kowloon later in the evening, and returned police tear gas grenades with smoke bombs on Salisbury Road, according to a police account of the clashes.
A large number of protesters also blocked a major highway in nearby Hung Hom using street signs and traffic barriers. They were dispersed by riot police, who then moved towards Kowloon’s Nathan Road in large numbers, to where protesters had made more barricades, under repeated volleys of tear gas.
An earlier protest on Hong Kong Island set off from the Central business district, heading for the U.S. Embassy, as a gesture of thanks for the passing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act by Congress last month.
Around 1,000 people rallied in Chater Gardens, in Central, holding U.S. flags and sang the U.S. national anthem.
Parents and children protest
A protester who gave only his surname Chan said the new law would help Hong Kong in the long run, because it could deter the authorities from perpetrating more human rights violations.
Hundreds of parents and children had earlier rallied at nearby Edinburgh Place to protest against police for firing thousands of tear gas canisters in Hong Kong’s streets and public places since the protest movement escalated in early June.
The widespread use of tear gas has prompted huge public health concerns about the long-term effects of exposure to the gas — a chemical weapon banned for use in warfare — on the health of children and young people.
A parent surnamed Kwok from Ma On Shan district said children in the area were still coughing after tear gas was fired on a major housing development there.
“We worry that their current immunity is weak, that they are susceptible to illness and that this could affect their health in future,” Kwok said.
A high-school music teacher told RFA that police fired tear gas grenades near the school where he teaches on at least four days in the middle of last month and left the debris discarded on the streets nearby.
“The school still hasn’t been able to find a suitable cleaning company,” the teacher said. “It has been left to the school staff to clean up, and there are still many canisters littered around the school campus.”
“The police should recognize the problems caused by tear gas as a matter of urgency,” she said.
Disproportionate and deadly force
Campaigners have demanded that police make public the provenance and chemical composition of the tear gas they use, to enable medical practitioners to formulate treatment plans accordingly. But police have refused, saying that doing so could compromise their operations.
Rights groups have criticized the Hong Kong authorities for fueling violence with excessive force in their treatment of protesters, as well as limiting and prevent legitimate and non-violent protest and assembly since the anti-extradition movement took off in early June.
They have called on police to refrain from using disproportionate and deadly force, but police have repeatedly reviewed their own tactics and found them to be “appropriate.”
The United Nations and other governments have expressed growing concern, calling on the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam to de-escalate the situation.
Lam has offered dialogue, but protesters have ruled out talking to the government until their demands are met.
The government has withdrawn legal amendments that would have allowed extradition to mainland China — a plan that sparked the movement in the first place — but protesters also want fully democratic elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo) and for the post of chief executive, an amnesty for the thousands of people arrested since protests began, an end to the use of the term “rioting,” and an independent inquiry into police violence.
Lam and her officials have repeatedly ruled out meeting any of the other demands.