Saturday’s crowd was overwhelmingly peaceful, but the march wasn’t sanctioned. Police quickly fired tear gas on the crowd at Victoria Park, a frequent gathering spot for the large and peaceful marches that defined Hong Kong’s protest culture before demonstrations veered toward violence in recent months.
Later in the day, protesters started building barricades to block major roads, vandalized pro-Beijing businesses and threw petrol bombs, some aimed at police. Demonstrators also targeted the Chinese state news agency Xinhua, smashing windows and setting fires at the building’s facade. There were no reported injuries at the Xinhua office.
Police said they were forced to cancel two previously authorized rallies because of “violent conflicts” and “breach of peace” in Hong Kong.
Ventus Lau, an activist who has been arrested multiple times during the protests, applied for the initial permit for the Victoria Park rally. He said the government’s efforts to stifle sanctioned events were only adding to the anger.
“If they allowed us to have some channels for people to express themselves, most protesters will act in a peaceful and rational manner,” he said. “Now, the only option is joining illegal protests and rallies.”
Since police had declined to authorize Saturday’s rally, protest organizers attempted to circumvent the ban by having pro-
democracy candidates for upcoming local elections hold individual rallies in the park at the same time. Pro-democracy candidates are expected to win big in the elections amid growing mistrust in institutions like the government and the police, seen to be aiding Beijing in eroding Hong Kong’s freedoms.
The candidates said they would not need permission for these campaign meetings if they did not exceed more than 50 people each. But when the crowd swelled to thousands, the police quickly warned that they were gathering illegally and sought to disperse them. Protesters then made their way to central Hong Kong, where two authorized rallies were due to be held later in the evening.
Some of these pro-democracy candidates were pepper-sprayed and at least one was arrested as they tried to lead protesters in a march. Most have passed a process of political screening and have been approved as candidates — except for prominent activist Joshua Wong.
“The anti-mask law should not be our concern, since it is inappropriate and a violation of the rule of law,” said a 28-year-old protester, asking to be identified only by his last name, Chan, for fear of retribution. He was huddled among thousands of protesters in the Wan Chai neighborhood, blocked by police from marching further. “Nothing will stop us from coming up, but we have to assess every situation carefully, since police keep blocking us.”
Earlier in the day, police officers stopped and searched vehicles entering the Central district of Hong Kong Island, where the financial hub of the city and key government offices are located. The area surrounding the offices has been a flash point for protesters for months. Police also frisked dozens of people on the city’s streets, lining up people on the sidewalks as they checked IDs and searched their bags and belongings. Others had their cellphones searched.
“I was so scared,” said 27-year-old Jacky, who was stopped and searched by the police, along with 10 others wearing black masks. He had not been out to a protest since June, afraid of the escalating violence, but wanted to participate in Saturday’s march. “I think they are aiming their force at us, the younger generations.”
Jacky was with hundreds of other protesters when a water cannon came barreling down the road, causing them to scatter.
“This is just a peaceful rally. Why are they firing tear gas at us?” he asked.
In the afternoon, dozens of young people were arrested in a small playground and recreational area, some of them grabbed from the public bathroom. They were forced to line up against a wall in an alleyway, while police kept press and passersby behind a cordon. Later, they were bundled into buses in a single file and brought to a nearby police station.
By Saturday night, hundreds of lawyers, relatives and friends waited outside the North Point police station for news on those held. One woman told The Washington Post that she had not been able to see her husband, among those arrested, because police were processing more than 200 people held at that station alone. The woman spoke on the condition of anonymity because her husband was still in custody.
A swift move from Beijing to end the protests, which some feared could bring a Tiananmen-style crackdown, has not happened. However, protesters, pro-democracy lawmakers and ordinary residents have begun to refer to the city as a “police state.” Masked riot police dressed in olive green fatigues now regularly patrol subway stations and can be seen positioned throughout neighborhoods across Hong Kong.
“There is no rule of law in Hong Kong now,” said Fung, a 73-year-old protester who had walked from Victoria Park. “Police can arrest people for whatever reason, as much as they want. They write the rules of the game.”
The police force, which has the full backing of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, regularly denies permission for rallies and marches. Additionally, a number of injunctions filed by the government have been granted in recent weeks. One bars people from insulting or pestering police officers or their family members. Another aims to block messages inciting violence on forums and messaging apps popular with protesters. Activists and some lawyers have criticized the injunctions as being overly broad and duplicating existing law.
Police, who have arrested nearly 3,000 people since protests began in June, have complained of thousands of officers being doxed and threatened. Officers have also come under attack from protesters wielding bricks, rods and petrol bombs. Two protesters have been shot but are expected to recover.
Lam said recently that the “most effective solution is to tackle the violence head-on,” when asked about solving the crisis, which has sent her approval rating plummeting and has driven Hong Kong into a recession. Lam is on a visit to Shanghai and Nanjing and was not in Hong Kong on Saturday.
Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.