(HONG KONG) — Protesters who’ve taken pro-democracy demonstrations to the streets of Hong Kong every weekend since early June clashed on Saturday with riot-ready police who deployed tear gas after demonstrators hurled bricks and Molotov cocktails at them and refused orders to clear roadways.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong, a city of 7.4 million people, blocking traffic on a main thoroughfare with their bodies and by piling wooden pallets, boards, trash cans and other debris across lanes.
Hundreds of police wearing helmets and carrying shields and batons stood by as demonstrators, some armed with baseball bats and metal poles, hurled rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails at them and occupied footbridges and the balconies of a building overlooking the police.
Police officials shouted orders at the protesters to clear the roadway. Some officers held up signs, reading, “Stop Charging or We Will Use Force.”
When the protesters refused to budge, several hundred police officers rushed the roadway, chasing the protesters and firing tear gas canisters at them. Demonstrators ran in all directions in a strategy they’ve called “Be like Water” — a phrase taken from martial arts movie star Bruce Lee whereby they come together in a show of force and then disperse, like water, when police move in.
An ABC News crews in the middle of the chaos reported seeing protesters being arrested, including one being led away by police with his hands bound behind his back and blood trickling down his face. Several police officers were injured in the confrontation and seen being treated.
The violence erupted on the 12th straight weekend of massive protests in the city.
The day started peacefully with protesters being permitted to march in the Kwun Tong industrial district and voice their concerns over high-tech lampposts the city has been installing in areas where there is usually high traffic. Protesters said they are worried the lampposts, which measure traffic conditions and weather, infringe upon privacy and could be equipped with facial recognition software.
As the protest grew on Saturday, the peaceful march turned ugly when demonstrators flooding into streets brought traffic to a standstill. Some demonstrators set off fire extinguishers and threw rocks and bricks at police.
Others were spotted using slingshots to fire projectiles at police, prompting law enforcement to respond with force.
The protests began June 9 when hundreds of thousands of mostly young people marched against a proposed extradition bill that would allow individuals to be sent from semi-autonomous Hong Kong to mainland China for trial. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has since suspended the bill, but the movement has continued and protesters’ demands have expanded to include a call for universal suffrage and an independent investigation into police brutality.
The demonstrators have also asked Lam to resign and allow a democratic election to elect her successor.
Last weekend saw one of the largest protests yet as tens of thousands packed Hong Kong’s Victoria Park on Sunday. Organizers of the demonstration claimed 1.7 million people participated, but police, according to Hong Kong Free Press, put the number at only 128,000.
Many demonstrators said they’re worried that their freedoms will continue to erode as China’s Communist Party-ruled central government keeps flexing its muscle in Hong Kong, the former British colony given back to China in 1997 that’s become a global financial hub.
Standard Chartered and HSBC, two of the largest financial institutions in the world that have offices in Hong Kong, broke their silence about the protests on Thursday by taking out full-page ads in Hong Kong newspapers, calling for a peaceful resolution.
Under the constitutional principle of “One Country, Two Systems,” China had agreed to keep its hands off the freedoms Hong Kong residents have enjoyed as a semi-autonomous territory. But protesters said the Chinese government has exercised its power to curb democracy in Hong Kong in violation of the agreement.
Saturday marked the first time in 10 days that police used tear gas on protesters.
On Aug. 13, violent clashes erupted between protesters and paramilitary police at the Hong Kong International Airport, after demonstrators stormed the airport and forced flight cancellations. Baton-wielding officers were caught on video using force on demonstrators to take back control of the airport.
Prior to Saturday’s protest, Chinese officials alleged that demonstrators “have begun to show signs of terrorism,” and China appeared to be weighing a crackdown on the democratic movement.
Student protesters have told ABC News they’ve been subject to mysterious, anonymous intimidation efforts, including flyers posted in their neighborhoods listing their home addresses and accusing them of everything from “causing chaos” to incest. They say they’ve even received messages threatening that their families will be killed.
One protester, Keith Fong, 20, described to ABC News how he was arrested and allegedly physically assaulted by police for buying laser pointers.
Another protester, Kex Leung, 22, said he believes violence in Hong Kong may be inevitable, but he hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“I am willing to give my life,” Leung told ABC News last week, “but not my family’s.”
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