Hong Kong crisis escalates as protester shot by police

After one of bloodiest days of unrest, Hong Kong leader says deepening violence will not make gov’t yield to pressure.

Intersection where the shootings took place, showing Lennon Wall and mourning banner for student dead last week [Violet Law/Al Jazeera]
The Hong Kong intersection where the shootings took place [Violet Law/Al Jazeera]

Hong Kong, China – Hong Kong police opened fire and wounded at least one protester during a fracas that was broadcast live on Facebook, as chaos erupted across the semi-autonomous territory.

The incident during rush hour on Monday morning came as the city was still reeling from the death on Friday of a university student from injuries sustained in a fall as police dispersed protesters nearby.

“The police assaulted an unarmed citizen with real bullets. This is an open declaration of war from the police,” said 28-year-old restaurant owner, Marco Tam. “That’s why the people in Hong Kong have such distrust about the police. They are no longer legitimate enforcers of the law as they don’t have to account for their action.”

Along with Tam, a few hundred neighbourhood residents were locked in a standoff some 200 metres (656 feet) from the shooting in the harbourfront residential district.

“Disband the force, sooner rather than later,” they shouted.

The group prised loose paving bricks and scattered styrofoam cargo boxes from the vegetable market nearby to build makeshift blockades as they faced off riot police.

Earlier, while tackling a protester at a road junction that had been blocked, a traffic police officer fired at a 21-year-old masked man who was approaching. The protester was transferred to a hospital where he is being treated at the intensive care unit after having undergone an operation.

In a separate incident, another man was set on fire during what appeared to be a dispute, according to footage posted on social media.

In a televised address later on Monday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the government would “spare no effort” in bringing an end to the months-long protests.

“The violence has far exceeded the call for democracy and the demonstrators are now the people’s enemy,” Lam said in a defiant televised address.

Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam: Protesters now people’s enemy

“If there’s still any wishful thinking that by escalating violence, the Hong Kong SAR [Special Administrative Region] government will yield to pressure, to satisfy the so-called political demands, I’m making this statement clear and loud here: that will not happen.”

Months-long protests

Since early June, Hong Kong has been rocked by protests triggered by a bill that would have allowed the extradition of accused individuals to mainland China to stand trial.

Although officials formally withdrew the bill two weeks ago, public anger has been driven by their refusal to address protesters’ demands for an independent inquiry against alleged police brutality; amnesty for the nearly 600 people charged with offences stemming from the protests; a retraction of police claims that protesters are guilty of rioting; and universal suffrage to elect the full legislature and chief executive.

In recent weeks, calls for disbanding, or at least reorganising, the police force have grown out of public anger, with critics alleging indiscriminate and rampant use of force.

The use of live rounds on Monday marked the third time over the past five weeks when Hong Kong police deployed lethal weapons against the protesters.

“This is going to further escalate the confrontation,” Lawrence Ho, a specialist in policing at the Education University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera. “De-escalation is a political decision, not a policing decision.”

Hong Kong road blocks
Protesters blocked roads in parts of Hong Kong on Monday, as part of a territory-wide general strike. In San Wai Ho, where a protester was shot by a policeman, they built barricades from white boxes. [Jiraporn Kuhakan/Reuters] 

How events unfolded

Monday morning started off with calls for mass strikes that saw less-than-widespread support. Some protesters took it upon themselves to block road traffic and sabotage light rail tracks.

Moments after the shooting, in another district, a traffic police officer on a motorcycle was captured on amateur video ploughing into protesters laying down barricades on a highway.

After many universities cancelled classes by midday, riot police stormed three of the campuses and fired tear gas and made several arrests. In the popular shopping district of Kowloon, at least one water cannon truck was deployed to disperse crowds.

At lunchtime, office workers in Central, the heart of the business district, joined protesters congregating at a major junction and shouted: “Revenge, revenge. Five demands, not one less.”

Many, like Jenny Tse, braved volleys of tear gas unleashed with little protection.

“I don’t see how the shootings were warranted. Officers rarely even fire directly at hardened criminals,” said Tse, 25, as she tucked her surgical mask into the sleeve of her cardigan for fear of being singled out by police enforcing the new ban on face-coverings.

The Hong Kong Police Force said in a statement released on Monday afternoon: “Police has strict guidelines and orders regarding the use of firearms … All police officers are required to justify their enforcement actions.”

However, in a statement, Amnesty InternationalHong Kong said that “these are not policing measures – these are officers out of control with a mindset of retaliation.”

Hong Kong protests Central
Office workers run from tear gas after a ‘flash mob’ anti-government protest in the Central district of Hong Kong on Monday; one of the most violent days of unrest since protests began in June. [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

‘This is madness’

Last week’s fatality – the first at the scene of police action – has already bolstered calls for an independent inquiry into the case as well as into mounting allegations against police brutality in suppressing the unrest, as many in the protest movement believe the student may have been dodging tear gas or fleeing police pursuit.

For months, government officials have urged the public to wait for the findings by the city’s Independent Police Complaints Council – expected next month – before passing judgement.

But last Friday, a panel of independent overseas experts, appointed by the council and headed by a former British chief inspector of constabulary, concluded that the council “lacks investigative capacity as we would expect in a body seeking to exercise oversight of the police”.

During an interlude between tear gas volleys in Central, Vikas Kumar, 60, ventured out for a coffee. The shipping executive donned an N95 particulate mask handed out by the guard at his office building but experienced some breathing difficulties.

“This is madness,” Kumar said. “Both sides need to cool down. Everyone’s future is at stake.”

Source: Al Jazeera