Hong Kong, China – At the end of a week of convocations and celebrations on university campuses in Hong Kong, the death of a student protester on Friday morning cast a pall and halted the ceremony at his alma mater.
Mourners later marched through the business district under a black banner that read “Monster cops kill” and by evening, thousands gathered across a dozen districts to pay respects at impromptu candlelit vigils.
After observing a moment of silence in one neighbourhood, the mourners shouted in unison: “Hong Kongers, revenge! Murderous regime – pay back in blood!”
Alex Chow Tsz-lok, a 22-year-old computer science and engineering student at the University of Science and Technology, died of cardiac arrest after days of operations had failed to revive him.
Chow fell one storey down a parking garage on Sunday as police were firing tear gas at protesters about 120 metres away inside a residential compound.
With only her bloodshot eyes visible and sobbing under her surgical mask, Yully Yeung, a construction firm surveyor who arrived at the vigil after work, cradled a small bouquet of daisies.
“Our young people have sacrificed so much for us. It pains me to see how they throw their bright future to fight our corrupt government,” Yeung said.
Later on Friday, police fired tear gas to disperse some of the gatherings and in a separate operation, police arrested seven legislators from the pan-democratic camp for obstructing meetings, in earlier attempts to stall a controversial bill that eventually set off the ongoing protests.
Many in the protest movement, who suspect Chow may have been dodging tear gas or fleeing police pursuit, have embraced his death in their battle cry. This has also sparked fresh calls for an independent inquiry into his case as well as into mounting allegations against police brutality in suppressing the demonstrations which have been ongoing for months.
“The time and place [of Chow’s death] is very close to where there was riot police action so the circumstances can appear suspicious and linked to police action,” legislator and solicitor James To told Al Jazeera. “At a time when society is highly distrustful of the police, the coroner’s court can take over to ensure a fair and transparent investigation.”
Chow’s death could be the first link to police action during a demonstration. Police have repeatedly denied any allegations of wrongdoing in relation to the death.
Since early June, Hong Kong has been in the throes of protests triggered by a bill that would have allowed the extradition of accused individuals to mainland China for trial under a judicial system with little guarantee of rights.
Although officials formally withdrew the bill two weeks ago, public anger has been fuelled by their refusal to address protesters’ demands for the independent inquiry; 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.
Even those who did not set out to join the movement have been swept up in what they see as the police’s indiscriminate and rampant use of force as they deployed to quell protests.
“What we have seen is the police in a number of occasions they’ve used tear gas in retaliation, as well as excessive force,” Amnesty International’s Hong Kong director Tam Man-kei told Al Jazeera.
In recent months, the NGO has released two reports on monitoring authorities’ handling of the protests.
During the five months of anti-government protests, deaths of certain protesters that were ruled suicide have fuelled the conspiracy theories of possible foul play by the police.
Three weeks ago, following the drowning of a protester who was on her school’s swimming team and whose body was found totally naked, suspicion reached a fever pitch.
After school administrators failed to release complete security camera footage showing the student’s last moments on campus, her classmates and fellow protesters barricaded and vandalised the campus for days.
For now, 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.
However, for the protesters and Amnesty’s Tam, public outrage over the circumstances of Chow’s death only underscores the importance of empanelling an independent inquiry vested with investigatory power to fully probe police conduct in the ongoing protest movement.
“As the government should’ve learned by now this should be done sooner rather than later,” said Tam.