Updated 12:10 p.m., July 27, 2019
HONG KONG — Police lobbed tear gas and stormed a rail station on Saturday to clear the last of thousands of protesters who joined an unsanctioned march against the slow response by police to a violent attack by gangs days earlier.
Videos uploaded by journalists on Saturday night showed riot police waving batons and chasing youngsters wearing respirators and construction helmets into the Yuen Long rail station. Hours earlier, thousands of people had marched through the suburban and largely deserted neighborhood to protest the police response to an earlier attack. Businesses stayed closed and residents did not venture outside.
The police clearance operation was a surprising end to a peaceful march that drew middle-aged and some elderly people, who were incensed by the events of week earlier, when bystanders, journalists and even a lawmaker were bloodied by thugs wielding rattan sticks and metal pieces. Twelve people have been charged in the July 21 attack that left 45 people with injuries, some severe. Several witnesses said they seemed to target people dressed in black, and assumed they were coming from a large pro-democracy march that day.
Yuen Long is a congested, formerly industrial suburb near the mainland border where a portion of the population has strong ties to gangs aligned with mainland China. It was an eery place Saturday, where even the McDonalds, malls and food markets were shuttered.
A young man named Sasha, 24, joined the massive, unsanctioned march through the suburban city. The young man, dressed head to toe in black and dark blue, with just his eyes revealed, said he quit his job to focus on the protests this summer and was quite surprised by the turnout.
“Police believe we are armed rioters,” he said, referring to a massive, and largely peaceful protest on June 12 that ended after riot officers fired more than 100 rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets. “From that incident we started losing trust in the police…The Hong Kong government is trying to convince normal citizens not to protest… We have to fight the police when we come out.”
Hong Kong Police said several protesters gathered on Saturday held iron poles and self-made shields and removed road railings, activity observed by reporters. In addition, police said that some vandalized a police vehicle, endangering officers inside. That information could not be independently verified.
The march’s organizer, Yuen Long resident Max Chung, did not receive approval from police to stage the march, and his appeal failed.
He said Friday it was important for Hong Kongers to stand against what he termed a terrorist attack and against a government that has seemed more concerned with silencing democracy protesters.
Some said they would go to Yuen Long to protect the residents or each other. Most everyone anticipated clashes with police. But they didn't know what the plan would entail beyond marching.
"For me, going inside of Yuen Long is a way of telling them we are not afraid. Terror is an important method for gangsters, for controlling society," says Brian, a 21-year-old undergraduate who lives in a nearby town. Most young people will not disclose their full name out of concerns of retribution. "We have to show the terrorists we aren't afraid of them."
Residents “think police aren’t protecting them anymore,” Chung said in an interview Friday. Before, “none of us had any plan to hold protest in Yuen Long, but they started to intimidate us.” His appeal to hold the march was denied.
Many young protesters spent Friday night buying safety equipment such as helmets, thick gloves and protective padding; the better to withstand police who may use batons and rubber bullets.
Some said they would go to Yuen Long to protect the residents or each other. Most everyone anticipated clashes with police. But they didn’t know what the plan would entail beyond marching.
“For me, going inside of Yuen Long is a way of telling them we are not afraid. Terror is an important method for gangsters, for controlling society,” says Brian, a 21-year-old undergraduate who lives in a nearby town. Most young people will not disclose their full name out of concerns of retribution. “We have to show the terrorists we aren’t afraid of them.”
Hong Kong is facing its worst political crisis since its handover to China in 1997. After millions of people marched twice in June against an extradition bill, now suspended, that would have permitted criminal suspects to be sent to China, many residents turned their ire on the police.
The force has used tear gas and rubber bullets twice against protesters who did little more than defy their orders with their bodies, umbrellas and plastic bottles. Clashes have left scores injured.
The Reuters news agency reported on Friday that Li Jiyi, the director of the Central Government Liaison’s local district office in Yuen Long, urged guests at a July 11 community banquet for hundreds of villagers to thwart democracy protesters. According to a recording of the event, Li appealed to those who attended to protect their towns in the Yuen Long district and to rebuff anti-government activists, the news agency said.
Local news reports said Yuen Long residents stockpiled food on Friday, while some residents left Hong Kong altogether, to brace for potential clashes at protests against mob violence at the district’s subway station a week earlier. Shops and public sports facilities were expected to close early and other services such as a clinic were expected to be shuttered.