Violent clashes between police and protesters angered over the government’s clearing of street hawkers in Mong Kok broke out on Monday evening. The police fired two warning shots into the sky in the early hours of Tuesday as demonstrators lit fires and attacked officers.
Twenty-four people have been arrested, with 48 police officers and several journalists injured.
The protest broke out in relation to the ongoing crackdown against street hawkers by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD). Street hawkers had set up stalls on Portland Street near Langham Place last year, turning the area into a mini-night market. This year, FEHD hawker control officers removed any hawkers who attempted to approach, with many retreating to set up stalls in nearby alleyways.
At 9pm, members of the localist group Hong Kong Indigenous began escorting street hawkers back onto the main street, while other members started quarrelling with the FEHD staff. Hong Kong Indigenous then made an announcement online asking the public to support the hawkers. More police arrived and clashes between the protesters and the officers broke out. At the height of the protests, around 300 people were involved in the clashes.
Localist groups such as Hong Kong Indigenous are generally pro-democracy but many consider pro-democracy activists and pan-democrats within the legislature to be ineffective. The camp is also tied with various movements related to the expansion of Hong Kong’s autonomy, for example advocating for city-state status or outright independence.
The police hoisted a red warning flag near midnight, employing batons and pepper spray to subdue the crowd. Many who had previously withdrawn returned to the Langham area.
At around 2am, a group of protesters clashed with the police on Argyle Street and Shanghai Street. One demonstrator threw objects including glass bottles, bricks and wooden planks at a police officer, prompting the officer to fire a warning shot into the air with his gun.
Protesters ran at the police officers carrying planks, and another gunshot was heard.
Meanwhile, protesters started fires on the roadside. Backup police then arrived temporarily dispersing the protesters.
The police announced at around 6am that the Mong Kok area was on lockdown, with MTR station exits closed.
“Members of the public and motorists are advised not to go to Mong Kok,” the police said. MTR exits reopened at around 10am and services were resumed.
The government issued a statement on Tuesday morning condemning the “mob activities” and “violent acts”: “Since midnight today, at least a few hundred mobs have taken part in a riot in Mong Kok, attacking police officers on duty and media covering the incident at the site.”
“The mobs damaged police cars and public properties, committed acts of arson, threw bricks and other objects at injured police officers who were on the ground, seriously jeopardising the safety of police officers and other people at the site,” the statement said.
“I’m sure everyone can see the footage of the riot from the TV and see how serious it was… the SAR Government and I strongly condemn the lawless behaviour. The police will work hard to apprehend the rioters and bring them to justice. We also offer our sympathies to the police and journalists injured,” Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told a press conference Tuesday morning.
‘The die is now cast’
In a statement, the Executive Committee of Youngspiration condemned the police for firing gunshots.
“Youngspiration condemns the violence by HK Police Force in the strongest possible way and we believed this poses a tremendous threat to the freedom and safety of Hong Kong… The die is now cast. 2016 shall be a year of resistance and change, we call upon all our brothers and sisters to defend our home – Hong Kong, by all means necessary.”
Youngspiration is a political group formed by young people in the wake of the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests.
‘The least amount of force’
Mong Kok Police District Commander Yau Siu-kei said at a separate press conference this morning that police had used the “least amount of force”, adding that 48 police officers were hurt in the action.
Yau said that police had arrived to offer assistance to the FEHD but found a large number of protesters on the road. The crowds ignored warnings, endangered public order, clashed with police and started fires, Yau said. He added that, at around 2am, an officer’s life was under serious threat and he was given no choice but to fire two warning shots into the air to ensure the safety of himself and his colleagues.
Twenty-three men and one woman between ages 17 to 70 were arrested on charges such as assaulting a police officer in relation to the protests, according to Yau. As there were trucks transporting supplies to the demonstrators, the police are not ruling out an organised activity. They will continue to investigate and more arrests may be made. The police also urged the public to avoid the Mong Kok area.
Local news agencies reported instances of journalists being injured. RTHK said a young protester threw a brick at a reporter and although it did not hit him, the reporter’s audio equipment was damaged. The protester then ran away. An i-Cable TV reporter was also hit with a brick, and a Ming Pao reporter was reportedly attacked by police despite stating his identity as a member of the press.
TVB described the protesters as rioters and said protesters had seriously interfered with the freedom of press. According to TVB, a photographer was capturing footage of an individual committing arson near Sai Yeung Choi Street when a protester blocked the camera and started hurling objects at him. The photographer was sent to the hospital.
“The news department will continue to fearlessly uncover the truth to the society,” the TVB anchor said.