Of the many attacks by police I’ve experienced in nearly four months of protests, the one in Wan Chai on October 1 was the most intense.
The situation was initially almost a replay of similar scenes that have unfolded along that stretch of Hong Kong Island in recent weeks. Originally, when police wished to clear protesters from near government headquarters in Admiralty, they would push them to Queensway, a block to the south, and then down Queensway eastward past police headquarters.
They achieved this push primarily with tear gas barrages, often accompanied by the so-called “raptors”, the nickname of the police Special Tactical Squad, rushing out from police lines to snatch and grab protesters for arrest. Then after that, they would slowly, deliberately and predictably continue to push us down Hennessy Road toward Causeway Bay, in the hope that doing so would eventually cause most people to disperse.
But when they saw this method was not a success, they began putting large numbers of riot police in Causeway Bay, so protesters were sandwiched between those police and the police advancing toward Causeway Bay. This led to volatile situations and brutal encounters, with protesters beaten before, during and after arrest and undercover police officers disguised as protesters firing live warning shots into the air.
There was a sense of suspension over an abyss: it would take so little for something to go very wrong. Not only that, but protesters quickly adapted to avoid the police dragnet.
So on October 1, the police did something new: after pushing protesters eastward past police headquarters, as in the past, they conducted a blitzkrieg attack, very rapidly charging from two different directions at protesters while launching massive tear gas barrages.
I happened to be on Queen’s Road East at that point. Police were charging us from the west, shooting teargas. As we moved eastward, other protesters ran out of side streets from the north, pursued by police raining tear gas down on them.
Then, up ahead, another line of riot police appeared. We were surrounded on three sides. On the fourth, to the south, there was only the mountain. We were trapped and being hit with tear gas from two directions.
Ever since June 12, when police trapped protesters at CITIC Tower across from the Legislative Council building, leaving them nowhere to disperse, and attacked them with teargas, human rights organisations and crowd control experts have said tear gas is intended to make people disperse and it shouldn’t be used in situations in which people have nowhere to go.
And yet there were police doing it again on October 1. It felt like a chemical weapon attack.
In the nearly four months of protests, I’ve eaten a lot of tear gas and have become quite adept at judging just how much I can tolerate. But on October 1, not only were the tear gas attacks more intense, there was also nowhere to run to get away from them.
My eyes teared up and felt as if they were swelling shut. I could hardly see. My skin felt like it was burning. As I ran, my chest began to tighten and seize up. ‘This must be what it’s like to have a heart attack,” I thought. I was coughing uncontrollably and trying to spit out the gas before it got deep into my lungs.
Hundreds of protesters were bunched up at the bottom of a narrow staircase leading toward the mountain, trying to squeeze up it. I was reminded of MTR passengers getting off a full train and crowding around the escalator. Too many people, not enough space. There was no way I was going to get up there before the police arrived.
I turned around, fighting through the crowd of protesters, and ran in the opposite direction. I managed to find a small gap in police lines that led to a side street with no cops on it, though I knew that there were more police on the street up ahead, as they had initially come from that direction.
As I ran down that street, an amazing thing happened, something that actually wasn’t really amazing at all because I’d experienced it many times during these weeks of protests.
Most shops and restaurants in the area (as throughout the city) were closed, but I passed restaurants jam-packed with protesters seeking shelter. And then the doorways of apartment buildings opened, and residents urged fleeing protesters to enter.
I ducked into one. The man holding the door said, “Keep going up until you reach the top.” It was a decrepit old walk-up. On my way up, I passed three apartments with their doors open. Dozens of protesters were inside. When I got to the roof, there were already about 50 protesters there.
I crept to the roof’s edge and peered over. Down below, the street itself was deserted but at both ends, I could see dozens of riot police. They were looking around in astonishment, as if asking themselves, “Where did they all go?” Indeed, we’d disappeared into thin air thanks to the residents of Wan Chai.
A police helicopter came to hover directly above us and we went back into the building’s stairwell to escape detection. After about an hour, it became clear that most police had moved eastward toward Causeway Bay, where we had heard there were still protesters on the street.
We came out of the building and onto the street. As soon as we emerged, people came up to us and told us which streets to take to avoid police. They had scouted the neighbourhood, and their intelligence was accurate: I didn’t meet a single police officer as I made my way out of Wan Chai.
I was so thirsty and all shops were closed, so I stopped at a church that was open to protesters around the clock to get some water.
So even those not protesting on the streets are protesting, all contributing to the resistance in their own way. The majority of the city is united against the regime. The story of Wan Chai is not new to me: I’ve experienced the kindness and aid of strangers many times in recent weeks.
Just days before, I’d been going toward Causeway Bay together with about 2,000 protesters, again retreating from the police. We heard there were a lot of riot police in Causeway Bay and so decided to head southward, but every street we came to, we saw police at the end of it.
Eventually, we had no choice but to go into Happy Valley, a prosperous neighbourhood that has seen little of the protests. It was terra incognita for most of us. Once there, we felt safer, but we knew it was just a matter of time before the police would try to flush us out, and we didn’t know where to go.
Security guards emerged from middle-class high-rises and offered directions. A taxi driver had seen us and alerted his colleagues. Before long, dozens of taxis started to arrive.
Private drivers pulled up, rolled down their windows, and announced their destination. Protesters hopped in. Within about a half hour, of those 2,000 protesters, no one but myself and a few others remained on the street.
Among protesters, a guardian rule is you never leave anyone behind. I play the role of the one who remains until last to make sure everyone gets out. I changed out of my outfit and headed back to cross police lines.
Along the way, knowing residents who witnessed and helped the evacuation gave me knowing smiles and thumbs up. “Stay safe, stay safe,” they said.
The solidarity manifests itself in many small ways. Earlier on October 1, we marched along Connaught Road, bringing traffic to a standstill. A long line of buses was stuck.
One might imagine the passengers irate at their situation, but as we passed, they put their hands up against the windows, fingers spread wide, imitating the gesture made by protesters when we shout, “Five demands, not one less.” Protesters put their hands up against the hands of the bus passengers on the window so that palms and fingers matched.
On October 2, I went to the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court, where a friend was to be formally charged with “riot” along with 95 others, all arrested in Admiralty on September 29.
Because of the large number of defendants – indeed, the biggest trial in Hong Kong history – I figured there’d be several hundred family members and friends in attendance. Instead, by late morning, there were two thousand supporters, many dressed in black. The courthouse looked like a sit-in.
On the floor where the courtroom was located, access was restricted, but several hundred managed to get in and sat on the floor. Down below, on the next level, hundreds more. And outside, on the pavement, hundreds more still.
My friend was still in custody and couldn’t even see the turnout, but I knew he’d be heartened when I told him. I could write a whole piece just about the support networks for arrested and injured protesters: the tens of millions of dollars donated to groups covering legal and medical costs, the teams of lawyers immediately deployed to police stations after arrests, the social workers and church groups organising other forms of support.
I walked down the street from the courthouse and saw a row of six police vans. At the end of the row was a police officer in riot gear holding an MP5 machine gun and standing in the road, in broad daylight, on a busy street, where there was no disturbance, and, what’s worse, right next to a school. The day before, the police had shot an 18-year-old secondary student at point-blank range.
Secondary students across the city were holding an emergency strike in protest that day. And here this officer was standing with a machine gun right next to the school. I saw students peering out of the school gate and asked, “What are all the police doing here?”
“Must be the trial down the street,” they said. “Are you on strike?” I asked. “Of course,” they said. “We’re spending the day sitting on the basketball court. We just came out here to see what was going on.”
“How many are you?” I asked. About 100, they said. To show solidarity with their fellow student, a solidarity that I hope, at their young age, will last for years to come. All across the city, people are standing up for one another.
This kind of resistance – it’s a feeling within us. Hong Kong people are famously phlegmatic, unexpressive. We don’t talk much or effuse. But these days, we recognise something in each other, a common purpose, a common identity. This is the sort of unity that can’t be crushed by force. In fact, police attacks fortify it, drawing us closer together.
I’m often asked how this will all end. My true feeling is, it doesn’t matter, because the little secret that everyone knows and no one is saying (and perhaps many aren’t even admitting to ourselves) is, we’ve already won.
The immediate and original concrete objective, the withdrawal of the extradition bill, has been achieved. We’ve won the battle for hearts and minds. But beyond that, we’ve achieved something much more profound than that: confidence in ourselves as a people and trust in one another for what is sure to be a long, hard struggle ahead.
The Communist Party is essentially trying to end this crisis by force, through its proxies, the Hong Kong government and police. It may yet win the war of attrition it is waging, it may be able eventually to put down the protests, it may throw thousands of us in prison, but it will be harder to destroy this feeling among us, which is something very precious. It feels like the stirring of a nation.
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