Hong Kong police fired pepper spray and arrested 14 people at a shopping centre in Yuen Long on Thursday as protesting crowds gathered to mark the Dragon Boat Festival public holiday.

A man displayed pro-democracy banners in the atrium of Yoho Mall at around 1.30 pm, according to local media. Dozens stood by the railings on different floors and belted out slogans, including “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” and “Five demands, not one less.”

Police protest Yuen Long June 25, 2020
Plainclothes police ask citizens to leave the mall. Photo: Stand News.

There was a heavy police presence at the adjacent Yuen Long MTR station, where officers stopped and searched passersby. Riot police later entered the mall and set up cordons to disperse the crowds, as demonstrators walked around the plaza and chanted protest slogans.

Some plainclothes police officers displayed their warrant cards and brandished expandable batons and pepper spray whilst urging citizens to leave the mall. Stand News reported that plainclothes officers pushed one of its reporters over. The online news outlet condemned police as “rudely hindering reporting” and said it would file a complaint.

Police protest Yuen Long June 25, 2020
Riot police in Yoho Mall on June 25, 2020. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

At around 7 pm, police deployed pepper spray to clear crowds and took away at least two male demonstrators.

Yuen Long District Councillor Lam Chun and Kalvin Ho of the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood were among those affected by pepper spray. Ho said on Facebook that the chemical agent went directly into his eyes and he had to seek assistance from first aid volunteers.

Kalvin Ho of the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood said he could not open his eyes for a while after being pepper sprayed by police.

By 8:30 pm, police had made 14 arrests, comprising of nine men and five women. They were apprehended for allegedly taking part in an unlawful assembly.

“Some protesters unlawfully gathered at YOHO Mall in Yuen Long, creating nuisances to shoppers and resulting in closures of shops. Police therefore entered the mall for enforcement and dispersal action,” the force wrote on Facebook.

A 12-year-old boy, affiliated with Hong Kong Daily – a student-led online news platform set up in April – was among those taken away by police. The group said on Facebook they had sent four people to cover the demonstration and that they were led by an 18-year-old student.

Police protest Yuen Long June 25, 2020
A woman in handcuffs is taken away by police. Photo: Stand News.

The student, who was the youngest among the four, was told by the Police Public Relations Branch (PPRB) that his parents had to pick him up from the police station because he was under 16.

Last month, two secondary school student journalists were taken away by police while covering a demonstration at Tsim Sha Tsui’s Harbour City mall. The Student Depth Media reporters were released without charge or warning. However, a government spokesperson criticised groups that deploy young volunteer reporters as “extremely irresponsible.”

The incident also sparked a debate over press freedom, as some pro-Beijing lawmakers suggested authorities introduce an official press accreditation system.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said a survey conducted last October that most Hong Kong media respondents did not like the idea of official press passes. The surveyed HKJA members cited concerns over tightening controls on press activities.

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.