Police fired pepper spray to disperse protesters and made dozens of arrests on Tuesday after hundreds took to the streets of downtown Hong Kong to mark the first anniversary of a historic march against the now-withdrawn extradition bill that became a watershed moment in the city’s anti-government movement last year.
Early in the evening, hundreds of protesters marched along busy streets in the city’s business district, bringing traffic to a standstill on Queen’s Road Central and Des Voeux Road, while ignoring coronavirus-related social-distancing rules.
Shortly before that, at least 100 people took part in an unauthorised gathering in Central’s Chater Garden, with police declaring it an unlawful assembly at 6.35pm.
Many of the protesters held up their phones with the flashlight on, while others opened their umbrellas to hide their identities.
Some waved flags advocating “Hong Kong independence” as they marched. Banners of “Heaven will destroy the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]” and “US troops please help to protect Hong Kong” were also displayed. Some protesters verbally abused police officers.
A squad of riot police ran towards marchers on Des Voeux Road Central and used pepper spray to disperse them. Officers raised a blue flag, warning of an illegal assembly, a number of times.
There was a second charge some minutes later as police tried to get protesters back on the pavement to allow the road to reopen to traffic.
That led to a game of cat and mouse, with protesters dispersing as police charged and regrouping and streaming back onto the streets after officers left. During the rounds of dispersal operations, several protesters were subdued and taken away by officers.
Blue flags were raised at the junction of Des Voeux Road and Jubilee Street, with riot police cordoning off the carriageway. On Chater Road, police searched some pedestrians. It was the same on nearby Pedder Street.
At least one exit of Central MTR station had the shutters down.
In a statement, police said a group of protesters blocked multiple lanes on Ice House Street and Queen’s Road Central.
“The obstruction has paralysed traffic,” the statement said. The force warned that “resolute enforcement action” would be taken to restore road safety.
Laura Chow, 54, dressed in a black T-shirt, was one of the protesters chanting on the pavement on Des Voeux Road. “I am old enough. I should come out to resist Hong Kong becoming another Chinese city. I don’t want more youngsters getting arrested,” she said.
A 50-year-old man who asked to remain anonymous, was among protesters on Pedder Street who refused to leave.
He said he was there to support the “brave young people” fighting for the city’s freedoms. “I worry about how Hong Kong will be able to retain its freedoms after the national security law is passed,” he said, referring to the legislation that Beijing is crafting for the city.
By around 9pm, the protest appeared to dying down as the roads were largely clear of both demonstrators and onlookers but the police’s presence remained heavy.
Officers patrolled the streets and intercepted people for questioning and searching. Outside an MTR exit at Worldwide House, at least nine young people were rounded up for questioning.
But groups of diehard protesters remained on Des Voeux Road, chanting and refusing to leave. At about 9.30pm, police once again raised the blue flag and told people to disperse.
There was another brief commotion shortly before 10pm. Again police raised the blue flag warning of an illegal assembly in a bid to disperse the remaining crowd and reporters. Officers charged along Des Voeux Road and fired pepper spray, reportedly hitting several journalists at an exit of Hong Kong Station.
Police said 53 people – 36 men and 17 women – were arrested in Central on suspicion of taking part in an unauthorised assembly or for other offences.
That came hours after hundreds turned up in malls across the city during lunchtime to chant anti-government slogans and wave banners, while police urged the public not to take part in unauthorised assemblies.
There was a heavy police presence in both Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, with hundreds of riot officers patrolling along Hennessy Road as night fell but there was no sign of trouble.
Among the protesters in Chater Garden was a 19-year-old student who asked to remain anonymous. He said he came out because he felt freedom of speech in Hong Kong had decreased in the past year.
“If we don’t continue to protest then we won’t have the chance to protest after the national security law is passed,” he said. “So if I don’t come out now, there will be no chance to come out in the future.”
On this day a year ago, a sea of people in white T-shirts – the colour that initially defined the movement, before being overtaken by the now-familiar black – took to the streets in Causeway Bay, Wan Chai and Admiralty to oppose the extradition bill proposed by the government.
An estimated 1 million people were said to have attended the march – a record since the city was returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Online forums and messaging groups urged people to demonstrate in various districts across the city on Tuesday evening, with exact locations announced only an hour ahead of the planned actions to evade police disruption.
Activists called on people who gathered in Central to turn on their mobile phone flashlights to tell the international community that “Hong Kong people have not given up the five demands”.
The city’s social-distancing rules limit gatherings to eight people. In previous protests, police issued fixed penalty tickets for defying the rules.
In an earlier statement, police said they noticed that some protesters had taken to online forums to urge members of the public to take part in unauthorised assemblies on Hong Kong Island. “Anyone taking part in such events might be guilty of ‘taking part in an unauthorised assembly’,” the statement warned.
The force also said some radical protesters had been inciting others on the internet to attack police officers with petrol bombs.
“Police strongly condemn such malicious and irresponsible messages.”
In a statement on Facebook, Civil Human Rights Front, which organised the June 9 mass march and several other large-scale anti-government rallies, said the historic event last year marked Hong Kong people’s unity in defending their rights and freedoms.
“We have seen miracle after miracle coming out of our tireless efforts in the past year … The protests against racism and police brutality in various parts of the world tell us that we Hongkongers are not alone,” it said.
The group said it would lodge an application with police for a mass annual rally on July 1 to mark the 23rd anniversary of the handover. The march will be themed on opposing Beijing’s plan to impose the national security law on the city.
Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.