Why did protesters decide to tear bricks out of the sidewalk in Hong Kong on the night of February 8 and fight with police, risking arrest or abuse, even after police fired shots?
Hong Kong’s Next Magazine (February 16th issue) answers those questions by interviewing three protesters and rioters. Hong Kong democracy supporters are angry after years of being ignored by the government and politicians, having had their demands go unanswered, and having been hit with pepper spray and instances of police brutality during the mostly non-violent Occupy Central protests of 2014.
The three protesters were all given pseudonyms by the magazine, as there have been over 60 people arrested in the first week after the riot. Two were men and one was a women. Two came out after a police officer fired his weapon.
“A Bo”, who joined the protests from the start, a man born in the 1980’s, said he thought society is stuck in a rut and the mainstream democracy movement hasn’t been able to move forward through attempts at compromise. He thought more radical actions were the only answer.
“If you have too many fears, you have no way to protest,” he said, citing Occupy Central as one example of a movement that was paralyzed by anxiety. Benny Tai Yiu-ting, the Hong Kong University law professor who devised and led the Occupy Central campaign, spent much year leading up to the protests thinking about just protest theory and devising a code of conduct, but his strategy was ineffective. He almost chickened out; Tai ended up calling for the occupation to start after HKU students already started a short-term occupation on their own.
A Bo also took issue with pan-democrats who seem too critical of grassroots protesters at times. Various pan-democratic parties, of the nine who hold elected seats in the Legislative Council, have condemned certain protest groups for extreme actions like trying to break into the LegCo. The Democratic Party, which was criticized in 2010 for forging a compromise with the government, also condemned the Mongkok riots. The various pan-democratic parties often fight with each other over tactics and policies.
“No matter what we do, it seems like our fellow-travelers always denounce us in the end,” A Bo said. “The day the pan-democrats decide to finally wake up, we will already have dug our own graves.”
Gun fire encouraged others to join riots
The police officer who fired two shots, apparently in an attempt to scare the rioters into stopping, succeeded in infuriating them and attracting more to join the riots. The decision to fire live ammunition was condemned by democracy activists and elected pan-democrats alike, who called for a public investigation into the police’s actions. Front line officers, meanwhile, were angry at being sent into the scene unprepared.
“A Yong”, a man born in the ’90’s, said he decided to go after he heard that gunshots were fired, in order to “defend” his “friends.” His mother eventually relented and let him go. When he got there, he saw a police officer handling a protester and said, he was “suddenly furious to see someone who didn’t do anything get grabbed and hit.” (By then, some protesters had already been throwing bottles, bricks, and other things, but it is hard to distinguish in a fast-moving scene who did what. Photos have also emerged of at least one police officer throwing a brick.)
A Yong said he was ordinarily peaceful and “refined,” but he thought the the protesters should protect themselves. He threw some bricks, too. Towards the end of the riot, however, he thought the protesters had also gotten out of hand, and he feared some of the fires had gotten too big, so he tried to extinguish a fire, but other protesters threw rocks at him. Then he decided to go home.
“A Shi,” a young woman, also joined the protesters after the shots were fired. Her parents thought she was courting death, but she went anyway. (No one ended up dying, but 130 protesters and 90 police officers were injured.)
“I think Hong Kong people are evolving,” she said. “In the past there were so many times we would just sit and be controlled and have people push us around. But now we’re starting to resist.”
She uprooted bricks from the sidewalk but didn’t throw them, and she ran when the police got too close.
“I think it is the people’s anger. We have had it accumulate for so many years,” after using non-violent means and seeing the government make little effort to answer their demands for universal suffrage.
“I think the government looks down on us,” she said, and they think that if the people just keep sitting quietly, signing petitions, or complaining online, they have nothing to worry about. This should be a “wake up call” to the government that there will be more chaos if they aren’t given a fair and free vote.