Hong Kong protesters have clashed with police and fought off a group of men armed with poles as the city’s political unrest continues.
A citywide strike accompanied by rallies in seven districts descended into chaos on Monday evening as thousands of protesters fanned out across the city, occupying roads, disrupting traffic, and vandalising police stations and other public buildings.
Riot police fired teargas, rubber bullets, sponge grenades and pepper spray on protesters in at least seven locations, including a main area near the government headquarters. Residential neighbourhoods were shrouded with clouds of teargas and residents were seen yelling at police or hurrying away.
In a predominately pro-Beijing neighbourhood, North Point, a group of men armed with wooden rods began beating protesters, in scenes reminiscent of an attack on commuters last month in Yuen Long by suspected gang members.
One witness, a 33-year-old hotel employee who only wanted to give his surname, Cheung, said a group of about 20 men with wooden rods, some in white T-shirts, had approached the protesters. “Both sides were shouting at each other and they rushed toward us and beat us … hitting with wooden rods and eventually their fists,” he said.
Earlier in the day, two taxis and a private car drove through crowds of protesters who had set up roadblocks, injuring at least one person. In Sha Tin, in Hong Kong’s New Territories, protesters grabbed bricks they had dug up and chased after a taxi that had narrowly missed running over demonstrators.
In a statement on Monday evening, the police condemned the “violent acts in various locations” and said they were using minimal force to disperse protesters.
Protesters threw bricks, shattering windows of a police dormitory in Wong Tai Sin, a working-class district that has been the site of serious clashes between police and residents and protesters for the last three nights. One group attempted to break down the gate to the compound while others shone lasers into the building.
“The government is ignoring us. You might say what we are doing is violent, but I think it’s time the government pays attention to us,” said Herry Tsui, 25, from Wong Tai Sin. “They are so angry and keep firing teargas at us. We are just trying to protect where we live.”
It is the ninth week of consecutive mass protests in Hong Kong, which is facing its most serious political crisis since the former British colony was returned to Chinese control in 1997.
The protests, initially over an extradition bill to send suspects to China, have turned into a broader political movement for the semi-autonomous city. Protesters and other supporters are demanding the protection of freedoms promised under the terms of the handover, a policy known as “one country, two systems”, as well as accountability from the Hong Kong government, which ultimately answers to Beijing.
In recent weeks, the movement has been fuelled by anger at the police for their tactics towards young protesters, often armed with just umbrellas, walking sticks and makeshift shields. Authorities appear to be taking harsher measures after protesters shifted their tactics by using guerrilla-style “flashmob” protests to evade capture by the police.
The police had detained 82 people by the early evening, bringing the total number of arrests since protests began in June to more than 500. Police said the youngest person arrested was 13 and the oldest 76. Last week, 44 were charged with rioting, a crime that could mean up to 10 years in prison.
The police condemned protesters for using petrol bombs, slingshots and bricks as weapons.
“Things are getting more serious now, and more violent. The government is not listening and that is unacceptable,” said Chun Yee, 28, a piano teacher who joined hundreds of protesters who had taken over a mall in Sha Tin, where protesters and police clashed weeks ago.
The clashes, which continued late into the night on Monday, came after civil servants, drivers, teachers, construction workers and others missed work to join rallies around the city – the first general strike in Hong Kong for more than 50 years. Swaths of the city were paralysed, more than 200 flights were cancelled and several lines of the MTR, the rail network serving Hong Kong, were suspended.
“I am here to support the youngsters. They fight really hard for Hong Kong’s freedom,” said Camille Lam, 28, who stayed away from her administrative job on Monday.
As the strike got under way, Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, addressed journalists after a two-week absence from public view, giving remarks that further angered protesters and brought more out to the rallies. Lam condemned protesters for damaging Hong Kong’s economy and stability.
“Such extensive disruptions in the name of certain demands or uncooperative movement have seriously undermined Hong Kong law and order and are pushing our city, the city we all love, and many of us helped to build, to the verge of a very dangerous situation,” Lam said.
Joel Tse, a 25-year-old advertising industry professional, said: “I want Carrie Lam to come out and fix the problem, not give us some bullshit.”
He said he had been on the fence about whether to join the strike. But after watching the chief executive’s press conference he had decided to join the thousands dressed in black, the signature colour of the protests, at Tamar Park in Admiralty, near government offices.
Others who went to work said they still supported the protesters and their demands: that the extradition bill in question be withdrawn, and that an independent commission be set up to investigate police behaviour over the last two months.
“This is a last resort,” said Cindy Chan, waiting in a long bus queue after severe delays on her local railway line. “The government doesn’t listen to the opinions of the people and later you can see it’s getting worse and worse,” she said.
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