The night of Saturday, Oct. 11, had begun like many others after the protesters took hold of the center of Mongkok, the district best known for its teeming vitality, the triads and the movies that have been filmed there. They had held speeches, hung their now iconic yellow umbrellas, and were getting ready to sleep in their tents.
Then, at about 2am, something happened – and things took a turn for the worst. Around one end of the sit-in site, masked protesters tried to assemble more barricades. The police stood in their way. When we arrived, a man with a bandana covering half of his face faced an officer, who had all the air of not liking what the protesters were trying to do (a story circulating at the time had it that cars were coming toward the crowd, prompting activists to build up protections).
A clash soon erupted, the third in two weeks of protests. Both the crowd’s and police’s ranks swelled as people came running toward the stand-off. A shouting match turned into finger-pointing, and this quickly escalated in physical wrestling. The situation morphed into a chaotic mess.
Later on Sunday, the Chief Superintendent of Police Public Relations Branch, Mr. Hui Chun-tak, remarked at a press conference that “at about 2am today, some people wanted to reinforce the obstacles outside Bank Centre, Nathan Road. When police officers intercepted them, a group of protesters surrounded and charged the officers. A male, aged 32, kicked one of the officers, causing him to be injured. He was arrested for assaulting police.”
When the first fight had cooled down, a young man in a yellow t-shirt was lying on the tarmac, apparently unconscious. Policemen were all around, trying to lift him up: he was not dead, but he was not in good shape.
Only a few meters away, another man emerged from the crowd. He told bystanders he was a journalist and shouted that the police had hit him with a weapon. “It was him, it was him, it’s all recorded,” he cried, “the policeman in plain clothes hit me, he hid that thing in his pocket.” He soon disappeared from the scene, after trying to make his point with the officers.
By that time the situation had stabilized. On one side the activists piled up at the intersection of two streets. In front of them a single – and then triple – row of policemen guarded the entrance of an alley where colleagues in plainclothes were busy dealing with a cluster of protesters coming from the other side.
It was at that point that one of the most significant events of the night took place. Two ambulances arrived, and the sound of a woman crying came from the dark street. The unintelligible shouts came at intervals, three or four times. At each turn, the crowd grew angrier, impatient to know what was happening.
Rumors of people being arrested intensified (they had been spreading for a while.) People demanded answers. The police was unwilling to provide them, and, when they did, the protesters were not satisfied with what information they received. How many people have been taken? Two, it seemed. Why? No answer. ‘Why?’ the shouts kept on rising. The police closed ranks. ‘Why!-why!-why!’ the rhythmical roar boomed among the high rise buildings. When we asked one of the uniformed men cordoning the area what was going on, he smiled and plainly answered: “Even I do not know.” He might well have told the truth, for the confusion was now terrible.
The two ambulances then moved down the alley, escorted on four sides by policemen. It was perhaps to be expected that once the medical staff had cleared the area, clashes would resume. They did, more intense than before.
When calm was finally restored, a weary-looking, sweat-drenched group of people remained to look around in the middle of the road. It was about 4am, two hours since the first brawl had taken place. No tear gas or pepper spray had been used, and no serious injuries – or so it appeared – had been inflicted. But it had been a clash nevertheless, and a prolonged one at that.
It still remained to be understood where those cries had come from. A story circulated according to which a girl had been molested by an officer and then taken to the local hospital, presumably on one of the ambulances. It was a serious claim, but at the medical facility the girl, who said her name was Crystal, confirmed it.
It turned out she was not in an ambulance, but in a private car parked close to the hospital. Supported by a friend and still in tears, the shaking girl sat on the plastic benches. “The police was trying to take a guy, pushing people. Then they grabbed my breast,” the girl said. “I was terrified, they said I was a member of the triads and they said I was making trouble.”
We left her there and walked back to the site of the sit-in, now almost clear of activists but still heavily patrolled by the police. The streets were clean, seemingly untouched: you would not have guessed that hundreds of people had been struggling there only one hour before. The police, asked about the incident in the coming hours, said that the teenager – she was 15 years old – did not pursue the case, which was subsequently classified as a ‘miscellaneous incident.’