As the Hong Kong protest reaches the end of its third month, New Zealand Herald journalist Keith Ng is on the ground with the marching crowds.
The Hong Kong Police have lost control of the situation, and they have lost control of themselves.
Over the past week, they've come under fresh accusations of brutality. Footage of police pepper-spraying and striking unarmed individuals cowering on the ground has supercharged public anger.
Graphic footage from Sat night shows how #HongKong police stormed Prince Edward MTR station, beating people and making arrests on the platform and train. Video: Pakkin Leung, Rice Post.— Hong Kong Free Press (@HongKongFP) September 1, 2019
Full story: https://t.co/7Z5quAbWGF #China #hongkongprotests #antiELAB @hkpoliceforce pic.twitter.com/gWoVrWRJ4H
Protesters have been holding vigils and sit-ins at the subway station where the incident took place a week ago, demanding that subway management release CCTV footage, amidst conspiracy theories that deaths occurred during the incident but have been covered up.
Immediately above the subway is station is the Mong Kok police station. Every single night this week, minor protests in the subway station have escalated into major police actions.
The hatred is palpable. Random passers-by, dressed for a night out in the entertainment district, would stop and participate in the chants against the police. The chants accuse the police of being triads (implying that the Police were complicit in the 21 July attack carried out by a suspected triad mob) and of being rapists and murderers.
One of the call-and-respond chants, which used to go "黑警"(crooked cops), "還眼"(give back her eye) (referring to an incident where police shot a first aider in the eye with a beanbag round), has turned even darker. It's now "黑警"(crooked cops), "全家死"(hope your whole family dies).
Under normal circumstances, it'd be written off as part of Cantonese cursing that shouldn't be taken literally. Except with reports of children of police officers being bullied at school, and of personal information of police officers – such as Facebook family photos – being leaked online, it's become harder to treat as empty words.
The stress that the police face is unimaginable. Cadets who signed up believing that they were there to serve the community now spend every single night in heavy riot gear in the summer heat, while thousands of people – in theory their community – hurl insults and threats and accusations at them.
The brutality the police have shown is irrational, counterproductive, and plainly unacceptable. But it's also a very human response to such tremendous physical and emotional stress. It's one of the classic problems of occupying armies, and in a sense, that's what the Hong Kong Police has become.
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Like other armies of occupation, they need to build trust with the community, but they no longer feel safe enough to walk the streets. When they do appear – in large numbers, armed and in riot gear – their militarised presence antagonise the locals, turning small protests into major disturbances.
Their authority counts for nothing now. Nobody, from school children through to the elderly, pay any attention to police calls to disperse. Their only recourse is to use force and to arrest as many as they can. But every area they clear out is reoccupied as soon as they leave, and every person they arrest radicalises even more people.
In one of these confrontations on Friday, police cleared out hundreds of protesters and returned to base. Half an hour later, the same street was filled with protesters again, controlling the entire area without a single police officer in sight. Unlike the dedicated, well-practiced groups in the large protests, these protesters are often just locals passing through, without a strategy beyond confronting the police. Some smashed the subway infrastructure because disruption added political pressure to the government, while others directed traffic to let cars through because minimising disruption seemed like the right thing to do.
The boundaries for the protest was set by what the protesters felt like doing, and what was allowed by the police meant very little.
Saturday saw protesters plan yet another airport sit-in to disrupt flights – the key to Hong Kong's commercial life, and the most sensitive target for the government. Police responded by fortifying the airport with massive crowd control barriers and setting up checkpoints on the route to the airport.
Every bus going towards the airport was boarded by police officers, and anyone young, wearing black, or looking out of place were questioned and had their bags searched. The airport itself was locked down. Anyone without a boarding pass was turned away, and young people were similarly searched.
The operation was successful, and the airport operated throughout the day. The cost was a whole new level of invasiveness, as the police actions reach ever deeper into everyday life.
But even at these checkpoints, media and regular citizens filmed the police freely. When a press pass is shown, journalists are allowed to carry on with little interference. I saw one officer aggressively questioning a random passer-by, clearly trying to intimidate them, while another spoke in the same polite tone that Hong Kong police have been using for decades, while explaining to a youth why he was about to arrest them.
Even as normalcy is falling apart, chunk by rotting chunk, some of the old remains.
Where is this heading? In the past week, there's been a leaked recording of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, admitting in a private meeting she has caused "unforgivable havoc" to the city, and that "if I have a choice, the first thing is to quit". Then on Wednesday, Lam formally withdrew the extradition bill which sparked the protest in the first place.
Many believe that Lam made those remarks knowing it would be leaked, but for totally contradictory reasons. Some believe Lam is attempting to blame the impasse on Beijing, thereby forcing them to give her more room to compromise, and the withdrawal of the bill is the first part of that compromise.
An alternate interpretation is that she is signaling that she has little choice in the matter, laying the groundwork for a crackdown, and the withdrawal of the bill is a low-ball offer which she knew would be unacceptable to protesters.
Whether the gestures were meant as warnings or olive branches, the response from protesters is still the same: "Too little, too late."