Witnessing a Late-Night Clash at a Hong Kong Protest Site

November 6, 2014 Updated: June 28, 2015

HONG KONG—Remember, remember the 5th of November. That was the famous chant of Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated in the UK, then immortalized in the graphic novel and “V for Vendetta,” where it took on the meaning of a hero standing up against an oppressive government. The white, wildly grinning mask has found its way into almost every major scene of popular resistance around the world.

Protesters stand on the front lines during a face off with the police in Monk Kok, Hong Kong, on Nov. 5, 2014. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)
Protesters stand on the front lines during a face off with the police in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, on Nov. 5, 2014. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)

We had heard word early in the day that protesters in Hong Kong would don that infamous mask and march at the two major protest sites, Mong Kok and Admiralty. 

Mong Kok is rough. Far rougher than the much larger protest site at Admiralty. I’ve heard some say that Admiralty is the Umbrella Movement, Monk Kok the Umbrella Revolution. It’s where clashes between police and protesters are more frequent and intense. There’s been alleged interference by Triads and the often-surly anti-Occupy crowd recognizable by the blue ribbons they wear.

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At the time, it was unclear what sparked the events the evening of November 5. Police were on edge. Some protesters were shouting. Then close to midnight, things erupted. Rumors are a protester took photos of policemen with the flash on, and with the tension in the air and the sea of grinning masks, police were not feeling particularly photogenic.

An arrest happened, crowds swelled, police beat a protester to the ground, and a tense standoff at the barricades ensued. Police and protesters faced off eye-to-eye, with only a small barricade and a few feet of space between them. And in that tiny gulf, separating police and protesters, my crew and I stood.

Police and protesters face off in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, an hour before a huge clash took place between the protesters and the police on Nov. 5, 2014. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)
Police and protesters face off in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, an hour before a huge clash took place between the protesters and the police on Nov. 5, 2014. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)

I was amazed at the control both sides had. Things felt, despite the circumstances, calm, like everything would work out. I talked to some protesters on the front line, who, amazingly, offered up their own helmets to me and my crew, showing more concern for our safety than their own.

One protester thanked us and called us their guardians. Perhaps police and protesters alike were less willing to get violent with cameras rolling.

Police eventually filed away. Protesters began passing back their helmets from the front lines, and things quieted down. We breathed a sigh of relief and packed it in for the night.

Then, 20 minutes later, all h*** broke loose. We heard shouting echoing down the dirty, narrow alleyways of Mong Kok and rushed back to the scene only to see protesters being slammed on the ground, beaten, and pepper sprayed. It was trench warfare, widely chaotic, each side fighting for a tiny piece of ground 

Once again we found ourselves in between the frontline of protesters and police.

This time it didn’t feel safe. A protester emerged from the mass behind us to give us eye goggles. Suddenly everything became very real. By then we had been surrounded on two sides by protesters and police. Even if we had wanted, there was no getting out of this.

And every time things calmed down, we saw one man, shaved head, muscles taut, a wild look in his eyes, push forward from the frontline of protesters to antagonize the police, breaking through a hastily drawn tape barrier the police had thrown up. Protesters told us they didn’t recognize him as one of their own.

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People were pushing and shoving, darting back and forth between shouts coming from different ends of the street. No one knew what was happening. My goggles were fogging up, making it hard to see.

After darting back and forth like a school of fish, protesters and police came to a final confrontation on opposite ends of the largest barrier on the street, marking off the intersection of Nathan Road that protesters once occupied, that police had seized early one morning a few weeks ago.

Police on the other side casually, sometimes laughing, would take their batons out of their holsters and form plastic ties into makeshift handcuffs. It became particularly threatening when a group of policemen picked up their helmets. When those go on, that’s the sign a charge is coming, a signal of widely swinging batons and blasts of pepper spray to come. As they fiddled with their helmets, I held my breath.

My team was separated at this point, desperately trying to keep a sense of what was going on around us while frantically tweeting photos. My producer and I were again standing between police and protesters. We figured our safest course of action was to be seen reporting on the frontlines rather than getting lost in a mob.

Police began filming the protesters. In response, protesters flashed their camera lights at the police. My producer told me this may have been a tactic to disrupt the footage, so faces could not be identified in the police video. There’s a lot of fear amongst the protesters that the Chinese Communist Party could bring the hammer down on any one of them.

But the barrier was thick and neither side could make a move. After several tense hours, things gradually died down, and by 4 a.m., the crowds began to disperse.

What’s clear is that this was not a planned action by police. This was not an attempt to retake any part of the protest site. There were too few police there. The Hong Kong police modus operandi in the past few weeks has been to make a move in the early morning when protesters are fewest in number. Instead, it appears to have been a misunderstanding that went widely, dangerously out of control.

People were angry. They were hurt and upset. But as one protester told me, he would die for freedom.

It was a 5th of November I would never forget.


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Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.