As hundreds of protesters were trapped inside a university on Monday night, besieged on all sides by riot police, thousands of Hongkongers rose up in protest, filling highways, public squares and bridges trying to get to them.
The streets of the city were turned into a war zone as protesters, alumni, volunteers and other supporters streamed toward Polytechnic University in Kowloon, where anti-government protesters have been under siege for more than 36 hours.
Protesters attempting to break a tight police cordon around the university tore up pavements for their bricks, using them as road blocks and weapons, and threw molotov cocktails at officers. When police fired back with rounds of teargas and rubber bullets, they retreated briefly, regrouped and crept forward again, crouched beneath umbrellas used as shields.
Thousands spread out in neighbourhoods near the campus, some with bags of supplies that they hoped to get to the protesters inside. Others wanted to join the demonstrators and defend them against police, who have fired teargas and water cannon on them each time they have tried to escape the university.
“We don’t think the government wants to help the children,” said Lucy, 25, a social worker who asked not to give her surname out of concern of retribution for helping the protesters. She had spent most of the day trying to get close to the campus but was refused by riot police.
“Many of us think the government wants them to die or they want to arrest them all. They seem so helpless and we are too,” she said.
Police detain protesters after they attempted to escape the Polytechnic University campus.
Police detain protesters after they attempted to escape the Polytechnic University campus. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images
On Monday, the roads along the harbour of Hong Kong island were eerily empty as the city marked one week since protesters started a mission called Operation Dawn, disrupting traffic links, blocking roads and paralysing the city.
Driving into Kowloon, graffiti on traffic barriers alerted commuters to the political unrest of the last five months, an explosion of dissatisfaction with both the Hong Kong government and the central government in Beijing. “We choose to die on our feet rather than die on our knees.” “To live is to be free.” Other messages are less eloquent: “The communist party can go die.”
As the protests approach the end of their sixth month, episodes of violence have become increasingly frequent and disruptions to daily life more intense. Hong Kong is set to experience its worst recession in more than two decades, according to the finance minister.
Yet, triggers such as the siege of Polytechnic University, which comes after similar clashes at other universities last week, continue to bring supporters out in numbers.
Many in the crowds attempting to reach the school or at least draw police forces away, were not the quintessential Hong Kong protester that officials have taken to calling “rioters”.
In Tsim Sha Tsui, more than a thousand filled a square with a few hours’ notice for a rally to bring supplies to the protesters. Many were middle-aged or elderly, young people just off from work, and others who said they just came to support the protesters.
Peter Cheung, 60, and his friend, another retiree, brought water, cookies and other food for the protesters. He acknowledges the excesses on both sides, but believes the protesters are fighting for a more equal and just Hong Kong. The police, in contrast, he said, ruled according to their will, not the law.
“The protesters are punished by the police. No one is punishing the police,” he said.
The rally, organised by the “non-violent rational” camp of protesters, quickly turned violent. As the crowds began to make their way toward the university, they occupied a highway and chanted: “Save PolyU, save students.”
The police fired multiple rounds of teargas on them, pushing the crowd back into the square where they were surrounded on several sides. The crowd, many of them with little more protection than thin surgical masks, stayed for hours before being driven out. Earlier, an officer shot at a crowd in the area from the top of an armoured vehicle, driving back and forth pursuing the group.
Protesters wear masks as a minibus driver uses a paper towel to cover his face after police fired teargas in the Jordan area during a march towards the Polytechnic University.
Protesters wear masks as a minibus driver uses a paper towel to cover his face after police fired teargas in the Jordan area during a march towards the Polytechnic University. Photograph: Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images
Polytechnic University was by comparison quiet, in contrast to the day before when the campus was a staging ground for battle. On Sunday, protesters, who had turned the university into a fortress the week before as part of their operation, prepped boxes of molotov cocktails. They fired the petrol bombs, as well as arrows and other objects from a roof lined with long plastic boards serving as parapets.
But on Monday, the formerly defiant protesters were exhausted and anxious. Rather than gathered together, they were scattered across the campus as people hid in offices and smaller classrooms, waiting for police or rescue by their fellow protesters.
Seze Li, 26 who was delivering supplies to the protesters at the university on Sunday when police blocked off all the exits, spent the day watching the live feed of what was going on outside and messaging family and other protesters on the outside. By evening, a group escaped but many others remained inside.
“The people inside are getting more and more anxious. Mentally, it’s not very good,” she said. “[The mood] is not just angry. It’s anxious and frightened. We are isolated here and people are afraid.”
Battles raged across the city in the early hours of Tuesday, as protesters continued to try to reach the university.
“They are our brothers and sisters. So we need to save them,” said Wesley Ho, 25. “We keep pushing to force the police back, but it’s not working. They keep shooting us with different weapons: teargas, rubber bullets.”
Asked what he believed they could do to help the protesters, he said: “I don’t know but we need to try. So we just keep pushing and pushing. We are scared but we have to.”