Hong Kong police deployed new tactics to curb protests staged on Sunday against a new security law and delayed polls, raising new questions about the sustainability of the anti-Beijing movement.
More than 2,000 police were deployed on Nathan Road from Jordan to Mongkok, with teams of eight to 10 officers patroling every street block within 30-50 meters from each other.
The teams pre-emptively intercepted people suspected of protesting, particularly those who were wearing black or white or with black or yellow masks.
Previously, police patrolled mainly at key sites, usually withing several hundred meters from each other.
At 2:30 pm on Sunday, hundreds of protesters began marching and chanting slogans including “five demands, not one less” and “Hong Kong independence, the only way out.”
As Nathan Road was patrolled with many police, protesters turned to the side roads and walked through shopping malls. The crowd failed to occupy the roads but was big enough to occupy pedestrian lanes.
The core of the protesters spent an hour marching from Jordan to Mongkok, but many smaller groups were still on the streets.
Police surrounded many groups of people, including journalists, paramedics and local residents in districts along Nathan Road. They spent hours checking ID cards of those detained and arrested 289, according to news reports.
The marchers were split into two groups at the beginning of the rally while many of them stayed in one place for a long time, providing room for police to intercept and arrest them, according to an evaluation note posted by anonymous protest organizers.
The organizers also criticized police for suppressing freedom of the press by surrounding many reporters for ID checks in Yau Ma Tei.
At around 3:30 pm, while six members of the Student Politicism group were delivering masks near the Wing On shopping mall, police surrounded the crowd, which included a hundred media workers and a dozen or so others who were not clearly protesters or residents.
Police arrested the Student Politicism members, released the protesters or local residents but detained media workers for 30-40 minutes for ID checks. Media workers were not allowed to keep a Covid-19 social distance of 1.5 meters among themselves as police kept them in a small area.
The police first called out the workers of TV stations and released them, followed by newspaper journalists. Online media workers whose organizations had registered with the government’s Information Services Department waited for 30 minutes to be released.
The remaining online media and student media staff waited for 10 more minutes but they were neither fined nor arrested.
In previous protests, police surrounded media workers for ID checks, detained them for up to an hour and fined online and student media staff for violating social distancing rules. The Hong Kong Journalists Association has complained about such practices but police said they aimed only to find “fake reporters.”
Late on Sunday afternoon, police intercepted and fined some online media reporters for violating social distancing rules. In other districts, police surrounded masked people and arrested them for joining an “unlawful assembly.”
At around 4 pm, about 50 people were surrounded near the crossroads of Nathan Road and Public Square Street. While police were preparing to take away people in two coaches, a 37-year-old bus driver honked. He was arrested on suspicion of “dangerous driving” and “possession of an offensive weapon” because a spanner was found in his pocket.
Lam Kam-piu, chairman of the Federation of Bus Industry Trade Unions, said bus drivers had to adjust their rear-view mirrors with a spanner every day. He said the driver could have been honking to warn people to stay out of danger in a chaotic situation. A group of New World First Bus drivers was on Monday planning a work-to-rule campaign to protest the arrest.
Also at about 4 pm, a 12-year-old girl and her 20-year-old brother were intercepted by police when they were going to buy stationery in Mongkok. The scared girl ran and was knocked down by riot police and pressed down.
Her brother was also subdued when trying to assist his sibling. A man who was passing by urged the police not to injure the girl but he was fined, together with the brother and sister, for violating social distancing rules, which forbid any public gathering of more than three people.
The children were sent to hospital by their mother, who had been away for a short time to buy food. She said she would file a complaint with the police.
Police later blamed the girl for suddenly running away in a suspicious manner during a stop and search. They said officers subdued her with minimum necessary force. They said youngsters should stay away from high-risk protests and avoid putting themselves in danger.
The police’s new small team strategy may have shortened reaction times but did not reduce conflicts with protesters. At 4 pm, people threw empty water bottles at five officers who shot the crowd with pepper balls on Sai Yeung Choi Street South. The team called for support from colleagues.
At 5 pm, about 10 undercover police arrested several men at the crossroads of the Shantung Street and the Sai Yee Street, but they had an umbrella and water bottles thrown at them. An arrested man was seen being dragged for 10 meters on the ground by two officers.