Barricades, human chains, and battling tear gas: We followed Hong Kong activists through the city's most turbulent protests yet

Marc Fernandes/InsiderA composite image of a Hong Kong protester snuffing out tear gas, and another being subdued by riot police, in the city’s Diamond Hill district on October 1, 2019.
  • Anti-China protesters staged multiple demonstrations across Hong Kong on October 1, 2019, which was a public holiday marking China’s National Day.
  • It was one of the most violent days yet, with an 18-year-old protester getting shot in the chest by police, and officers getting acid thrown at them.
  • We followed a group of protesters for five hours in the twin districts of Wong Tai Sin and Diamond Hill, travelling with them from a hidden overpass to watching them snuff out tear gas canisters from the police.
  • Scroll down to see photos from the day.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

October 1, 2019 marked one of the most violent days of the Hong Kong protests against mainland Chinese rule, which has raged into their 17th week.

Multiple demonstrations took place simultaneously across various districts around Hong Kong to coincide with China’s National Day, a public holiday.

They soon turned dark. A student protester was shot in the chest and police had acid thrown on them.

We followed a group of protesters for five hours in the twin districts of Wong Tai Sin and Diamond Hill, travelling with them from a hidden overpass to watching them snuff out tear gas canisters from the police.

Here is what we saw.

We started at 2:10 p.m. near Hammer Hill Sports Ground near the Wong Tai Sin district in Kowloon, home to many public housing estates where many protesters in the group live.

Google MapsAn aerial view of Hammer Hill Sports Ground in Hong Kong.

Wong Tai Sin used to be a stronghold of Beijing-aligned political parties, such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

However, multiple reports of the heavy-handed tactics of the Hong Kong police against the protesters this summer have turned many people in the district against the police and Beijing, and toward the protesters.

None of them were willing to identify themselves. Bob*, a 19-year-old nursing student, joked: “China calls us ‘rioters.’ That is what you can call us.” He is wearing a helmet saying “Keep calm and march on” topped with a yellow umbrella — the symbol of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Marc Fernandes

Bob, like many protesters, has a specific job.

He is a “frontliner” – someone who comes face-to-face with police – and his role is to snuff out tear gas canisters by stuffing them into an watertight bag filled with wet towels.

*Bob is not this protester’s real name.

Our route to the protest site didn’t appear well planned, however. At 2:35 p.m. they were hiding on top of an overpass near Choi Hung Estate, a public housing complex, trying to figure out where to find other protesters.

Google Maps/InsiderMap showing the approximate location of the overpass near Hammer Hill Sports Ground and Choi Hung Estate, on which protesters hid from police.

The top of the overpass gave the group a good view of approaching police while being shielded by nearby roads slopes, as well as provided various escape routes: a tunnel toward the Choi Hung Estate as well as one toward Hammer Hill.

Moments later, a police car containing ordinary constables — as opposed to riot police — spotted the protesters and started crossing the road to reach us. We fled toward Nan Liang Garden, a park near the Chi Lin Nunnery, a Buddhist temple and famous tourist attraction.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

One protester said moments before fleeing: “There is police at Wong Tai Sin, there are patrol cars in the estates, and police vans patrolling. We don’t know what to do”.

We eventually made it to a nearby street, where Indonesian domestic helpers were relaxing on their day off, oblivious to the panic around them. Moments after this photo was taken, someone yelled that tear gas was being shot nearby.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

The helpers started running away with their belongings, while protesters remained in place to decide whether to stay to fight or flee.

Police had deployed tear gas in the Wong Tai Sin area as early as 2 p.m., according to a local monitoring group on the Telegram messaging app

At 2:54 p.m. we moved closer to Plaza Hollywood, one of the biggest malls in the district. Here they found other anxious black-clad protesters — who had also heard about tear gas being fired via livestream, Telegram groups, or word of mouth.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

Those who hadn’t been equipped started taking out their helmets and gas masks to get ready for any potential confrontations ahead.

“We’ll attack some kind of government building to make shame [for] the Chinese government because, you know, we hate them,” Bob told us.

Marc Fernandes/InsiderHong Kong protester Bob* (right) speaks to Insider before protests in Wong Tai Sin on October 1, 2019.

China “intervenes in our lives and our politics,” Bob said, adding that he was fighting for universal suffrage – Hong Kongers’ freedom to vote for whomever they wanted.

He added that the introduction of the extradition bill this summer – which would allow Beijing to extract anyone in Hong Kong and try them in the mainland – was the final straw of Beijing’s breaking its promise to give

“This will seriously harm our autonomy,”

We made their way to the nearby Diamond Hill subway station, which had been closed to deter October protests. Prompted by the fear that police would use the closed stations to spring arrest teams, protesters dragged trash cans near the station’s exits, hoping to slow the police down if they elected this route. Here, some of them rest.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

After a some debate on where to go next, at around 3:22 p.m., we moved closer to Wong Tai Sin. While en route some of the group tried to remove police road barriers locked into the road to clear their way or to use as barricades. But as they shook the barriers, they failed to come loose. Here’s Bob calling for keys to unlock the barriers.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

Bob also picked up a road sign to use as a makeshift shield.

Marc Fernandes/InsiderBob* carrying a road sign to use as a makeshift shield during protests in Wong Tai Sin, Hong Kong, on October 1, 2019.

Over the course of the summer, protesters have been fashioning weapons out of everyday objects, like roadsigns and umbrellas. They have also developed sophisticated hand signals to help communicate with one another.

Edgar Su/ReutersHong Kong anti-extradition bill protesters use road signs, trash can lids, and suitcases as makeshift shields during a march on July 21, 2019.

Read more:
Hong Kong protesters have developed a sophisticated sign language to help in their months-long battle with police

At 3:33 p.m. we start to see more riot police on a nearby overpass, about a couple hundred meters from their barricades. Some of the group start debating over whether to leave. Members of this group are saying through their gas masks: “Do we leave? Do we leave?”

Marc Fernandes/Insider

The debate ends when the protesters find out another group of protesters are joining, and realise that having the two groups merge would give them the critical mass needed to face off with the police.

When we asked Bob whether he thought the debates were causing heavy time loss and tactical disadvantages, he said: “We are not a dictatorship. This is democracy, we discuss and we decide together.”

AP Photo/Kin Cheung, FileProtesters near Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on June 12, 2019.

Locals brought out boxes of bottled water for protesters to drink on the way. When asked why they brought supplies, one man told us: “We all support Hong Kong.”

Marc Fernandes/InsiderLocals offer bottled water to protesters in Rhythm Garden, Hong Kong, on October 1, 2019.

We chat with Bob on the way. One of the reasons he’s protesting is because he believes the city is offering better economic benefits to mainlanders than to locals, saying: “We cannot really see our future here.”

ShutterstockThe Choi Hung public housing estate in Hong Kong.

When asked whether he spoke Mandarin, the Chinese dialect widely spoken in the mainland, he said: “No, I am not interested!”

(Hong Kongers widely speak Cantonese, another Chinese dialect.)

Bob also dismissed the promised economic benefits of China’s “Greater Bay Area” project – an ambitious project aimed to link southern China, Hong Kong, and Macau through infrastructure and financial projects – saying: “I don’t want my future to have anything to do with China.”

Upon arriving at the protest site, shortly after 4 p.m., Bob started preparing his bags of wet towels to snuff out tear gas canisters.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

In a sea of black-clad protesters, this man wearing all white stood out. It’s not entirely clear why he dressed this way. However, white is the colour of mourning in many Asian cultures.

Marc Fernandes/InsiderA protester dressed in white in Wong Tai Sin, Hong Kong, on October 1, 2019.

A lot of protesters communicated via voice note on their phones while on the front line.

Marc Fernandes/InsiderA Hong Kong protester on their phone in Wong Tai Sin on October 1, 2019.

They started to congregate under the movement’s “Black Bauhinia flag,” which is the Hong Kong flag but replacing the red background — which symbolises union with China — with black, and the bauhinia flower with wilting, bloody petals. They also start singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” the protesters’ anthem.

Marc Fernandes/InsiderProtesters waving the anti-China movement’s ‘Black Bauhinia flag’ in Wong Tai Sin, Hong Kong, on October 1, 2019.

At around 4:30 p.m. riot police fired another round of tear gas at a group of volunteers who had been walking toward police lines, and Bob sprang into action. He jumped across nearby bushes, grabbed a fuming tear gas canister, stuffed it into his bag and waited for it to extinguish itself.

Marc Fernandes/InsiderBob attempts to extinguish a tear gas canister by shoving it into a bag.

Other protesters kicked tear gas canisters or threw them toward the police.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

Another protester started preparing Molotov cocktails to lob toward police. Others threw bricks.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

At 4:36 p.m. riot police started advancing toward the demonstrators and making arrests. They started running like mad from the police to avoid capture.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

Police advanced toward the protesters, holding up handguns and batons as a warning.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

At least one protester was subdued by riot police. Insider has blurred out his face.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

The same protester was also seen dragged away by at least two riot police officers. It’s not clear what happened to him.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

At the same time, riot police formed a line and got their tear gas guns ready.

Marc Fernandes/InsiderHong Kong riot police in a line carrying tear gas guns during protests in Wong Tai Sin, Hong Kong, on October 1, 2019.

Around 4:50 p.m. protesters started grabbing chairs from a local restaurant to shield themselves from the police’s rubber bullets. As they gradually withdrew, the protesters returned the chairs to the restaurant, thanking them profusely. The owner also thanked them with a smile.

Marc Fernandes/InsiderA protester in Wong Tai Sin, Hong Kong adjusts her helmet on October 1, 2019.

By 5 p.m. protesters started to regroup, with one of them waving a giant US flag. Many demonstrators have been calling on foreign powers — notably the US and UK — to step in and help them.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

Earlier in the summer protesters swarmed the city’s US and British consulates calling for help. Neither country has done much to support them.

On October 1, Trump congratulated China’s leaders on 70 years of Communist Party rule.

Read more:
He’s a businessman’: One of Hong Kong’s most prominent activists is urging Trump to back the pro-democracy movement and prevent a ‘nightmare’ for the world economy

They started digging out bricks from the road for the purposes of lobbing at police…

Marc Fernandes/Insider

… and formed a human chain to pass the bricks to the frontline.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

Around this time we also met two first aiders in gas masks, who identified themselves as Fiona, a communications graduate, and Billy, a biology graduate. Though they weren’t formally trained as first responders, they said they wanted to do what they could for their fellow protesters.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

By 6 p.m. the protesters started besieging the police lines again amid clouds of tear gas.

Marc Fernandes/InsiderA protester shielding from tear gas with another’s umbrella in Wong Tai Sin, Hong Kong, on October 1, 2019.

Amid the chaos we saw a small sighting of civic-mindedness. As local residents not taking part in the protest crossed the road, protesters urged them to hurry, opening umbrellas to protect them from potential tear gas or rubber bullets.

Marc Fernandes/Insider

As protesters set up new barricades across Diamond Hill, we saw many local residents giving a hand to the younger frontliners, often helping them haul bricks or delivering bags of McDonald’s burgers to keep them sustained.

Marc Fernandes/InsiderLocal residents provide supplies and food to protesters on an overpass above Po Kong Village Road near Diamond Hill, Hong Kong, on October 1, 2019.

However, many of the burgers went untouched.

The Diamond Hill protests raged on until around 7 p.m., with police and demonstrators shifting and regrouping from time to time. As the night closed in, many protesters started spreading joss paper — fake money typically burned during funerals —to characterise China’s National Day as a “day of mourning.”

Marc Fernandes/Insider

We met a group of protesters who had changed out of their black clothes to avoid police scrutiny as they travelled home. One of them, a teenage protester who called himself Ken, asked us: “Do you think we will win? … I think we will lose. We will lose because China knows how to divide Hong Kongers.”

Marc Fernandes/InsiderAn unidentified protester — not Ken — sits on a street divider near the districts of Wong Tai Sin and Diamond Hill, Hong Kong, on October 1, 2019.

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