The massive but largely peaceful protest at Hong Kong’s major airport turned violent on Tuesday when some protesters, worried about the possibility of undercover police in their midst, assaulted one man in the crowd and clashed with police, according to reports from the scene.
The demonstration at the airport, which has served as the scene of smaller protests for five days, exploded in size on Monday after thousands of civilians, enraged over what they saw as police brutality during a Sunday crackdown on protesters, flooded the building. The crowds effectively shut down the airport, but the protests remained peaceful. Some handed out flyers to arriving passengers explaining their grievances, while others plastered the walls with pro-democracy protest art.
By late Monday, the crowds had thinned, as rumors of imminent police action caused thousands to flee. But hundreds more remained, and when the police actually arrived on Tuesday, their numbers had swelled again.
Reports from the airport indicate that the conflict escalated when the protesters changed tactics on Tuesday, blocking off security checks and and departure gates with luggage carts in order to disrupt travel as much as possible. While some demonstrators tried to help the distressed passengers—like much of the movement which has consumed the city for weeks, the airport protests were leaderless and therefore not unified in their approach—others confronted them, shouting at those who managed to force their way through the crowds to head to their gates. The airport eventually suspended all check-ins and advised people not to travel to the airport. Hundreds of flights were canceled at one of Asia’s busiest travel hubs.
By the evening, the crowd had become more agitated, and it turned violent when some became suspicious of a man who appeared to have been from mainland China. Fears of undercover agents within the protest crowds have been heightened since Sunday, when plainclothes officers reportedly conducted arrests at marches elsewhere in the city
On Tuesday evening, the crowd in the airport fixated on a young man in the crowd. According to the Wall Street Journal, protesters who searched the man’s pockets said they found a mainland identification card that matched a name in a database of police officers in the city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong. After an argument broke out over whether he should be held or let go, a small group tied the man up and led him around the airport while chanting “bear the consequences.” At some point, according to the Journal, protesters kicked and beat the man, and they tied him, unconscious, to a luggage cart.
Around 11 p.m. Tuesday, riot police arrived at the airport. They struggled to reach the man, and when one paramedic did make it to him, the crowd refused let let them leave, according to the Los Angeles Times. Protesters shouted at the police, calling them “gangsters.” When medics succeeded in loading the man into a van, hours after the man was first assaulted, protesters tried blocking the police from leaving, surrounding another one of the vans and beating at its windows. After a brief clash, riot police disrupted the protests by firing pepper spray into the crowds.
One video from the scene of the scuffle showed an officer forcing one woman to the ground before being overpowered briefly by protesters, one of whom seized his baton and began beating him with it. The officer drew his gun and pointed it at the protesters, causing them to flee.
As the police left, according to the Times, some protesters became suspicious of another man. Despite wearing a press jacket, the man first identified himself as a tourist, one protester told the Times. He had been taking photos on his phone, and while some protesters tried to step in to protect the man, others surrounded him, accusing him of being an undercover police officer. They assaulted him, forced him onto a luggage cart, tied his ankles together and his wrists above his head, and searched his belongings. They found a mainland Chinese passport, according to reports, and some said they found a Hong Kong police t-shirt. The Global Times, a state-run Chinese tabloid, later identified the man as their employee.
According to CNN, police made several arrests outside the airport. According to the Guardian, protesters then barricaded themselves in the terminal, even as police retreated.
Hundreds of doctors and nurses in public hospitals in the territory also expressed their solidarity with the protesters with a sit-in on Tuesday.
Tuesday’s standoff followed ten weeks of protests in Hong Kong that began when the legislature proposed a bill that would have allowed citizens to be extradited to mainland China. The citizens who rallied against the bill expressed concerns the Chinese government would abuse the law, and they expressed concerns that it would violate their democratic rights under the “one country, two systems” arrangement that has been in place since the former British colony was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997.
The Chinese government has launched a propaganda war against the protesters, suggesting they are organized by the United States and other Western states. On Monday, the state-run media circulated videos of what appeared to be paramilitary exercises in Shenzhen—a message of warning to the protesters. On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that U.S. intelligence had told him that the Chinese government was moving troops to the border with Hong Kong. The White House also denied that the U.S. had anything to do with the protests. Trump told reporters on Tuesday that he hoped the situation “works out for everybody, including China, by the way.”
Some in the international community have condemned the response to the protests. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights urged restraint in and asked Hong Kong’s authorities to investigate reports of police firing tear gas at protesters.