Thousands of protesters, angered by what they see as brutal policing of peaceful demonstrations, swarmed Hong Kong International Airport on Monday, effectively shutting down one of the world’s busiest transportation hubs and grounding more than 150 flights.
While the crowds have since thinned among fears of a police crackdown, hundreds remain in the airport, and the disruption has proven a powerful show of force by the protest movement, which is now in its 11th week.
The summer’s anti-government protests began over a bill that would have allowed citizens to be extradited to mainland China. Many who feared such a law would allow the Chinese government to crack down on free expression, or otherwise violate their democratic rights, took to the streets—one rally drew as many as 2 million people—and the proposal was suspended. But the legislation was not fully withdrawn and protests continued, largely without leadership.
While some of the summer’s protesters fought directly with police, most opted for sit-ins, strikes, and rallies. But police have responded to the protests with what some see as unnecessary force, and crowd control tactics have involved pepper spray and tear gas canister projectiles. According to the Wall Street Journal, police have used more than 1,800 rounds of tear gas and arrested hundreds of protesters in the past few months. On Sunday, the conflict escalated when riot police clashed with protesters in subway stations, reportedly firing tear gas and rubber bullets into an enclosed station. One woman was reportedly hit in the eye by a police projectile, necessitating emergency surgery. Many of Monday’s protesters—driven by anger over the police violence rather than any of the other more policy-oriented demands—donned bandages over their right eyes as a sign of solidarity.
Already, a smaller number demonstrators had conducted a sit-in at the airport over the weekend, handing out pamphlets listing their demands. But those protests did not seriously disrupt the airport’s functions. Monday’s protests, however, shut down all departing flights that day, as civilians took over the entire airport, filling out the main arrival hall and spilling into the departure hall, according to the New York Times. Stores and restaurants in the airport closed, and chanting protesters dressed in black decorated the walls with political art and flyers. Travelers who arrived on flights already in the air when the demonstrations found a scene of confusion—made worse when protesters, fearing rumors of police action, began to flee. The protesters who remain have expressed no clear sense of how much longer the demonstration will continue, but some have indicated they stayed to ensure other protesters’ safety in numbers, according to CNN.
Chinese authorities have warned of a crackdown on the protests, which they described as terrorism, and Chinese state media spread highly produced videos of paramilitary training exercises in Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.