Police caused Yau Ma Tei 18 November 2019 "incident"
One thing that makes the protracted conflict happening in Hong Kong (HK) stand out from protests happening in other locales is the unique urban environment in which it is set. Some rallies, for example have been held in close proximity to the retail and financial heart of the city, or close to the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) headquarters, consulate buildings, and even the HK government headquarters known as LEGCO (Legislative Council). Some have taken place in luxurious shopping malls, while others have sprung to life in older or poorer districts. Marches have begun in large urban spaces like Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, or sometimes just on a street corner, snaking their way through narrow streets like a braided river, or growing so large they have over-filled six lanes of roadway plus the pedestrian footpath.
The point is that both HKPF and protesters' movements are impacted by these locations. HKPF, for example can use water cannon vehicles in open spaces. HKPF routinely use overhead pedestrian bridges and rooftops of buildings as sentry points to watch over movements and photograph protesters. In some cases the police even fire their tear gas weapons from the rooftops, although it's against standard operational procedure. A small group of frontline protesters, moving like water, can generally find an escape route whether down an alley, or into the nearby welcoming safety of the similarly clothed masses of masked protesters.
Now picture this:
November 2019, and the information war is at fever pitch in HK. On one side are the HKPF who are backing up an intransigent government who will not give in to the protesters' five demands. On the other side are the protesters themselves, some of whom have taken to distruptive tactics to push home their point [see our blog on protester violence]. HK Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has taken to calling the protesters "the enemy of the people" and is adamant she will not yield to their demands. Looking on are the many media people and medical personnel trying to cover the dramatic events that unfold.
On Monday the 18th of November, a large group of protesters were essentially holed up in the grounds of Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hung Hom. Under siege, they were threatened with arrest and other consequences if the HKPF were to catch them trying to escape. Via social media a plea went out for assistance. Student leaders also called for help. Then, as night fell, swathes of supporters swarmed towards the frontline of HKPF resistance at the university stronghold where their sons, daughters, close friends and fellow-protesters were desperately in need of help.
in an attempt to draw police away from the besieged university, other protests broke out in different parts of HK. The HKPF, on the other hand were equally as determined to cut off the flow of foot-soldiers that were heading to the university frontline. Violent clashes were inevitable.
So it was, that a large group of pumped up protesters were gathering in Yau Ma Tei. What played out, was something akin to a war scene from one of those epic blockbuster Hollywood movies.
Information was scarce initially, limited to snatches from social media.
An initial report claimed that Police had driven their vans at high speed into a mass of protesters. A video finally surfaced that showed several police vans moving swiftly towards Exit A of the Yau Ma Tei MTR station.
Two days later at the HKPF briefing early on Wednesday morning, in an attempt to quell rumours it was claimed that nothing untoward or unusual had happened. HKPF stated that: "There was no human stampede in Yau Ma Tei," and that "...driving towards the crowd was a "police tactic"; they even rationalised that driving at a high speed isn't automatically unsafe.
As if to prove the HKPF wrong, there was another report that something big had happened as many ambulances were counted on the scene.
The HK Fire Services Department went on record, contradicting the HKPF, giving its own account of what happened. An eye witness account reported heavy clashes in Nathan Road. HKPF used several "flash bang" grenades that sounded like guns going off, and protesters were seen fleeing in fear, into the very narrow Pitt Street where many had fallen to the ground. HKPF did confirm that 30 people had been taken to hospital.
Another report stated that medics and reporters were pushed back by HKPF, away from the epicentre of the incident. The HKPF, it appears, were only interested in arresting people, rather than attending to the injured or those crying out for help beneath the stacked up bodies. It is not an exaggeration to say that bodies were piled upon one another to a height of over two metres. Many were suffocating, dozens were injured. Medics yelled at HKPF and cried as they were blocked from giving assistance.
A further report surfaced that showed HKPF approached the protesters from three different directions and that there were multiple stampedes. One reporter recorded injured protesters being loaded into ambulances five hours later.
By 26th of November more footage and evidence of the Yau Ma Tei stampeded incident appeared on YouTube. An ambulance officer reported that there were 70 casualties, with people piled on top of one another.
By the middle of December the HK Government was in damage control mode. This routinely consists of backing up the HKPF statements that whatever force was used by officers was necessary and restrained under whatever circumstances they are having to justify...to the point of offering ludicrous or innocuous explanations.
John Lee, Secretary of Security, denied there was ever a stampede in Yau Ma Tei. He claimed instead that groups of protesters had merely tried to "cross over" each other after some had fallen down in their panic to flee. Concerns expressed by Fire and First Aid teams about the delays in getting help to the people needing it were ignored.
What happened in Yau Ma Tei that night of 18th November is horrific [click video 1, video 2, video 3]. With our belief in basic humanity suspended, our trust in the HKPF utterly shattered, how do we compare this incident with every other misdeed carried out by those officers who orchestrated it? I feel a duty to record what happened, since amidst other events, other outrageous examples of police brutality and other HKPF excesses, cowardly lies and denials the stampedes that occurred may be forgotten or overlooked. This incident could have been much, much worse. There has to be accountability for HKPF action and government inaction. For now, the Yau Ma Tei stampede incident remains a grievance, a reason why we are all still so angry and why we must continue to protest.
What is missing here is a full detailed account of the protesters' injuries, the number and nature of arrests. Furthermore, for accountability, an independent judicial inquiry would ascertain HKPF action, responsibilities and who, if anyone, should be charged.