On the frontline: Pepper-sprayed by the police

Patrick Cheung Ka Ho

[中文][Aug 2011 - The JournalistOn the evening of July 1, I was stricken with grief and gladness at the same time.

I was glad to hear loud and clear Hong Kong people saying no to the government's plan to do away with by-elections to fill vacancies in the Legislative Council.

But I was sad the police had to pepper-spray me and to resort to violence. This made me suddenly realize the ballooning power of the police force.

I was slapped a few times on the face by the police. 
(Photograph by Liu Ngan-hung)
What used to be a force that protected members of the public has now degenerated into a machine that only executes orders from the top.

As a "peppered" journalist it is incumbent upon me to give an unvarnished version of what happened that night.

But let me make it clear first that as a young journalist I had come across such malicious tactics by the police during several protests. To be honest I have not been impressed by the approach of the force.

This article is, admittedly, hardly objective. But please allow me to adopt a phrase widely used in local online forum, "Don't like, don't attack", meaning if a reader doesn't like the article, please don't criticize the writer.

There were two big battles that night. I was responsible for covering the march organized by the People's Power party from Wan Chai to Central. In fact, it was extremely quiet along the way without any indication that fierce battles would erupt later.

The marchers sat down for a few minutes after every ten steps. Party members followed the commands of Wong Yuk-man. Policemen kept pace on the side, not saying anything. They allowed the marchers to continue until the reached the Bank of China building.

Slapped on the face

At that point the police suddenly stepped up its guard against the group.

They formed a two-line cordon, with anti-riot police wielding shields in the rear. Further back were several hundred officers standing by as backup. At about 11:30 the front row officers started to tighten the cordon, keeping journalists at bay as well. But the tension then was not high at all. The Police did not issue any warnings, not to say anything about using pepper sprays.

Following a 15-minute standoff with the Police, Wong Yuk-man suddenly ran up to the Police cordon line. A large group of journalists surrounded him. Wong Yuk-man told reporters that they would "walk towards" the Police line, and asked reporters to step back a bit, otherwise they would not be able to film anything.

The proceedings were peaceful – until Wong Yuk-man finished speaking. A large group of People's Power members then began pushing forward. With about 100 protestors surging to the front, about a dozen reporters found themselves carried towards the police line.

At that moment I was pushed by a strong force from behind towards the police line. As soon as physical contact with the policemen happened, the officers pushed me back to the protesters. A scuffle ensued.

I was already waving my press card, clearly telling the officers who I was. I even shouted to the officers: "Those pushing forward are the protesters at the back."

But the officers ignored what I said and shouted back at us, "You, don't mess around." "Try pushing again!" And then: "You are trying to assault police officers!"

Tension among the police was as high as the protesters, if not higher. At the same time, they continued pushing us like they were sumo wrestlers. The police may say this is restrained defensive action, but to me it was "aggressive defence". I was slapped on my face and neck several times that night.

Soon protesters and officers were in a melee, scuffling for about half a minute. Sandwiched between police and protestors, I and several other journalists were crushed to the ground.

Pepper sprays most effective

I was about to get up to tell the police that there were journalists caught in the scuffle. But in that split second, an officer in the third row of the police cordon suddenly fired pepper sprays at me. I was trying to focus on identifying ourselves to the officers in the front row so I didn't hear any warnings from other officers. I didn't know that they would resort to using weapons. As I was totally unaware of the situation, my hair, eyes, mouth and neck were "completely peppered".

I must say, though, that the pepper sprays were most effective. I could not open my eyes at all and lost vision for about five minutes. Luckily, an officer pulled me out of the melee, and kept pouring water on me so that I recovered my vision.

After that, I walked up to the officer who sprayed me to identify myself as a journalist. I asked him why he used pepper sprays on me and why there was no advance warning. But he only said: "I don't care. I only saw you clashing with us.”

Much later I watched some footages and found that while the police were using pepper sprays, they were unfurling a warning banner at the back. But there were over 100 people massed together at that very moment. Many journalists and protesters had already fallen down. In such a chaotic moment who would notice a little banner being raised at the back? And the police have no evidence to show they had issued a warning "in advance".

This is not the first time that journalists have been treated violently by the police. Last year when government officials hit the streets to promote its "Act Now" campaign, the police also considered journalists as protesters, blocking us as much as they could. The question is: Does the police respect press freedom?

Journalists do not enjoy any special privileges. But this does not mean officers can use violence against members of the public and journalists. I was caught between the police and protesters that night.

Apart from describing my personal experience, I have found a few video clips about what happened that night. Hopefully they will the gaps in my report.


Footage 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4oG4boHquQ(04:50、08:40)

Footage 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3xZ793b5UY

Footage 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqfItr0HV-4

Translated by Altis Wong