An unauthorised anti-police rally in Hong Kong's tourist district of Tsim Sha Tsui descended into mayhem yesterday and spread to several areas after police fired tear gas and rolled out a water cannon to disperse crowds.
The rally, which began at Salisbury Garden, had been to protest against alleged police brutality following months of unrest.
It did not have police approval, making it technically illegal, but that failed to deter hundreds of people, dressed mainly in black tops and wearing now-banned face masks, who gathered shouting slogans such as "Disband the police force" and "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong".
As the crowds spread to nearby Nathan and Salisbury roads, riot police turned up, making several arrests. It caused a moment of chaos, with many caught off guard. The crowd rushed towards the waterfront while others dispersed north and regrouped in the Mong Kok, Jordan and Shum Shui Po districts.
Some of the fiercest clashes took place in Mong Kok, where demonstrators defaced subway entrances and tossed petrol bombs into stations, prompting the early closure of the Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei MTR stations.
Police responded with multiple volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets. They also deployed a water cannon in Nathan Road, the area's main thoroughfare.
A police statement said officers had come under attack from protesters who used hard objects and umbrellas, vandalised MTR stations and assaulted a man.
The statement added: "Police once again warn all rioters to stop all illegal acts, and appeal to bystanders to leave immediately."
Yesterday's rally, the 21st consecutive weekend of protests, was seen as a litmus test of how deep the anger against the force, once touted as Asia's finest, runs among the pro-democracy protesters.
The protests were sparked by Chief Executive Carrie Lam's unsuccessful attempt to introduce a new extradition Bill, which would have allowed for the handover of fugitives to several jurisdictions, including mainland China.
While the legislation has since been withdrawn, the move had raised fears about the city's relative freedoms, drawing millions onto the streets in protests, some of which have spiralled into violence.
In the past five months, clashes have frequently broken out between police and demonstrators, with frontline protesters throwing bricks and petrol bombs at officers as well as setting up roadblocks with debris and even bonfires, in a bid to slow officers down.
Police have retaliated with tear gas, bean bag rounds, rubber bullets and pepper spray. Real bullets have also been fired on some occasions when officers were under siege, the authorities have said.
The police have rejected accusations of brutality and excessive use of force, saying they have shown restraint even in situations when their lives were in danger.
Standing as protesters around him chanted slogans, business analyst William Lam, 40, told The Straits Times that the police force should be reorganised in phases.
Mr Lam said there had been cases of police using weapons to beat protesters they arrested, adding that officers did not "understand the law and their responsibilities".
"They just want us to calm down and say nothing against the government and police but we want the Hong Kong government to demand the police to reorganise or dismiss the whole unit and then reform them," he said.
Protester George Chung said it was important to show support for the movement even if their appeal to the government went ignored: "We need to take a stand against police brutality. I know people have said that despite all these rallies, nothing is being done."