New and dangerous phase: HK protesters add helmets to umbrellas

New and dangerous phase: HK protesters add helmets to umbrellas

HONG KONG - When Anson Lau first joined Hong Kong's pro-democracy rallies he carried little more than a raincoat and a bottle of water. But as police began wielding pepper spray and batons, the 20-year-old insurance agent has donned a hard hat and home-made body armour - symbols of a new and dangerous phase.

"When police began beating up people we had to put on defensive gear," he told AFP standing at a makeshift barricade in the city's densely packed Mongkok district, where the worst violence has broken out.

"We didn't have helmets before. We had umbrellas. If the opposite side had left us alone, we wouldn't have needed any of this," he said, gesturing to his equipment.

Lau's experience is echoed by thousands of Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters who began their campaign for greater democracy in the former British colony with peaceful mass rallies, filled with optimism and praised for their civility.

But with the city's Beijing-backed authorities showing no signs of budging on protesters' core demands - and the embattled police, who had been noticeably restrained in the first two weeks of the protests, launching a series of recent dawn raids to try and clear barricades - a grim realism has set in.

Faces that once brimmed with enthusiasm have hardened, replaced by ranks of tired protesters steeling themselves for the next attempt by officers to push them off the streets.

Nowhere is this atmosphere more palpable than in the working class district of Mongkok. While the city's two other protest sites across Victoria Harbour retain their carnival mood, Mongkok, in Kowloon, remains on edge.

Those manning the barricades there have borne the brunt of attacks by pro-government thugs and more recently police after they tried but ultimately failed to clear a camp that had dominated a busy intersection.

Au Yiu-kai was volunteering at a first aid station in Mongkok during the weekend clashes, and says he treated at least a dozen demonstrators, many of whom had angry wounds from police batons.

"This is definitely not a low level of force," he fumed. "That kind of force can be fatal."

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