Updated at 11:10 p.m. ET
Chaotic scenes overtook the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday, as protesters and police engaged in running street battles in a march billed as a rally against global totalitarianism. It also launched the 17th week of pro-democracy demonstrations aimed at China’s tightening grip on the territory.
Masked protesters, many wearing black and carrying umbrellas as a protection against water cannons and tear gas, tore up bricks and hurled obscenities at riot police. Hong Kong police fanned out early, deploying copious rounds of tear gas in some of the most violent clashes the territory has witnessed.
One 26-year-old protester, who identified himself as Kevin to protect his identity, was part of a group quickly changing out of their black T-shirts to avoid being flagged by police. He said he joined the protest because “Beijing is restricting democracy and won’t allow free elections.”
The crowds marched down one of the main arteries of Hong Kong island, singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” the anthem of their movement, and chanting, “Fight for Freedom; Liberate Hong Kong.”
The demonstrations on Sunday, which left a broad swath of destruction including scores of street fires, were part of anti-totalitarianism rallies staged in more than 60 cities around the globe.
Sunday’s violent protests followed what started as a peaceful gathering Saturday to mark the fifth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement, a pro-democracy campaign that helped fuel the mass street protests that have overtaken Hong Kong’s streets for months.
That gathering, too, descended into violent confrontations with protesters raining bricks down on government office buildings and police responding with water cannons.
The ongoing turmoil was originally triggered by a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed suspects in Hong Kong to be transferred to mainland China to stand trial.
But shelving the bill did not temper infuriated protesters, who have additional demands including direct democratic elections and an independent investigation into alleged policy brutality. Once considered Asia’s finest police force, allegations of abuse and excessive force have dogged the Hong Kong Police in recent months.
In a statement, police confirmed using live ammunition as a warning shot in Wan Chai, an area where protesters had concentrated. Police say it was a single shot fired after a group of officers were “surrounded and attacked by a large group of violent protesters.”
More than a dozen people were injured and local media report more than 100 people were arrested.
The weekend protests come just days before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Tuesday, when Beijing hopes to use the day to highlight the country’s achievements.
Five years ago, the pro-democracy Occupy Movement ended with the government making no concessions. But demonstrators today insist they are picking up where the 2014 movement left off, and vow to continue their grievances on the streets into October.
Oct. 1 is a crucial date.
That’s when Chief Executive Carrie Lam accompanies a large delegation to Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
Chinese leader Xi Jingping is expected to lead lavish commemorations showcasing China’s progress and strengths. China’s military hardware will be on display in what is expected to be a massive parade.
Protesters in Hong Kong, meanwhile, plan to use the occasion to pour into the streets to demand that Beijing stop eroding Hong Kong’s unique identity, and uphold the one-country-two-systems framework that provides the territory its quasi-democracy.
When asked what the Oct. 1 anniversary meant to him, 24-year old protester Auriga Wong said, “We lack the sense of belonging to China.” Wong says Hong Kong inherited a different political system from the British, and that’s why the anniversary “means nothing to us.”