UPDATED with a postcript at 1:15 a.m. EDT, August 14, 2019
HONG KONG—A protest that led to the occupation of the city’s airport devolved into a chaotic, volatile situation Tuesday. Blackshirt protesters stopped travelers before they were able to pass through security and immigration. Some of the blackshirts seized a man who, though also dressed in black, was suspected of being a police officer or even an agent sent by the Chinese Communist Party’s security apparatus.
Their suspicions were confirmed when they found ID cards on him that matched online records of a man who serves in China’s Ministry of Public Security in Shenzhen, north of Hong Kong. He was armed with wooden sticks. Reportedly, six other men who were part of the same group managed to escape before he was seized, zip-tied, and surrounded by protesters.
What followed was a three-hour mess where the young people who occupied the airport attempted to figure out what to do with him. One first aid responder checked the man’s vitals, determined that he required medical attention, and indicated that he needed to be moved.
The blackshirts were divided on the matter and blocked the evacuation. The alleged Chinese Communist Party (CCP) security officer was losing circulation in his hands, so the zip ties were adjusted. Journalists rushed in to photograph the scene, compressing the crowd further. Eventually, more medical first responders were able to make their way into the airport terminal and form a circle around the captured man.
There were angry calls to inflict bodily harm: “an eye for an eye,” invoking a call adopted after a woman was blinded when she was shot in the face on Sunday by Hong Kong police.
There were legitimate worries that the man could die on site, whether due to violent attacks, suffocation, or via a confluence of actions that didn’t carry that intent. Some yelled, “He’ll die! Don’t kill him!” A photojournalist attempted to talk down the crowd, at one point yelling, “No! You’ll ruin everything!” He used his own body to shield the bound man from protesters as much as he could, but the effort was futile. Other voices calling for calm actions were drowned out in the furor. The medical first responders were surrounded by a sea of black.
At around 11 p.m., police arrived at the airport. One officer said they were there to retrieve the individual who required medical attention, and that riot police would not enter the airport terminal if they could facilitate the evacuation.
It took tremendous effort—in the face of a resentful and exasperated crowd—to move him toward the ambulance.
As some blackshirts blocked the ambulance and attacked police vehicles, riot police made arrests and pepper-sprayed protesters as well as journalists and those attempting to be mediators, and then made a hasty exit.
Upon returning to the terminal, the remaining blackshirts detained a second Chinese national who was found to be in possession of a blue t-shirt that read “I love police.” They took his ID and passport, passing it around for people to take photos. They accused him of infiltrating their ranks by posing as a reporter—except he is actually a staff member of Global Times, one of the CCP’s state-run media outlets.
Still zip-tied, he was roughed up, including by a protester clutching an American flag. First aid responders showed up, again attempting to talk down the black-clad mob, facing retorts of “What about our people?”
The second detained man was also eventually taken away in an ambulance, after just half an hour or so of being besieged by blackshirts.
The evening’s chaos came after Hong Kong’s chief executive, who has been a consistent target of angst and dissatisfaction in the city, described the city’s current state as at “the brink of no return.” She laid the blame completely on the city’s blackshirt protesters, who until today have been organized and specific in their actions.
On Tuesday, for the second day in a row, flights out of Hong Kong were canceled and hundreds of passengers were left stranded. What was meant to be a sit-in was met with hostility from frustrated travelers, and then devolved into mob-like calls for blood. The second attack in particular will give Beijing sufficient ammunition to justify its propaganda push: that Hong Kong is in chaos, that there are “terrorist elements” in the city, that there may be foreign influence in the blackshirts’ actions.
Until Tuesday night, the blackshirts, as a citywide body, were known for being accommodating to all workers, particularly those who were responding to medical emergencies. During rallies that involved more than a million people on the street, they were able to part and make way for ambulances and public buses when streets were packed with people, guiding the vehicles through efficiently and safely.
Tuesday night marked a turning point where the core tenet of blackshirts supporting each other no matter the conditions will be heavily challenged. Those who organized disruptive actions at the airport—one of the busiest in the world—have also come under fire from other camps within the movement due to their lack of leadership and failure to manage an explosive situation. The ethos and image sculpted by “front line” protesters who perform street actions is being eroded. And more importantly, the night’s events will stoke fury in mainland China, not only within the CCP, but across the nation.
POSTSCRIPT, 1:15 p.m. HKT, Wednesday, August 14, 2019: During the blackshirt protesters' sit-in and blockage at the Hong Kong airport's two terminals, airline representatives were concerned that they may flood onto the runways—not necessarily to occupy them, but perhaps as they attempted to escape a police crackdown.
Tuesday night's events only exacerbated that worry, though clashes with the police remained on the other side of the security stations and immigration counters. The airport's operations resumed early on Wednesday morning, with only small groups of protesters remaining on site. Many left after a court injunction banned assemblies within the airport's buildings.
The attacks on two Chinese nationals on Tuesday night have been propaganda gold for the Chinese Communist Party's state-run media organs, which continue to affirm Beijing's talking point that there are "terror elements" and U.S.-backed interlopers in Hong Kong. This has also fueled outrage among the citizenry in mainland China. Already, one can purchase t-shirts printed with a line uttered by the Global Times journalist who was detained and roughed up by the blackshirts: "I support the police. You can beat me now."
Meanwhile, within the blackshirt movement, Tuesday night's events at the airport have been condemned. Some have noted that the chaos was a consequence of the movement being leaderless, and those who may have been able to speak to those who were at the airport are currently in prison on charges related to the Umbrella Movement occupations of 2014 and other clashes.
Demonstrations and disruptive actions will continue to take place in coming days, including strikes by medical workers and a march organized by the city's school teachers.