From the Front Line: Hong Kong Protests Photo Essay
By Stanton Sharpe
Sunday afternoon. A march of hundreds of thousands of protesters is nearing its end, and the frontline protesters (those who are continually in direct conflict with the Hong Kong Police) are setting up a front outside of the Tsim Sha Tsui Police Station.
Soon the police will meet the growing number of frontline protesters with rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and power-hoses. I’ll fix myself between the protesters and the police, documenting the conflict. A battle like this is nothing new to any of us. We’re used to the burning skin, choking breaths, and tearing eyes. However, as I watch protesters get arrested and face the possibility of up to a ten-year prison sentence on “rioting” charges, I wonder if there will be any tangible positive outcome of the violence.
What started as a general call against the proposed legislation of the Hong Kong Extradition Bill, which would allow Mainland China to extradite Hong Kongers to the mainland, has evolved over the last four months into a general call for Hong Kong autonomy, unabated by communist China’s interference.
Since then, I witnessed 1.7 million people meet at Victoria Park in one unified rally. I’ve also watched as, recently, the number of protesters has dwindled. As protesting tactics have grown increasingly violent, the protesters’ fear of the Hong Kong and Chinese government’s extreme measures to quell the protests has also grown. Fear drives people to violent actions.
And when my body is burning from tear gas, and I’m sick of choking in the smoke to get a shot, I think to myself of how the protesters might feel late at night when the adrenaline-fueled fight in them has worn out and they’ve returned home. They must feel drained, depressed, hopeless and scared.
It’s easy to document a conflict. It’s a completely different story to have your life hanging on the outcome of that conflict. In those moments of realization, I feel heartbroken for the people I’m standing next to.
Youngman Chan, a local pastor and former interpreter for Billy Graham, acknowledges the complexity of this conflict. “The protests are a very sad thing for Hong Kong. We’ve seen a deterioration for law and order. But the blame is not on the protesters for me. From a pastoral point of view, I think the government bears the brunt of responsibility.
“From a divine, spiritual perspective, I think the church is learning to become more socially conscious and trying to discern what is right and what is wrong, and trying to discern the use of violence and why it started and how it will end. And these are very difficult ethical questions.”
But it is at the darkest moments of these protests that a small flicker of hope burns brightest. I see the camaraderie, communication and trust that these men and women share on the front line. They are brought together in their shared struggle.
The protesters in Hong Kong face seemingly insurmountable odds in their battle for autonomy. But they’ve chosen this goliath fight because they believe in it. And that can be an inspiration to us all in whatever challenges God allows in our lives.
In these flickering moments of hope, I’m reminded that life is a battle of perseverance in a world crushed by the shortcomings of man—we all just face this battle on different scales. And though the battle can be grim, it is what we hold truest to ourselves that makes the battle worth it.
Police set up a barricade between a street full of protesters and an alleyway where police have arrested two of the protesters.
On August 18, 2019, an estimated 1.7 million people (almost a quarter of Hong Kong’s population) gathered at Victoria Park to call for an end to police brutality and to reiterate their five demands.
A protester in a gas mask and helmet holds a metal bar and peers over the front line of the protest outside of the Legislative Council Building.
A protester returns a still-active tear gas round to the police front line after police launch bundles of tear gas at protesters in Kowloon Bay on August 24, 2019.
A group of nearly half a dozen police arrest a young protester in the Wan Chai district on October 1, 2019—China’s National Day.
On October 5, 2019 protesters raise the styrofoam “Lady Liberty” freedom statue for the first time and parade it down Hennessy Road in the Wan Chai district to raise morale among protesters.
A protester holds a lit Molotov cocktail. Soon he will run towards the front line and hurl it at the police force.
Protesters outside of the Legislative Council Building break into small groups and use road barricades and umbrellas to defend themselves from rubber bullets and tear gas fired by police.
After verbally provoking them, a young man is quickly surrounded and interrogated by a group of almost a dozen police.
A protester stands amidst clouds of tear gas waiting to throw canisters back into the Tsim Sha Tsui Police Station, where police are launching the tear gas.
A woman is beaten and sprayed with black spray paint by protesters after refusing to stop breaking down a road barricade created by protesters on Nathan Road in the Mong Kok district. After continuing to break down the roadblocks while protesters and locals screamed at her with disapproval for about 45 minutes, protesters began hitting her, throwing drinks on her, kicking and punching her. One protester sprayed paint on her face while she was trapped amidst a group of protesters.
A protester hurls a tear gas canister back towards the Legislative Council Building, from which police are shooting the tear gas.
A group of frontline protesters kneel for protection as they survey a large group of police squads, vans and special unit forces preparing themselves for a charge on the protester front line.
A young protester takes part in the Human Chain Rally on October 18, 2019 in the Tsim Sha Tsui district. In defiance of the Anti-Mask Law that Hong Kong officials implemented through executive order, protesters wore an array of themed masks.
An MTR (subway) station is temporarily closed in the Wan Chai district due to expected protests in that district on September 30, 2019. The station is guarded by police so protesters cannot enter while it is shut down. The MTR stations are the main source of transportation for Hong Kong residents. Though MTR is a privately owned company, the largest investor is the Hong Kong government. Thus, the MTR stations have become the main target of vandalism for Hong Kong protesters.
A protester stands next to a flaming barricade in the Mong Kok district on October 20, 2019. Protesters create these barricades to halt car traffic and to create obstacles for police who pursue them.
Protesters meet at Edinburgh Place on Hong Kong Island to make a united request for humanitarian aid from foreign countries.
Stanton Sharpe is a documentary photographer and writer based in Southeast & East Asia. He works primarily on stories in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Vietnam with a focus on conflict journalism and stories of displaced people. He is currently based in Hong Kong where he is covering the protests and Hong Kong politics. You can see more of his work, including live coverage of the protests, on his Instagram: @stantonsharpe.