On a recent sweltering Saturday, a day now reserved for protest in Hong Kong, a demonstrator named Wayne stepped past a row of plastic barricades, lifted a pair of binoculars and squinted.
Four hundred meters away, a line of riot police stood with full-length shields, batons and tear-gas launchers.
It was a familiar sight for Wayne after more than two months on the front lines of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations. Face-offs with police have become part of the 33-year-old philosophy professor’s new normal.
The stories of Wayne and three other self-described “front line” protesters interviewed by The Associated Press provide insights into how what started as a largely peaceful movement against proposed changes to the city’s extradition law has morphed into a summer of tear gas and rubber bullets. They spoke on condition they be identified only by partial names because they feared arrest.
The movement has reached a moment of reckoning after protesters occupying Hong Kong’s airport last week held two mainland Chinese men captive, beating them because they believed the men were infiltrating their movement.
Pro-democracy lawmakers and fellow demonstrators have questioned whether the operation had gone too far.
It was the first crack in what has been astonishing unity across a wide range of protesters. It gave pause to the front-liners, though they still believe their more disruptive tactics are necessary to get the government to answer the broader movement’s demands.
The demands grew from opposing legislation that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited for trials in mainland China’s murky judicial system to pressing for democratic elections, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s resignation and an investigation into allegations of police brutality at the demonstrations.
The protesters on the front lines have thrown bricks at police, trashed the legislature’s chambers, blocked a major tunnel under Hong Kong’s harbor and pelted police headquarters with eggs.
To Lam, these are “violent rioters” bent on destroying the city’s economy. To China’s ruling Communist Party, their actions are “the first signs of terrorism.”
To the most die-hard protesters, there’s no turning back.
“The situation has evolved into a war in Hong Kong society,” said Tin, a 23-year-old front-line demonstrator. “It’s the protesters versus the police.”
When Hong Kong’s youth banded together to protest, they said they would not have clear leaders, protecting individuals from becoming symbols or scapegoats. And they would stick together, no matter their methods.
These were lessons learned from 2014, when the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement fizzled after more than two months.
Chong, a 24-year-old front-liner, said everyone’s opinion is considered, and they decide on the right path together. But no decision is absolute: The demonstrators have pledged to not impede actions they may disagree with.
Two massive marches roused Chong and others who had given up on political change.
On consecutive weekends in June, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the extradition bill. It struck at fears that China is eroding civil rights that Hong Kong residents enjoy under the “one country, two systems” framework.
“I didn’t think I would ever do this again,” said Chong, who quit his job as an environmental consultant for the protests. “But this time, society is waking up.”
Lam suspended the bill indefinitely the day before the second march, but it didn’t mollify the protesters, who turned out in even greater numbers.
As their demands expanded, Lam offered dialogue but showed no signs of giving ground.
That’s when hard-liners like Chong and Wayne became convinced that peaceful protest might not be enough.
Week after week, they clashed with police. Every round of tear gas only seemed to deepen their conviction that the government did not care.
“We’ve had numerous peaceful protests that garnered no response whatsoever from the government,” said J.C., a 27-year-old hairstylist who quit his job in July. “Escalating our actions is both natural and necessary.”
Then came the “white shirt” attack. On July 21, dozens of men beat people indiscriminately with wooden poles and steel rods in a commuter rail station as protesters returned home, injuring 44. They wore white in contrast to the protesters’ trademark black.
A slow police response led to accusations of collusion. Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said resources were stretched because of the protests.
Many saw the attack as proof police prioritized catching demonstrators — around 700 have been arrested so far — over more violent criminals.
As protesters’ rage grew, they set their sights on Hong Kong’s airport.
Hundreds of flights were canceled over two consecutive nights last week as protesters blocked access to check-in counters and immigration.
While the major disruption of one of the world’s busiest airports got global attention, it was the vigilante attacks on two Chinese men that troubled the movement.
In a written apology, a group of unnamed protesters said recent events had fueled a “paranoia and rage.” During the prior weekend’s demonstrations, people dressed like protesters had been caught on video making arrests, and police acknowledged use of decoy officers.
At the airport, the protesters twice thought they found undercover agents in their ranks, detaining two men, interrogating them and beating them. One turned out to be a reporter for China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper.
Footage of the mob violence inflamed anti-protester sentiment in China. In Hong Kong, pro-democracy lawmakers said it was something that “will not and should not happen again.”
Some protesters apologized for becoming easily agitated and overreacting. Others questioned whether provocateurs had incited the violence.
Wayne said he couldn’t get through the crowd to see what was happening during the airport beating, but he understood how the attackers felt.
“I would have done the same thing,” he said. “It’s not rational, but I would have kicked him or punched him at least once or twice.”