HONG KONG — It was almost noon on Monday when hundreds of protesters outside Hong Kong’s legislature voted to break in.
Watching from the side, one protester disagreed. They were too few, 19-year-old Daisy Chan worried, and the police presence was heavy.
As hours passed, thousands more trickled into the plaza and a nearby roundabout. The police retreated into the building. Angry protesters shattered windows with carts, sledgehammers and metal barricades.
Chan thought of three protesters who had died and of the Hong Kong leader’s refusal to meet the activists. Though she didn’t want to break in, she wanted to support the others.
By 9 p.m., when they finally pried open a metal security curtain that led inside, Chan believed nothing could assuage their anger.
“You’ve been standing at the entrance for eight hours!” she recalled shouting at other protesters perched on a fence by a second entrance. “The police have already retreated. If you want to get in, if you want to do what you want to do, you should get in now!”
Chan and three other protesters, including two who aided others outside the building but didn’t enter, told their story to The Associated Press this week. They said years of feeling ignored drove them to desperation in the city of 7.4 million, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory whose independent legal system is guaranteed for 28 more years and already faces threats. They explained why, on the same day that hundreds of thousands of others marched in a peaceful protest, they were driven to wreak havoc inside Hong Kong’s legislature in scenes that shocked the world. Now they await the consequences.
A HISTORIC DAY
Monday was the 22nd anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China. The protesters were angry. For three weeks, they had tried to get the government’s attention by blocking streets, defacing police headquarters and occupying government offices. Along with more peaceful demonstrators, they opposed the government’s attempt to change extradition laws to allow suspects to be sent to China for trial, but felt ignored.
That morning, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam had clinked champagne glasses in a televised ceremony celebrating the anniversary, her first public appearance in two weeks. Her refusal to back down on activist demands and her silence over the deaths of the three protesters turned grief into simmering rage. One fell after hanging a banner; at least one other, in an apparent suicide, left a message on a wall asking others to keep up the fight.
As demonstrators began assaulting the complex, Chan grabbed futilely at those rushing to tackle pro-democracy lawmakers blocking the entrances.
She and the lawmakers were worried. Public opinion could turn against the protesters. Someone could get hurt. Chan had been staffing aid stations and handing out food and water, all for one goal: “Safety first.”
Protesters smashed glass and poured into the Legislative Council, joining others who flooded in from a second breach.
Chan swung into action. Two weeks earlier, during marches in mid-June, she had formed a “resource station” team with about a dozen protesters, one of many that coalesced to help with protest logistics. They coordinated on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app.
Chan wanted to know how to direct her group next. She called a Hong Kong legislator — whose name she wouldn’t disclose — and got floor plans and a warning to leave lawmaker offices and the library untouched.
Chan walked into the complex with another member of her team, Nick, and began scouting the second floor for police. After finding none, she shouted orders on a walkie-talkie to her team: Smash security cameras, shatter hard drives. Seize the control room. And protect the library, which contained priceless historical artifacts.
“Destroy what is needed. Keep what is needed,” said Nick, explaining they wanted to minimize damage while making their point and protect protesters from surveillance. “We attacked only things that are iconic. We know what we are fighting for.”
They scouted up to the fifth floor, then headed to the control room on the ground floor. They stopped by the library and left a note asking protesters to leave it unharmed.
Other protesters tore down portraits of pro-Beijing lawmakers. They spray-painted Hong Kong’s emblem black, smashed elevators, plucked cameras out of ceilings and scrawled slogans calling for free elections.
“You taught me that peaceful protests are useless,” read one, sprayed by the entrance to the council’s main chamber.
Chan, Nick and two others in the resource station interviewed by AP didn’t always think peaceful protests were useless. The failure of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, which all four participated in, changed their minds.
Chan was 14 when she saw violence erupt on her family television screen: masked police firing tear gas into crowds of students in September 2014.
Until then, Chan had been a regular Hong Kong schoolgirl. She liked baking pastries and dreamed of being a chef. Her parents ran a grocery store. She didn’t think much about politics.
The images of police pepper-spraying protesters shocked her.
“I thought it was very insane,” Chan said. “They were just sitting.”
Days later, she was on the streets, participating in her first demonstration.
Nick, who only gave his first name because of concerns about being arrested, was a freshman in college. His father owned a car dealership, enough for a middle-class living. Classmates buzzed about the movement on social media. Anger at Beijing’s decision to pre-screen candidates for the most recent Hong Kong elections spoke to Nick, who felt the Chinese government ignored the desires of the city’s people. He hit the streets, cutting class and camping out for weeks.
When the Umbrella Movement ended with no changes after 79 days, they were crushed.
“It showed that even if you play peaceful, sitting on the streets, the government won’t care about it,” Nick said. “In their point of view, you’re just a bunch of people sitting on the streets.”
After graduating in 2016, Nick found a job as a nurse at a weight-loss clinic, then one at a call center, then another at a PR agency. The pay was terrible, a little over $1,300 a month in one of the most expensive cities in the world. He quit last year and became a freelance photographer, shooting weddings and concerts.
Nick wanted to live freely, to forget about politics and live his life. He dreamed of opening his own artist commune in an abandoned industrial building.
But he was struggling to survive, let alone thrive.
“There’s not much hope left in Hong Kong,” said Nick, now 24. “We just want a small place as our home, but we can’t afford it. We’re desperate.”
Year after year, they felt the walls close in: the disappearance of five booksellers specializing in sensitive topics forbidden on the mainland. Chinese immigration officers in a Hong Kong train station, the terminus of a new high-speed rail link with China. A draft law criminalizing disrespect for the Chinese national anthem.
The proposed changes to the extradition laws were the last straw. The draft legislation said it wouldn’t extradite for political crimes, that it was limited to serious offenses punishable by seven years in prison. But to Nick, Lam’s promises ran hollow.
“I can’t trust the government,” he said. “They give whatever China wants.”
By the time protests erupted again this year, their resolve had hardened.
This time, they donned masks and helmets, and braced themselves for demonstrations more violent than the Umbrella Movement.
“In China … you just speak one thing wrong, you will be put in jail,” Chan said. “Can you imagine in 28 years, what will Hong Kong be? Nobody knows.”
It was almost midnight on Monday when Chan and Nick heard others cry out, “The police are coming!”
Nick wanted to stay and occupy the council chambers. Other protesters had started building barricades and stockpiling food, preparing for a prolonged battle with police.
But there were too few of them. In the chamber, the protesters voted to leave. Chan headed outside to keep watch. Nick ran from room to room looking for protesters, yelling at them, “police are coming, don’t be left behind!”
They fled the ransacked building as police closed in and caught a minibus across Hong Kong’s harbor. Some found rooms in a hostel, while others headed home.
At 4 a.m., they watched on their phones as Lam stepped out for a news conference, condemning the break-in as an “extreme use of violence” that stood in contrast to a separate, largely peaceful march the same day.
Nick was expecting Lam’s response. What he wasn’t expecting was how upset some of the reporters seemed to him, one asking Lam if she thought she had a place in heaven after ignoring the three deaths. He said she brushed off the question.
“They’re blaming the protesters” for breaking windows, Nick said. “But there are three people dead. . If you put it on a scale, I think three lives are more important than three (pieces of) glass.”
China’s foreign ministry later condemned the occupation and vandalization of the legislature as “serious illegal acts that trample on the rule of law and endanger social order.”
Since then, the group has moved from one friend’s house to another to avoid police while contacting lawyers, preparing themselves for arrest. The members of their resource station met at a hotel restaurant on Tuesday evening and decided to speak to the press.
Yes, they were scared. Yes, they might get caught. But for five years they felt they had tried everything, and concluded the only tactic that worked was force.
“We’ve got nothing to lose at all,” Nick said. “That’s why we start to fight back.”