HONG KONG - Thousands of mostly black-clad activists set off on a protest march in Hong Kong's Mong Kok district on Saturday, as the Chinese-controlled city braced for another weekend of anti-government demonstrations.
Protests against a proposed bill allowing people to be extradited to stand trial in mainland China have escalated since June, growing increasingly violent, with police accused of excessive force and failing to protect protesters from suspected gang attacks.
Mong Kok, which includes gritty working class sections and is also a popular shopping destination, was the scene of some of the most violent clashes during pro-democracy protests in 2014.
Many of Saturday's demonstraters wore yellow or white hard hats, and the crowds chanted "age of revolution!" and "Hongkongers, add oil!" - a popular exhortation in Cantonese.
"I'm a little worried about whether the police force might use violent ways on the demonstrators because the route of the demonstration is a little bit narrow, and if we want to leave it might be difficult to get away from the police," said a 20-year-old university student named Ivan.
"I think this entire movement will continue until at least the end of 2019," he said.
Hundreds of marchers held posters with an illustration of protesters in hard hats tending to a young child, with the words "protect the future".
The crowd was mostly young, but also included families and many older people. Some young couples held hands.
"We are here because we want to stick up for Hong Kong. We don't need an evil law to take over Hong Kong," said a woman surnamed Yau who was joined by family members including her 11-year-old daughter.
As the marchers gathered at the starting point, one passed around pre-paid subway cards to young groups, while others gave out chicken wings and McDonalds food. When the march started, volunteers handed out hard hats, face masks and water bottles.
Most of the shops in the upscale Langham Place shopping mall had pulled down their shutters by late afternoon, and many street-facing businesses along the march route had closed.
Across the harbour, on Hong Kong island, thousands of police supporters, mostly wearing white, gathered for a separate rally amid a carnival-like atmosphere in Victoria Park.
Many waved Hong Kong and Chinese flags and the crowd shouted slogans in support of the police. Pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho was greeted with strong applause.
"We are the real Hong Kong people who are not the same as those black-shirted thugs. We don't need a so-called 'HK revolution', we only need to do our best, which is enough," he told the crowd.
Sylvia Lam, 61, who described herself as a housewife, said she had turned up at the pro-police rally to oppose violence.
"I feel extremely uncomfortable when every time I watch TV, the scenes are so radical," she said.
"Young people should stop and think, don't become someone's political tools, be rational please," she said.
MORE PROTESTS PLANNED
Further anti-government protests were scheduled for Sunday, with activists calling for a mass strike on Monday.
On Friday evening in central Hong Kong, thousands of civil servants defied a warning from authorities to remain politically neutral and joined anti-government protests for the first time since they started two months ago.
In Washington on Friday, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers called on the Trump administration to halt future sales of munitions and crowd-control equipment to Hong Kong's police force, which has been accused of using excessive force against protesters.
Under Chinese rule, Hong Kong has been allowed to retain extensive freedoms, such as an independent judiciary, but many residents see the extradition bill as the latest step in a relentless march towards mainland control.
The protests are the most serious political crisis in Hong Kong since it returned to China 22 years ago.
They also pose the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he took office in 2012 and come as Xi grapples with an escalating trade war with the United States and a slowing economy in a politically sensitive year. On Oct. 1, China will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.Reuters