Their masked faces are upturned, looking for the smoking arc of incoming tear-gas fire. The instant the flaming device bounces onto the asphalt, they race into action – eight people bearing umbrellas and bottles, squirting water. Within four seconds, the smoke has been doused, and the impromptu extinguishment brigade dashes off to the next device. Seconds later that one, too, has been tossed off the highway overpass. The smoke has been cleared from the road, at least until the next volley.
I captured video of this brief scene – only 16 seconds in length – just before 6 p.m. on Wednesday, near the end of a concerted police effort to clear protesters from streets surrounding Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. It was in many ways an unremarkable moment in a remarkable day, with police aiming rubber bullets at unarmed students in a violent conflagration that left more than 80 in hospital.
Some of the most dramatic images of the day showed a mother beseeching men in riot gear not to attack, a protester in a yellow rain slicker standing up against water cannons, umbrella-bearing young people silhouetted against clouds of tear gas and a foreign journalist yelling to police: “This is still Hong Kong, not China. Not yet!”
Yet the 16-second video of the extinguishment brigade came to define the protest for some on social media. It has been viewed nearly three million times on Twitter, and retweeted by people in France, Turkey, Thailand, Spain, the Philippines, Japan, Haiti, Honduras, Poland, Indonesia, Senegal and Sudan, among others.
“If there is ever a video to give you hope for civil disobedience, then this is it…!” wrote one person. “Brave young men and women, they are the future of Hong Kong,” wrote another.
“Thanks guys,” responded Jordan Chan, 24, who was part of the protest Wednesday. “We are really fighting hard here. Even being significantly out-geared by the police, people are still trying,” he wrote on Twitter.
That fight included smothering tear-gas devices with cloths, placing the smoking canisters under helmets and traffic cones – and helping those affected. Strangers poured water into each other’s eyes to cleanse the chemicals.
For Mr. Chan, “this video captures how the Hong Kongers have really grown up and learned. We have changed from being afraid of the slightest bit of suppression to bravely handling the situation,” he said.
In mainland China, authorities have sought to censor all mention of the protests. Still, for some from China, the sight of people successfully quelling the power of the state – even as they ran from it – offered a sense of hope.
It’s a “picture of Hong Kongers, especially young guys in Hong Kong, fighting against the extradition bill,” said Shane Yue, a former Chinese journalist now living abroad. “They are brave, they have intelligence and patience, and they are working together.”
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