Yuen Long, a small northwestern town in the New Territories of Hong Kong, played host to a tense standoff between thousands of black-clad protesters and riot police earlier July 27, after scenes of bloody mob violence linked to triad gangs unfolded at the district’s metro station a week earlier.

Riot police fired waves of tear gas canisters as they forced protesters into retreat across multiple locations in the town. Demonstrators, in turn, shouted insults at the officers, while others gathered bamboo sticks and pried bricks from the roadside, acts which they insisted not be photographed by reporters.

Anti-riot police fired tear gas at protesters during a demonstration in Hong Kong’s Yuen Long district on July 27, 2019. Photo: Anthony Wallace / AFP

By early evening, protesters began making their return home via the nearby metro station, though many remained on the streets in a continuing standoff with law enforcement at the time of publication. Police had earlier issued a rare refusal of permission for the gathering to be held over concerns of violence and clashes.

That didn’t deter activists, who have turned up at the town in large numbers despite the march being designated as an “unlawful assembly.” Seething with outrage over attacks carried out on July 21 by assailants with links to triad gangs that targeted protesters and others, the crowds have mobilized to make a stand.

“We are here because we want to show the triad gangs and the government that we are not afraid of their threats,” said Gloria, a 27-year-old nurse who hid her identity by wearing large sunglasses and a face mask. “The police have opposed our protest today. Shame on them. I think the police are connected with the gangsters.”

Wanted signs posted for those reputedly involved in mob violence instigated by triad-linked assailants on July 21 hang throughout Hong Kong, July 27, 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie

Activists and others have heaped scorn at law enforcement for arriving too late to Yuen Long’s MTR station on the night carnage ensued, with white-shirted men carrying Chinese national flags indiscriminately attacking black-shirted activists and others with iron bars and bamboo sticks. Twelve people have been arrested in connection with the episode.

A protester sprays graffiti on a police van during the demonstration in Hong Kong’s Yuen Long district on July 27, 2019. Photo: Anthony Wallace / AFP

Police have been accused of intentionally turning a blind eye to the marauding gang’s violent actions and even of colluding with the attackers, allegations strongly denied by authorities. The lapse in response, according to police, was due to overstretched manpower as officers were deployed across Hong Kong Island to deal with various mass protests.

“The gangsters or thugs just announced what they would do in advance in social media and the police did not react promptly when the attacks happened. At prima facie, the police accommodated the thugs’ actions and cooperated with them,” believes Clemence Poon, a senior lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Hong Kong police fire tear gas during demonstrations in Hong Kong’s Yuen Long district on July 27, 2019. Photo: Anthony Wallace / AFP

Police inaction in the face of thuggish attacks against protesters, journalists and innocent passers-by “has exceeded the bottom line of general Hong Kong people,” he added. At least 45 people were hospitalized with injuries following the incident.

“This can explain why there are so many protestors from different industries including government departments using different means to voice out their views against the government and police after the incident.”

Rallies against the government and police in support of the protest movement show no sign of abating, with an estimated 15,000 protesters staging an unprecedented sit-in organized by aviation workers at Hong Kong International Airport on Friday. Civil servants, hospital staff and others have also issued recent statements in support of the protest movement.

“I think the government, especially [Chief Executive] Carrie Lam, has lost control of the situation. It is basically the police officers who decide how to act against us and the triads,” Calex, a 23-year-old protester, told Asia Times.

“You can see that, especially in Yuen Long district, the police have very nice relations with the triads and are basically cooperating.”

A demonstrator wields a long bamboo stick as he prepares for riot police to advance, July 27, 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie

Isabella Ng, an ethnographer who researches indigenous Cantonese and Hakka communities who reside within the area’s walled villages where Sunday’s attackers are believed to come from, said local police were wary of wading into the affairs of such rural groups, whose presence in the area dates back centuries.

“I would say the majority of residents in the walled villages are pro-China, but whether they are pro-establishment, I am not sure. They are very much ‘red villages’ which have a comfortable and friendly relationship with the Chinese government,” she explained.

“These people feel very tied to the land and the police are careful not to trespass or get involved in their business too much. Usually, they resolve their own issues within the villages,” said Ng, an assistant professor and associate head of the Department of Asian and Policy Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong.

“Police are very worried about what could happen if residents of the walled villages become infuriated, they may not be able to handle it,” she said, explaining why authorities chose not to approve applications for a rally in the town.

A policeman is seen through a broken window on a police van as protesters demonstrate in Hong Kong’s Yuen Long district on July 27, 2019. Photo: Anthony WALLACE / AFP

There are further indications that authorities are feeling the pressure over authorities’ mishandling of recent violence in Yuen Long. Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, the city government’s second-in-command, issued an unexpected apology yesterday over the police’s failure to stop the gang-linked attacks.

“With regard to the way we handled this incident… there is a discrepancy between what the police did and what the public expected. I am absolutely willing to apologize to residents for how it was handled,” the official stated at a press conference yesterday, describing the triad-affiliated perpetrators as “thugs” for the first time.

Cheung’s remarks were taken as an affront by police associations, who said they had not been consulted in advance about the apology. Some frontline officers have reportedly accused the government of “throwing police under the bus” as unyielding mass demonstrations enter their eighth consecutive week.

Riot police stand in formation before firing tear gas canisters at black-shirted protesters assembled near Yuen Long Plaza mall, July 27, 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie

“Your remarks have shattered our firm belief in our duty. Your words have completely written off our efforts in maintaining law and order over the past few months, and written off our sacrifices, too. You have completely disappointed us,” read a statement issued by the Police Inspectors’ Association.

“We can’t even understand your words, let alone agree with them,” it said.<iframe

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The police uproar over Cheung’s apology to the public “exposes the ‘Never Wrong’ culture and ‘Warlord’ mentality of the police force,” according to Poon. “The origins or culprits of damaging the law and order of Hong Kong are Carrie Lam’s administration and the police force’s mentality and, unluckily, they insist they are correct,” he told Asia Times.

Hong Kong’s No 2-official appealed to protesters in Yuen Long to express their views in a “peaceful and rational manner.” Cheung, however, did not concede to protesters’ demand for an independent inquiry into the policing of recent protests and held fast to the government’s position that “established mechanisms” are enough to deal with the matter.

Thousands of protesters demonstrate in Hong Kong’s Yuen Long district on July 27, 2019, in defiance of police orders. Photo: Anthony Wallace / AFP

Residents of Yuen Long reportedly began stockpiling food on Friday, with some opting to leave the town altogether with hopes of avoiding demonstrations in which police have assessed a “fairly high chance” for clashes occur between black-shirted anti-government protesters and white-shirted, pro-China villagers.

Yuen Long’s narrow streets were at a standstill from early afternoon onwards, thronged with protesters in face masks and black t-shirts, some of whom carried umbrellas and hiking sticks for the purpose of self defense.

“No one knows what will happen here, but there is talk that the triads will attack us so what we are doing is basically protecting ourselves,” said Calex, who wore black protective gear and a helmet. “Violence looks like the new normal,” added another protester who withheld his name.

Protesters demonstrate in the district of Yuen Long in Hong Kong on July 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace