HONG KONG -- Protesters flooding downtown Hong Kong to stop the government's proposed extradition law effectively presented the city's leaders with an ultimatum: back down, or risk violent clashes that could be worse than the Occupy movement in 2014.
Thousands of demonstrators gathered in the heart of the financial hub Wednesday, and some battled with riot police throughout the afternoon to prevent lawmakers from debating the bill. Overwhelmingly young, many protesters wore surgical masks to hide their identities and plastic goggles to ward off pepper spray, which police fired sporadically throughout the day, along with tear gas, rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds.
Hong Kong's government, led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, says it has no intention of giving in to the protesters' key demand: scrapping the proposed law that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China, among other places. Lam has argued the bill is a necessary measure to update the city's rules for dealing with individuals facing criminal charges elsewhere.
But the protesters managed to scuttle the debate on Wednesday, and it's now unclear when legislators will reconvene for 66 hours of scheduled discussions before a vote, which was originally planned for later this month.
"This time some people say peaceful protest is useless," said Suki Fung, 24, catching her breath after inhaling tear gas. "People think there has to be more of a fight -- otherwise it's useless with this government."
For the protesters, the extradition law represents a line in the sand: a dramatic undercutting of local autonomy that will end Hong Kong's status as a safe haven for dissidents fleeing the mainland. They have drawn the support of U.S. lawmakers like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who called on Congress to reassess Hong Kong's special trading status -- a move that risks damaging the city's reputation and pushing more multinationals to locations like Singapore.
"We must fight peacefully, and we must continue," opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo told the crowd. "With all your presence here, we can do it together."
The marchers were well-organized and coordinated, dropping umbrellas from an overhead walkway to provide protection from police and the rain for those in streets below. Others tied metal barricades together to ward off any potential police advancement, and some pulled bricks up from the road to use as potential projectiles.
Volunteers handed out supplies of food, water, umbrellas and masks to fellow marchers. Groups of protesters also formed neat trains to deliver components for barricades. Several people were injured, with ambulances called in.
The demonstrations are the largest since the so-called Umbrella Movement occupied part of the city center for more than two months in 2014. Those gatherings elicited fierce responses from police that included firing tear gas at the mostly student protesters, who held up yellow umbrellas for protection. People came out in force to support them, creating a standoff that lasted 79 days.