Editor’s Note: Four active protesters who spoke to CNN for this story requested anonymity because they feared being targeted for their comments. Calvin asked we only use his first name. “Jim,” “Bobo” and “Leslie” requested pseudonyms.
Jim bent over, collapsed and started crying.
The 16-year-old didn’t want to abandon the injured man next to him. He applied gauze to stop the man’s eye from gushing with blood, but he still was having trouble walking. Jim tried to carry him, but only made it a few feet.
Clouds of tear gas were closing in. Rubber bullets had been flying overhead. The teenager’s hours of first aid work on the front line had taken their toll. Physically he couldn’t carry the wounded man any more.
All he could do was cry.
It was June 12. Jim had never previously been to a protest. Hours earlier, when he volunteered to help treat the injured, he had no idea that he’d be in the thick of what turned out to be a dangerous encounter with Hong Kong police.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets that day to oppose a controversial bill that would have legalized extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China. The bill was inspired by the city’s inability to return the suspect of a grisly murder to Taiwan, but many Hong Kong citizens feared it would be abused by Beijing for political persecution.
Prior to June 12, Jim said he wasn’t political. He was a high school student who liked to play the violin. The son of two medical professionals, he had aspirations to one day be a doctor. A demonstration, he thought, would be a good opportunity to put some first-aid training to use.
The rally was given permission by authorities. But by mid-afternoon a number of protesters decided to storm the entrance of the city’s legislature despite the heavy police presence.
Police declared the protest a riot and used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. Jim spent about three hours treating the wounded and said what he saw changed him.
He thought the Hong Kong police had used disproportionate and “unreasonable force.”
Jim could barely sleep that night and when he did, he had nightmares. He had an exam the next day but said his brain “was totally empty.” He sat down at his desk, rested his head on the table and slept.
Thousands of young people like Jim have spent the summer on the front lines of Hong Kong’s longest sustained protests since the city returned to China in 1997. Their movement started in opposition to the bill but quickly snowballed into a grassroots, decentralized crusade for universal suffrage and independent inquiries into alleged police misconduct.
They want to be able to able to choose their own leader, who is currently appointed by a Beijing-dominated panel.
The scenes have grown increasingly violent throughout the summer. The streets of one of the safest cities in the world now regularly become battlegrounds with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse illegal demonstrations.
Hong Kong protesters' 5 demands
Protesters say they have become numb to the chaos. Many have become increasingly prone to violence. Those who spoke to CNN about their experiences did so on the condition of anonymity, fearing that they’d be targeted by police or pro-government mobs.
Jim said for him, June 12 was the turning point.
He decided it wasn’t enough just to volunteer first aid. It was time to get in on the action, even though he had never been involved in politics or been in a fight. He thought he needed to take a stand against what the police had done.
On July 1, at 3 a.m. Jim snuck out of his parents’ flat to meet the friends he’d be protesting with. He was “excited and a little bit nervous.”
“I was thinking that this time I will be with the guys who are standing on the front lines,” Jim said. He wasn’t just going to give first aid on the sidelines this time.
The day would end with part of the government’s headquarters in ruin and tear gas in the streets, scenes previously considered unthinkable in Hong Kong.
Jim had become part of a “team” of about 20 protesters. Small cells have become commonplace in the leaderless protest movement and replaced traditional top-down organization. People join groups that decide what to do based on online chatter on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, and an online forum called LIHKG that works like Reddit.
This makes it harder for authorities to track protesters and jail their leaders, a strategy often referred to here as “cutting off the head of the snake.”
Jim joined his cell after meeting a member of the team, who according to Jim, seemed brave, eloquent and persuasive. They all met up early in the morning on July 1, the anniversary of when Hong Kong was handed from Britain to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework that allowed the city more freedoms and its own legal system. That arrangement is due to expire in 2047, when Hong Kong will come under Beijing’s direct rule.