Video Of Hong Kong Police Beating A Protester Could Be The Stagnant Protests' Turning Point

On Wednesday, a video of policemen beating and kicking a protestor in Hong Kong surfaced Wednesday, drawing international condemnation. After a night of skirmishes between police and the protestors over the main thoroughfares, a local TV station filmed what appears to be six policemen carry a detained protestor over into a dark corner before dropping him to the ground and proceeding to kick and beat him. The footage of the beating went viral, begging the question of whether the pro-democracy protest movement – which appeared to be dwindling in the Asian financial center after three weeks – would be reinvigorated in light of the police assault and the lukewarm government response.

The night began like many others for the protest movement. Ken Tsang was helping fellow Hong Kong protestors occupy a tunnel near the city center. Shortly after 3 am, police detained him, secured his hands behind his back with a plastic tie, removed him from the protest site and then began to kick and punch him.

Outside a Hong Kong police station Wednesday night, Tsang showed reporters his injuries: dark red bruises on his back, chest and face, including circular marks the size of bottle caps. Normally, he volunteers as a social worker with struggling children. (Warning: While the action is far away, the video does show police officers punching and kicking a man on the ground.)

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The Hong Kong police said in a statement Wednesday that the officers are under investigation and have been reassigned. Protestors and watchdog groups have complained that such actions are not enough.

So what on earth is going on in Hong Kong? A short recap: Protests broke out three weeks ago after the Chinese Communist Party announced that it would screen any candidates running for chief executive in Hong Kong in 2017, which many saw as a breach of China’s promise to grant the former British territory the right to a democratic vote. During the first few days, police used tear gas to dispel the protests, which ultimately led more Hong Kong residents to join their fellow citizens in the streets.

At the protests’ peak, close to 100,000 occupied the main thoroughfares, blocking traffic and calling for fair elections and the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Leung, Hong Kong’s top official, has the backing of the Chinese Communist Party.

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In turn, China has showed little sign of budging, in large part because granting some political liberty in Hong Kong could rejuvenate similar campaigns for democracy on the mainland.

Over the last week, the protests have seemed to be receding as fewer people joined the encampments and increasing numbers of Hong Kong residents have called for a return to normalcy. The video of Tsang’s beating could spark renewed outrage over the lack of political accountability in a Hong Kong dominated by Beijing.

One of the protest movement’s student leaders, Joshua Wong, expressed serious concerns with the police misconduct and noted that the relationship between the movement and the officers was fast eroding, according to The New York Times.

The proper action police should take is to bring the protester to the police car, not to take him away and then punch and kick him for four minutes, Wong said.

Just as people in Hong Kong were shocked to see their professional police forces turn tear gas on nonviolent protests, Americans watched with consternation and outrage as militarized officers used similar harsh tactics on marchers in Ferguson, Mo. last month. Police crackdowns and brutality can happen anywhere, if there aren’t proper controls and a system of accountability.

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Videos like the one of Tsang are important. In a sense, Tsang was fortunate that his assault was caught on camera and that the police weren’t able to destroy the footage before the local TV station released it to the public, since many acts of police brutality or extralegal violence don't get the same public airing or vindication. Instead, they are easily ignored or brushed aside by police departments or grand juries alike. (For American examples, see John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Oscar Grant... the list goes on.)

Which is why many activists in the United States are calling for police departments to require that their officers wear body cameras, which will record their on-duty activities. Although little research has been conducted on the impact of police-worn body cameras, their use in Rialto, Calif. has proven an immense success so far. During the program's first year in 2012, statistics showed that the officers relied on force 60 percent less and that the number of citizen complaints against the department fell by 88 percent.

With the threat of public oversight, officers will have to think twice before punching an unresisting protestor or shooting an unarmed black teenager. That’s a change we can believe in.

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