Militia at violent New Mexico protest linked to white supremacy, domestic terror: mayor

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – Members of a heavily armed New Mexico militia blamed for sparking violence at a protest where a demonstrator was shot are trying to “prop up” white supremacy and may be connected to domestic terrorism, Albuquerque’s mayor said on Tuesday.

The peaceful protest calling for the removal of an Albuquerque statue of a Spanish conquistador turned violent on Monday after members of the New Mexico Civil Guard militia tried to keep demonstrators away from it, Albuquerque Police Commander Art Sanchez told a news briefing.

Among counter-protestors defending the statue was Steven Baca, 31, caught on video throwing a woman to the ground. Protesters then pursued him before he pulled out a handgun and shot a man, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller told the briefing.

Baca was not immediately available for comment and police declined to say whether he was part of the militia.

But Keller said vigilantes, militias and other armed civilians had for weeks menaced local protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. Protesters are demanding the removal of statues of New Mexico’s Spanish colonial rulers who killed and enslaved indigenous people.

“They have been there for quite some time attempting to prop up white supremacy, trying to intimidate those speaking out and they are armed with weapons,” Keller said of the groups, adding he was working with the FBI on their possible links to “domestic terrorism in our city.”

Keller said the sculpture of Juan de Oñate was removed on Tuesday for “public safety” after another statue of the colonial governor was taken down Monday in Alcalde, New Mexico.

Baca, a former city council candidate, was charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon for shooting Scott Williams, who was in critical condition, police said.

He won less than 6% of the votes in last year’s city council elections on a platform to encourage citizens to protect themselves with firearms, renegotiate federal restrictions on law enforcement and end sanctuary city policies.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Peter Cooney and Christopher Cushing)

Minneapolis city council pledges to disband police

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Minneapolis city council members pledged to abolish the police force whose officer knelt on the neck of a dying George Floyd, as the biggest civil rights protests in more than 50 years demanded a transformation of U.S. criminal justice.

Demonstrations have swept a country slowly emerging from the coronavirus lockdown in the two weeks since Floyd, an unarmed black man, 46, died after choking out the words “I can’t breathe” under the knee of a white police officer.

Trump said on Twitter he ordered the National Guard to start withdrawing from Washington D.C. “now that everything is under perfect control”.

Though there was violence in the early days, the protests have lately been overwhelmingly peaceful. They have deepened a political crisis for President Donald Trump, who repeatedly threatened to order active-duty troops onto the streets.

Huge weekend crowds gathered across the country and in Europe. The high-spirited atmosphere was marred late on Sunday when a man drove a car into a rally in Seattle and then shot and wounded a demonstrator who confronted him.

“I have cops in my family, I do believe in a police presence,” said Nikky Williams, a black Air Force veteran who marched in Washington on Sunday. “But I do think that reform has got to happen.”

The prospect that Minneapolis could abolish its police force altogether would have seemed unthinkable just two weeks ago. Nine members of the 13-person city council pledged on Sunday to do away with the police department in favor of a community-led safety model, though they provided little detail.

“A veto-proof majority of the MPLS City Council just publicly agreed that the Minneapolis Police Department is not reformable and that we’re going to end the current policing system,” Alondra Cano, a member of the Minneapolis council, said on Twitter.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters he would shift some funds out of the city’s vast police budget and reallocate it to youth and social services. He said he would take enforcement of rules on street vending out of the hands of police, accused of using the regulations to harass minorities.

Curfews were removed in New York and other major cities including Philadelphia and Chicago.

 

In the nation’s capital, a large and diverse gathering of protesters had packed streets near the White House, chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” and “I can’t breathe.”

A newly-erected fence around the White House was decorated by protesters with signs, including some that read: “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace.”

The “Black Lives Matter” protest slogan was also embraced on Sunday by Trump’s predecessor as Republican candidate for president, Senator Mitt Romney, who marched alongside evangelical Christians in Washington.

Romney told the Washington Post that he wanted to find “a way to end violence and brutality, and to make sure that people understand that black lives matter”.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama also addressed the protests in a YouTube speech for 2020 high school and college graduates. The demonstrations “speak to decades of inaction over unequal treatment and a failure to reform police practices in the broader criminal justice system,” Obama said.

“You don’t have to accept what was considered normal before,” he told the graduates. “You don’t have to accept the world as it is. You can make it the world as it should be.”

 

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Andrea Shalal, Daphne Psaledakis in Washington, and Jonathan Allen and Sinead Carew in New York, and Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Writing by Peter Graff, Brad Brooks and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Frank McGurty, Peter Cooney, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Tattersall)

Video shows police in Buffalo, New York, shoving 75-year-old to ground

By Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) – Two Buffalo, New York, police officers were suspended without pay on Thursday after a video showed them shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground, as protests over the police killing of George Floyd continued into their tenth night.

The video taken by a reporter from local public radio station WBFO and posted on its website and Twitter account shows the white-haired man approaching a line of officers in riot gear. One officer pushes him with a baton and a second one with his hand. The sound of a crack is heard and then blood trickles from the man’s head. The man, who is white, is not identified.

“I was deeply disturbed by the video,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said in a statement. “After days of peaceful protests and several meetings between myself, police leadership and members of the community, tonight’s event is disheartening.”

The incident drew widespread condemnation on social media as protesters returned to the streets of several U.S. cities to demonstrate against police brutality.

Floyd died in Minneapolis on May 25 after former police officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest.

The video in Buffalo shows the majority of the officers march past after the man falls, though the officer who pushed him with a baton starts to lean over him before he is motioned away by another officer. Someone is heard calling for a medic.

The radio station reported that two medics came forward and helped the man into an ambulance. Police later said that a man was injured after tripping and falling, the radio station said.

But after viewing the video, Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood ordered an investigation and suspended the two officers, Brown said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Twitter that he spoke with Mayor Brown and agreed that the officers involved should be suspended, pending a formal investigation.

He wrote,”Police Officers must enforce – NOT ABUSE – the law.”

The 75-year-old victim was in stable but serious condition at Erie County Medical Center Hospital in Buffalo, Brown said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

U.S. crowds defy curfew to protest Floyd’s death, but violence subsides

By Jonathan Ernst and Brendan O’Brien

WASHINGTON/MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – U.S. protesters ignored curfews overnight as they vented their anger over the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police, but there was a marked drop in the violence that led President Donald Trump to threaten to deploy the military.

George Floyd died after a white policeman pinned his neck under the officer’s knee for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis on May 25, reigniting the explosive issue of police brutality against African Americans five months before the November presidential election.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of cities coast to coast for an eighth night as National Guard troops lined the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

There was sporadic violence in Washington and Portland, Oregon, with protesters tossing fireworks and bottles answered by police flash grenades and tear gas.

Clashes between protesters and police and looting of some stores in New York City gave way to relative quiet in the early hours of Wednesday. Police told media they made 200 arrests, largely for curfew violations.

In Los Angeles, many demonstrators who defied the curfew were arrested, but calm had been restored by mid-evening to the extent that television stations switched from wall-to-wall coverage back to regular programming.

Large marches and rallies also took place in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver and Seattle.

The officer who knelt on Floyd, Derek Chauvin, 44, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers involved in the incident were fired but have not been charged.

‘SILENCE IS VIOLENCE’

Although rallies on behalf of Floyd and other victims of police brutality in recent days have been largely peaceful, many have turned to vandalism, arson and looting after dark. On Monday night, five police officers were hit by gunfire in two cities.

Outside the U.S. Capitol building on Tuesday afternoon a throng took to one knee, chanting “silence is violence” and “no justice, no peace,” as officers faced them just before the government-imposed curfew.

Many of the protesters used the slogan “take a knee”, referring both to how Floyd died and a long-standing protest against racism in America that started in 2016 with a football player taking a knee instead of standing during the National Anthem.

The crowd remained after dark, despite the curfew and vows by Trump to crack down on what he has called lawlessness by “hoodlums” and “thugs,” using National Guard troops or even the U.S. military if necessary.

The Republican president, who is seeking re-election in November, continued his hard-line rhetoric, urging police to “get tough” in a series of tweets on Wednesday, a day after his likely challenger former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden vowed to heal the nation’s racial divide.

In Atlanta, four police officers and two former officers were charged with using excessive force while arresting two students. Minneapolis launched an investigation into possible discriminatory practices in the police department over the last 10 years.

In New York, thousands of chanting protesters ignored the curfew to march from the Barclays Center in Flatbush toward the Brooklyn Bridge as police helicopters whirred overheard.

The crowd halted at an entrance to the Manhattan Bridge roadway, chanted at riot police: “Walk with us! Walk with us.”

New York state police arrested a 30-year-old woman Tuesday after she drove a car striking three police officers at a demonstration in Buffalo on Monday.

On Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, hundreds of people filled the street, marching past famous landmarks of the film industry. Others gathered outside Los Angeles Police Department headquarters downtown, in some cases hugging and shaking hands with a line of officers outside.

Los Angeles was the scene of violent riots in 1992, following the acquittal of four policemen charged in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, that saw more than 60 people killed and an estimated $1 billion in damage.

The past week’s demonstrations have reverberated outside America, and a growing chorus of companies, celebrities and athletes have also denounced Floyd’s death and urged change.

In Rome, Pope Francis called for national reconciliation in the United States, saying that while racism is intolerable, the street violence that has broken out is “self-destructive and self-defeating”.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found a majority of Americans sympathize with the protesters.

The survey conducted on Monday and Tuesday found 64% of American adults were “sympathetic to people who are out protesting right now,” while 27% said they were not and 9% were unsure.

In Minneapolis, Roxie Washington, mother of Floyd’s six-year-old daughter, Gianna, told a news conference he was a good man.

“I want everybody to know that this is what those officers took from me …,” she said, sobbing. “Gianna does not have a father. He will never see her grow up, graduate.”

(Reporting by Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Anne Saphir, Brendan O’Brien, Nathan Layne, Brad Brooks, Diane Craft, Jonathan Allen, Sharon Bernstein, Dan Whitcomb, Aakriti Bhalla, Rich McKay and Philip Pullella; Editing by Nick Macfie and Paul Simao)

Palestinians protest, Israel braces ahead of Trump plan

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Stephen Farrell

GAZA CITY/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Thousands of Palestinians demonstrated against U.S. President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan on Tuesday hours before its scheduled release at a ceremony in Washington.

Israeli troops meanwhile reinforced positions near a flashpoint site between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

While Israeli leaders have welcomed Trump’s long-delayed plan, Palestinian leaders rejected it even before its official release. They say his administration is biased toward Israel.

The Palestinians fear Trump’s blueprint will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War – by permitting Israel to annex large chunks of occupied territory including blocs of Jewish settlements.

Diab Al-Louh, the Palestinians’ ambassador to Egypt, said on Tuesday they had requested an urgent meeting of the Arab League council at ministerial level – which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would attend.

GAZA PROTESTS

In Gaza City on Tuesday, protesters waved Palestinian flags and held aloft posters of Abbas. “Trump is a fool, Palestine is not for sale!” an activist shouted through a loudspeaker.

Others chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” as they burned tires and posters of Trump. More protests were expected after Trump announces details of his plan later in the day.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops had been sent to reinforce the West Bank’s Jordan Valley – an area which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to partially annex.

Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian mission to Britain, told Reuters in London that Trump’s peace plan was merely “political theater”.

“It is not a peace deal. It is the ‘bantustan-isation’ of the people of Palestine and the land of Palestine. We will be turned into bantustans,” he said, referring to the nominally independent black enclaves in apartheid-era South Africa.

“Jan. 28, 2020 will mark the official legal stamp of approval of the United States for Israel to implement a full-fledged apartheid system,” he said.

Israel vehemently rejects any comparison to the former South African regime.

GOOD DEAL?

Trump will deliver joint remarks with Netanyahu at the White House later on Tuesday to outline his plan, the result of three years work by his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

He met with Netanyahu and the Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz ahead of the announcement. Both were briefed on its contents.

Netanyahu said it was “the opportunity of a century and we’re not going to pass it by.” Gantz called it a “significant and historic milestone.”

A Netanyahu spokesman said he would fly to Moscow on Wednesday to brief Russian President Vladimir Putin on the proposals.

But Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down in 2014, and it is far from clear that the Trump plan will resuscitate them.

Palestinian and Arab sources who were briefed on a draft of the plan fear that it will seek to bribe Palestinians into accepting Israeli occupation, in what could be a prelude to Israel annexing about half of the West Bank.

Further obstacles include the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land and the rise to power in Gaza of the Islamist movement Hamas, which is formally committed to Israel’s destruction.

Palestinian leaders say they were not invited to Washington, and that no plan can work without them. An Abbas spokesman urged any Arab or Muslim officials invited to the ceremony to boycott it.

Addressing their fears, Trump said on Monday: “They probably won’t want it initially…but I think in the end they will. It’s very good for them. In fact it’s overly good to them.”

But on Monday Abbas said he would not agree to any deal that did not secure a two-state solution. That formula, the basis for many years of frustrated international peace efforts, envisages Israel co-existing with a Palestinian state.

Palestinians have refused to deal with the Trump administration in protest at such pro-Israeli policies as its moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose eastern half the Palestinians seek for a future capital.

The Trump administration in November reversed decades of U.S. policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington no longer regarded the settlements on West Bank land as a breach of international law. Palestinians and most countries view the settlements as illegal, which Israel disputes.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said both Trump and Netanyahu were looking to change the subject from their own domestic troubles.

“The problem is it doesn’t feel like this is the beginning of an important initiative,” Alterman said.

Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges.

On Tuesday Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on corruption charges, after he withdrew his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Both men deny any wrongdoing.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Dan Williams and Steven Holland in Washington; Editing by Angus Macswan and Mark Heinrich)

‘No, No America’: Iraq protesters demand expulsion of U.S. troops

By John Davison and Aziz El Yaakoubi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied in central Baghdad on Friday calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops, but the protest mostly dissipated after a few hours despite fears of violence following a cleric’s call for a “million strong” turnout.

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr convened the march after the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi paramilitary chief in Baghdad this month. His eventual decision to hold it away from a separate anti-government protest camp, and away from the U.S. embassy, looked pivotal in keeping the march peaceful.

Throngs started gathering early on Friday at al-Hurriya Square near Baghdad’s main university. They avoided Tahrir Square, symbol of mass protests against Iraq’s ruling elites.

“We want them all out – America, Israel, and the corrupt politicians in government,” said Raed Abu Zahra, a health worker from southern Samawa, who had come by bus to Baghdad and stayed in Sadr City, a sprawling district controlled by Sadr’s followers.

“We support the anti-government protests in Tahrir Square as well, but understand why Sadr held this protest here so it doesn’t take attention from theirs,” he added.

The protests have shattered nearly two years of relative calm following the 2017 defeat of Islamic State and threaten to send the country back into major civil strife.

Unrest erupted in October with protests against a corrupt ruling elite, including Iran-backed politicians, that have met deadly force from government security forces and pro-Iran paramilitaries that dominate the state.

Washington’s killing this month of Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani added a new dimension to the crisis.

It has temporarily united rival Shi’ite groups in opposition to the presence of U.S. troops – a rallying cry that critics say aims simply to refocus the street and kill the momentum of the anti-establishment protests that challenge their grip on power.

Sadr, who commands a following of millions in vast Baghdad slums, opposes all foreign interference in Iraq but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran, whose allies have dominated state institutions since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Sadr supported anti-government protests when they began in October, but did not publicly urge his followers to join them.

The demonstrations have since taken aim at all groups and figures that are part of the post-2003 system including Sadr, who although often considered an outsider is part of that system, commanding one of the two largest blocs in parliament.

Parliament urged the government to eject U.S. troops after the killing of Soleimani, but Sunni and Kurdish politicians boycotted the session, the first time lawmakers have voted along ethnic and sectarian lines since the defeat of IS.

Sunnis and Kurds generally oppose the withdrawal of U.S. troops, seeing them as crucial in fighting against IS remnants and a buffer against dominance of Iran.

“DO NOT CROSS THIS BARRIER”

U.S.-Iran tension playing out on Iraqi soil has further fractured Iraqi politics and distracted leaders from forming a new government.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called in his weekly sermon for political groups to form a government as soon as possible to bring stability to the country and enact reforms to improve Iraqis’ lives.

“Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected … and citizens should have the right to peaceful protest,” said the cleric, who comments on politics only in times of crisis and wields great influence over Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

Iraqi President Barham Salih posted a photo of Friday’s march on Twitter and wrote that Iraqis deserved a “fully sovereign state that serves its people.”

Under the government of caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who said he would quit in November, security forces and unidentified gunmen believed to be linked to powerful Iran-backed militias killed nearly 450 anti-establishment protesters.

Marchers on Friday wore Iraqi flags and symbolic white robes indicating they were willing to die for Iraq while others sat looking out over the square from half finished buildings, holding signs reading “No America, no Israel, no colonialists”.

Anti-American marchers were protected by Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam, or Peace Brigades, and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella grouping of mostly Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, witnesses said.

The march did not head as initially feared towards U.S. Embassy, the scene of violent clashes last month when militia supporters tried to storm the compound.

Many marchers boarded buses in the early afternoon to head home. A smaller number shuffled along towards Tahrir Square.

Outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, a sign read “Warning. Do not cross this barrier, we will use pre-emptive measures against any attempt to cross”.

(Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by William Maclean)

Iraqi cleric warns against meddling as protest death toll rises

Iraqi cleric warns against meddling as protest death toll rises
By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric said that a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian influence as gunmen killed at least eight people near a Baghdad protest site on Friday.

More than 20 others were wounded near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the Iraqi capital, police and medics said, a week after Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he would resign following two months of anti-government protests.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments followed reports that a senior Iranian commander had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Shi’ite Iran’s interests.

Sistani has repeatedly condemned the killing of unarmed protesters and has also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and stop saboteurs turning their opposition violent.

The departure of Abdul Mahdi, whom Tehran had fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after protests that have increasingly focused anger against what many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling in their politics and institutions.

Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric, has long opposed any foreign interference as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy being closely involved in running state institutions.

He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds enormous sway over public opinion.

“We hope a new head of government and its members will be chosen within the constitutional deadline” of 15 days since the resignation was formalized in parliament on Sunday, a representative of Sistani said in his Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.

“It must also take place without any foreign interference,” he said, adding that Sistani would not get involved in the process of choosing a new government.

The burning of Iran’s consulate in the holy city of Najaf, the seat of Iraq’s Shi’ite clergy, and subsequent killings of protesters by security forces in southern cities paved the way for Sistani to withdraw his support for Abdul Mahdi.

Abdul Mahdi pledged to step down last week after Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government following two months of anti-establishment protests where security forces have killed more than 400 demonstrators.

More than a dozen members of the security forces have been killed in the clashes.

Washington on Friday imposed sanctions on three Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary leaders who it accused of directing the killing of Iraqi protesters. A senior U.S. Treasury official suggested the sanctions were timed to distance those figures from any role in forming a new government.

Iraq’s two main allies, the United States and Iran, have acted as power brokers in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, although Tehran’s allies have mostly dominated state institutions since then.

Iranian officials including the powerful commander of its Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, stepped in to prevent Abdul Mahdi’s resignation in October, Reuters reported.

Soleimani was reported to be in Baghdad this week.

Abdul Mahdi’s government, including himself, will stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government can be chosen, the prime minister said last week.

President Barham Salih officially has 15 days – until Dec. 16 – to name a new premier tasked with forming a government that would be approved by parliament up to a month later.

Iraqi lawmakers say they will then move to hold a general election next year but protesters say that without a new, fully representative electoral law and unbiased electoral commission, a snap vote will keep corrupt politicians in power.

(Reporting by John Davison, Editing by William Maclean, Angus MacSwan, Giles Elgood and Alexander Smith)

Protesters left on besieged HK campus weigh their options

By Kate Lamb and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – At least eight protesters who had been holding out at a trashed Hong Kong university surrendered on Friday, while others searched for escape routes past riot police who surrounded the campus but said there was no deadline for ending the standoff.

The siege at the Polytechnic University on the Kowloon peninsula appeared to be nearing an end with the number of protesters dwindling to a handful, days after some of the worst violence since anti-government demonstrations escalated in June.

Police chief Chris Tang, who took up the post this week, urged those remaining inside to come out.

“I believe people inside the campus do not want their parents, friends … to worry about them,” Tang told reporters.

Those who remain say they want to avoid being arrested for rioting or on other charges, so hope to find some way to slip past the police or hide.

Sitting in the largely deserted campus, one holdout described how his girlfriend had pleaded with him to surrender to the police.

He had refused, he said, telling her she might as well find another partner because he would likely go to jail.

“A man has to abandon everything otherwise it’s impossible to take part in a revolution,” the protester told Reuters.

Another man sitting nearby agreed, saying it was just as well he was divorced because a “man with family cannot make it to here.”

The campus was so quiet on Friday you could hear the chants of Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers exercising on their nearby base.

Many levels of the buildings look like abandoned rebel hideouts strewn with remains — rucksacks, masks, water bottles, cigarette butts, with security cameras smashed throughout. Lockers were stuffed with gas masks and black clothes, and a samurai sword lay on the ground where it was abandoned.

“We are feeling a little tired. All of us feel tired but we will not give up trying to get out,” said a 23-year-old demonstrator who gave his name as Shiba as he ate noodles in the protesters’ canteen.

A Reuters reporter saw six black-clad protesters holding hands walk towards police lines, while a first aid worker said two more surrendered later.

The protests snowballed from June after years of resentment over what many residents see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Protesters, who have thrown fire bombs and rocks and fired bows and arrows at police, are calling for full democracy and an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, among other demands.

Police have responded to the attacks with rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon and occasional live rounds but say they have acted with restraint in life-threatening situations.

On Friday Hong Kong’s High Court said it would temporarily suspend its ruling that found a controversial law banning protesters from wearing face masks is unconstitutional.

The court said it would suspend its ruling for seven days while appeals processes proceeded.

Beijing has said it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong is governed. It denies meddling in its affairs and accuses foreign governments, including Britain and the United States, of stirring up trouble.

One older protester, who estimated only about 30 demonstrators remained, said some had given up looking for escape routes and were now making new weapons to protect themselves in case police stormed the campus.

There have been two days and nights of relative calm in the city ahead of district council elections that are due to take place on Sunday.

Tang said police would adopt a “high-profile” presence on Sunday and he appealed to protesters to refrain from violence so people feel safe to vote.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Alun John, Kate Lamb, Jessie Pang and Felix Tam; Writing by By Anne Marie Roantree, Marius Zaharia, Nick Macfie and Josh Smith; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Philippa Fletcher)

‘Fire magicians’ and medieval weaponry: a Hong Kong university under siege

By Kate O’Donnell-Lamb, Jessie Pang and Tom Lasseter

HONG KONG (Reuters) – For three days last week, anti-government protesters camped out at Hong Kong’s sprawling Polytechnic University prepared for what they feared might be a bloody, even deadly, battle with police.

In the university’s heart, littered with smashed glass and covered in revolutionary graffiti spray-painted on the walls, the black-clad demonstrators in gas masks sawed metal poles into batons and practiced firing rocks from a makeshift catapult. Nearby, others ferried around crates of petrol bombs and wrapped arrows in cloth to set aflame.

On Saturday, the battle began as police moved in to clear the campus and the protesters responded with barrages of rocks and petrol bombs, leaving parts of the university in flames.

After more than five months of protests calling for greater democratic freedoms amid growing anxiety over Chinese influence in Hong Kong, the demonstrations have taken a sudden and dangerous turn, engulfing the city’s universities for the first time.

On five campuses in the Chinese-ruled territory, students armed with medieval-type weaponry turned their universities into rebel fortresses, amid a growing sense by many that sustained peaceful protests were futile. On the other side of the barricades and beyond the flames of burning debris were lines of riot police, armed with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Most of the universities were cleared of demonstrators by the weekend. But the showdown between police and demonstrators at Polytechnic University was grinding on Tuesday, as officers maintained a siege around the campus, where about 100 protesters were still holed up.

During the past week, Reuters journalists have covered the violent confrontations at four Hong Kong universities, including the Polytechnic, as an increasingly militant protest movement suddenly shifted tactics.

‘FIRE MAGICIANS’ AND CATAPULTS

Toward the end of last week, as many as a thousand students occupied the Polytechnic campus. But the numbers dwindled over the next two days, as protesters feared police would lay siege to the campus.

The preparations, though, did not abate. In the cafeteria, tables were laden with supplies – mountains of bottled water, energy drinks, chocolate, torches, toothbrushes and power banks. Outside, a team produced petrol bombs, while the university’s archery team gave impromptu lessons on how to draw a bow.

Teams of “fire magicians”, tasked with lobbing petrol bombs at police on the frontlines, practiced by throwing empty bottles into the university’s drained swimming pool.

The campus is located in a strategic spot next to the Cross Harbour Tunnel, a major artery linking the Kowloon peninsula to Hong Kong island that had been barricaded by protesters. One aim of the Polytechnic occupation was keeping the tunnel shut, protesters said.

Demonstrators who streamed into the university last week encountered what had become a small on-campus village. Hot food was served in the cafeteria, where signs were posted asking media not to take photographs so that weary young men and women could shed their masks to eat and chat. Nearby, others napped on yoga mats spread across a basketball court.

Among the protesters, there was also a growing sense of foreboding about the looming battle with police.

“Once you come out, you know that anything can happen, especially when you are on the frontline, even real bullets,” said Chen, a 21-year-old student and one of the “fire magicians”. Preparing for the worst, Chen, who only provided his surname, said he had recently penned a will.

The campus occupations began on Nov. 11 after police shot an anti-government protester during a demonstration.

Widespread street protests in Hong Kong escalated in June after an eruption of public anger over perceived encroachments on Hong Kong’s autonomy by the Chinese government. The trigger was a bill introduced by Hong Kong’s government that would have allowed the extradition of suspects to the mainland for trial.

The bill has since been withdrawn, but anger has only grown over the government’s perceived indifference to the demands of the protesters, which include an independent investigation into alleged police brutality and an amnesty for arrested protesters.

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has said she would not be swayed by violence to yield to the demands of protesters. On Tuesday, she said she hoped the university standoff would end soon and that she was shocked that campuses had transformed into “weapons factories”.

In response to questions from Reuters, Lam’s office said: “The Chief Executive has made it clear on various occasions that violence is not a solution to any problem.”

The Hong Kong Police Force did not respond to questions from Reuters.

CHANGED TACTICS

Fears that police were preparing to enter universities and arrest students involved in protests sparked an online appeal to protect campuses, attracting an influx of young protesters. Once on campus, they began preparing weapons and fire bombs, and blocking key adjacent roads that prevented people from getting to work in an effort to engineer a general strike.

And they dug in.

That marked a significant tactical shift for the protesters, whose motto has been “be like water”, a philosophy about being flexible that has underpinned the leaderless wildcat protests. The protesters had utilized Hong Kong’s topography to their advantage, gathering on busy urban streets with plenty of escape routes, making it difficult for the police to arrest more than a few at a time.

The Polytechnic occupiers set up barricades and walls of brick and cement of their own making. But hunkering down meant they would be trapped on campus, with police standing by ready to make arrests on charges carrying heavy prison sentences: rioting, trespassing and theft of public property.

Police began their siege of the Polytechnic on Saturday. By Tuesday, they said that they had “arrested and registered” about 1,100 people in and around the university. Some people tried slipping out past the police cordons in dramatic fashion: through the sewers, or abseiling down a rope hanging from a bridge.

But a hard core of about 100 remained, according to Reuters estimates.

AN APPETITE FOR VIOLENCE

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s new police chief, Chris Tang, called for support from all citizens to help end the unrest by condemning acts of violence.

Many of the protesters interviewed at university campuses over the past week expressed a sense of futility, saying non-violent opposition was not proving effective.

“We are not destroying things for nothing,” said Yip, a 21-year-old Polytechnic student, standing amid the protest debris on campus. She only gave her surname. “This is the only way we can fight for freedom.”

Others said they were frustrated by the fact that nothing had happened after the “Umbrella Protest” of 2014, when protesters occupied city streets for 11 weeks. The call for greater democracy had been followed by an erosion of freedoms in the city, they said.

Most said their tactics were justified in the face of what they see as brutal force used by the police to quell the protests.

“We are just doing this to protect ourselves,” said Chen, the “fire magician”. “I don’t think we are using violence, we are just policing the police.”

Lee, a 20-year-old nursing student, joined the protests in June, taking to the streets to peacefully demonstrate against the extradition bill.

On Saturday afternoon, she sat on a terrace at the Polytechnic where young men and women hurled petrol bombs at the police on the street below. Unlike the protesters around her, Lee’s face, under a pair of pigtails, was not covered – she’d taken off her mask to sip a juice box.

Asked about the violence, she said of the police that, “they are not following the rules – every time we try to be peaceful, they create new problems.”

“There has to be someone here to defend the things we deserve,” she said.

Later that evening, four young men with metal-tipped arrows rushed out to the same spot, drew back the strings of their bows and sent the missiles hurtling into the darkness toward the police beyond the barricades.

TENSE WAIT AT POLYTECHNIC

The campus occupation movement began at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, located beyond the mountains that loom over Kowloon in the New Territories. On Nov. 11, hundreds of protesters there began constructing barricades on campus and blocked off a nearby highway with bricks and branches.

After a standoff of several days, the police moved in, breaking up barricades and unleashing tear gas. Protesters let loose a hail of petrol bombs, setting fire to a bridge that crossed the highway.

From the Chinese University, the protests spread rapidly to other campuses, including Hong Kong Polytechnic.

Over the course of last week, police managed to mostly clear protesters from the universities – except from the Polytechnic.

For several days, protesters at the Polytechnic waited for the onslaught from police. Then, on Saturday the police finally made a move, blocking streets and firing volleys of tear gas. Next came water cannons that sprayed the university grounds with streams of blue dye that contains an irritant that makes the skin itch. Protesters who’d been soaked stripped to their underwear as their comrades hosed them down.

About 100 demonstrators wielding umbrellas and petrol bombs led a charge against the police lines, backed by the deployment of their makeshift weapons behind them, as local residents gathered on street corners to watch.

One police officer was rushed to hospital after being shot in the leg with an arrow.

On Sunday, as a government helicopter circled the campus, the police adopted a new strategy, sealing off surrounding roads to prevent protesters escaping. Officers warned they were ready to use live bullets if protesters used lethal weapons.

Thirty-eight people were injured in the siege, amid barrages of tear gas, water cannons and petrol bombs. A police van and the university entrance were set ablaze.

By Tuesday, there appeared to be only about 100 protesters left at the university.

One of them, a man who gave his name as Sun, said he wasn’t planning to leave. “There are people out there who have been beaten till their heads were bloodied, it’s not fair to them,” he said. “Those who are staying here, we’ve got to hold out.”

(Reporting by Kate O’Donnell Lamb, Jessie Pang and Tom Lasseter in Hong Kong; additional reporting contributed by Sarah Wu. Editing by Philip McClellan)

Chicago teachers strike enters seventh school day as talks continue

Chicago teachers strike enters seventh school day as talks continue
CHICAGO (Reuters) – About 300,000 students in Chicago missed classes for a seventh day on Friday as the city’s teachers union and school district worked to resolve their contract deadlock over class sizes, support-staff levels and pay.

Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for Friday, but the leader of the Chicago Teachers Union said good progress was made during negotiations on Thursday.

“We had conversations that hopefully will give us a path to a settlement,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said at a Friday morning news conference. “Right now I’m guardedly optimistic.”

The union, which represents the city’s 25,000 teachers, has been without a contract since July 1. The strike began on Oct. 17.

The strike is the latest in a wave of teacher work stoppages in cities and states across the United States. Some of the strikes, such as a six-day work stoppage in Los Angeles last winter, have been based on similar school resource demands.

Only a three-week teachers strike in Union City, California, in June was longer this year.

Student athletes are feeling the repercussions, as the strike has forced the cancellation of hugely popular high school football games, with college scholarships on the line, as well as other sports and after-school activities.

That prompted one parent to seek a temporary restraining order in Cook County, Illinois, to allow the child’s team to compete in state cross-country playoffs over the weekend, ABC News said.

POLITICAL TEST

Chicago teachers voted to go on strike against the third-largest U.S. school district after contract negotiations failed to yield a deal on pay, class overcrowding and a lack of support staff, such as nurses and social workers.

The strike has been the first major political test for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a political newcomer who was elected in April.

Lightfoot, a progressive Democrat whose campaign promised to reform the school system, has said the district offered teachers a raise of 16% over five years and promised to tackle class sizes and staffing levels.

But she said the district could not afford the union’s full demands, which she estimated would cost an extra $2.4 billion annually, representing more than a 30% increase to the current $7.7 billion school budget.

“While the public is very sympathetic to the issues of more nurses and so on, there’s a pretty good understanding that it just doesn’t come out of thin air and will have to take years of effort to make the schools better,” said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago City Council member.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Paul Simao)