Heavy rain failed to keep hundreds of thousands of protesters from swarming Hong Kong streets Sunday as pro-democracy demonstrators rallied against the slowly tightening grip of the Beijing government.
A section of downtown was paralyzed when protesters, crowded out of a park that had been the protest's focal point, marched through the streets despite a government ban on such marches.
The demonstration was as massive as it was peaceful. No police clashes were reported, in contrast to a string of previous protests that saw angry crowds dispersed by tear gas. The Civil Human Rights Front, which has helped organize the heavily attended rallies over the past two and a half months, estimated the crowd at more than 1.5 million people. Police said that estimate was high but did not provide a number.
Protesters seek, among other things, the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, a retraction of the government claim that the protests have been "riots," charges dropped against hundreds of protesters and formation of an independent commission to study the behavior of police and government officials.
“From front-line activists, to the elderly in nursing homes, to public housing residents, Hong Kongers have faced police brutality in the forms of tear gas, bean bag rounds and rubber bullets, which they used to disperse and arrest us," the Civil Human Rights Front said in a statement.
The group said Hong Kong residents are "deeply outraged" by the actions of the Hong Kong government and police in recent weeks. Sunday's crowds were most tightly packed around the government center.
The Hong Kong government said the demonstration was peaceful, but “participants occupied a number of thoroughfares on Hong Kong Island, seriously affecting traffic and causing much inconvenience to the community.”
Last week, President Donald Trump described the developing unrest in Hong Kong as a "tough situation" but stopped short of criticizing Beijing over its handling of the protests. The United States and China are deeply at odds over trade, although Trump agreed to delay tariffs on some Chinese goods until December.
Trump weighs in: Donald Trump calls Hong Kong protests 'tough,' 'tricky'
The top lawmakers on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a bipartisan statement Wednesday promising "universal condemnation and swift consequences" if Beijing uses force against the protesters.
China's mainland government has sharpened its rhetoric against the protesters in recent weeks, accusing protest leaders of "trampling" the law and raising a comparison to terrorism.
The protests were prompted by a contentious proposal that would have allowed extradition of Hong Kong residents to China. Lam, who killed the proposal, still faces fierce criticism from pro-democracy leaders demanding her resignation.
Demonstrations remained peaceful until about six weeks ago, when protesters smashed through glass doors and stormed legislative offices. Police in riot gear fired tear gas to chase crowds away from the building, and those who breached the chamber left before police could carry out a threat of force to evict the occupiers.
That protest marked the 22nd anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule. Hong Kong operates under a framework that was supposed to include the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years.
Beijing has slowly increased its control over the thriving city of more than 7 million people. Its power comes with strings attached – Hong Kong is a vital pathway for international business to China, and a crackdown that cools global financial interests could severely affect China's economy.
Harley Ho, 20, a social work student, was among the protesters Sunday. She said they were undeterred by the rain and would not rest until their demands were met.
“We will stand here, we will take action until they respond to us,” she told The Associated Press. “In the rain, our spirit becomes stronger.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hong Kong: Hundreds of thousands march for democracy