Police Commissioner Andy Tsang looked like a winner when he appeared at a press conference after the last protest site was dismantled Monday, ending a 79-day street occupation by democracy protesters.
But he was nowhere near magnanimous in victory.
Tsang refused to apologize for the conduct of his men during the protests, or at least say why apologies are not necessary.
What many Hong Kong people will remember is not the orderly street clearing in Admiralty and Causeway Bay but the chaotic early hours of the protests when police used tear gas and pepper spray on students, and the violent clashes in Mong Kok and Admiralty, outside government headquarters.
It has been argued that the police were only doing their job. The question is, did they do a proper job?
When the police fired 87 tear gas rounds and used pepper spray to try to break up the crowds within hours of the protest being launched on Sept 28, they provoked a backlash so big it drove tens of thousands of ordinary residents into the streets in solidarity with the students.
It was clear from that instant that their strategy was flawed.
Interestingly, it was reported that the police, which had conducted months of crowd control drills, had been primed for the long haul — as long as a year of protests.
Instead, the government ordered them off the streets the next morning.
It was clear from that instant that their strategy was even more flawed.
Because what followed was random and sporadic violence on protesters and innocent bystanders.
This is where many Hong Kong people are rightly indignant of the very guardians of public safety and order.
But not all are critical of the police.
Those who have defended their actions include government officials, pro-establishment groups and ordinary citizens.
However, with society split two ways about its police force, the issue will continue to be needlessly polarizing.
Which means it’s up to Tsang to defuse the emerging social conflict by apologizing for his men and ending speculation about their behavior.
For example, were the police in cahoots with triad gangs during clashes in Mong Kok? Where the protesters right to accuse the police of being soft on rival groups?
Why were some internet users picked up from their homes after they posted pro-democracy messages?
Also, questions remain over the police beating of social worker Ken Tsang.
These concerns led the public to accuse the police of conducting a campaign of white terror and the government of running a police state.
In addition, these created the impression that the police had lost sight of their duty to serve and protect.
In little over two months, Hong Kong’s finest had become the protesters’ worst nightmare.
In the end, the police won by softening the protesters and letting them tire themselves out while waiting for the tide of public opinion to turn in their favor.
And in what amounted to political grandstanding, they marched some high-profile protesters to police stations, booked them, held them overnight but released them without charges.
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