ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Protesters in Hong Kong have been demonstrating now for 22 weeks. The protests against the Beijing-backed government have mobilized residents from all walks of life. NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng has this report about three straight days of protests in October and the people at the very front lines.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: It's Sunday, and tens of thousands are marching again in Hong Kong. They're protesting the government's ban on face masks. Riot police soon fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEAR GAS FIRING)
FENG: People run, but a few mass protesters dart forward and pour water over the smoking round, killing it.
KAREN: We have firefighters, which are the ones which put off the tear gas.
FENG: That's Karen, a paralegal and a regular protest attendee. Like everyone in the story, she doesn't want to provide a full name because she risks a prison sentence of up to a decade for going to unauthorized demonstrations. She's explaining to me the roles most hard-line protesters have. Everyone calls them frontline defenders. They pull out signs to build street barricades and rip up bricks to throw during increasingly violent clashes.
KAREN: You can call them shooters. So they are hauling bricks. They're hauling firebombs outside. And then, also, they'll have - what's that, again? - whistles - yes - which are taking binoculars or trying to decipher how the police are going to work or how they're planning.
FENG: But it's not just frontline defenders keeping the momentum going behind the protests. Ordinary residents enraged by police brutality and seeming government indifference pitch in any way they can - driving the protesters home, donating gas masks and gloves and even creating an underground network for medical care.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
FENG: The next day, Monday, at a smaller rally outside a police station, a demonstrator cuts her finger. Immediately, protesters shelter her from view with umbrellas and then cross their arms in the air. Others repeat the gesture, yelling for help.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: First aid, first aid.
FENG: A volunteer medic in a bright yellow vests sprints over and administers aid. His backpack is stuffed with vials of saline to treat tear gas and bandages for splints.
CALVIN: (Through interpreter) I treat the more serious injuries - gunshot wounds from rubber bullets, cuts, bone fractures.
FENG: Calvin is a 22-year-old EMT, but he quit his job to attend protests full time, one of the hundreds of volunteer medics at even the most violent of street clashes every night tending to the wounded.
CALVIN: (Through interpreter) Unlike a lot of other volunteer medics, I'm trained for this, so I'm used to it. I'm using my savings to pay for all of this, including my medical supplies.
FENG: Calvin sleeps during the day, then goes out to protest in the late afternoon. After riot police retreat back into their station, he sits down the curb, smoking a cigarette and scrolling chat groups in case there is police action elsewhere. Tonight's quiet, but Calvin isn't going home just yet. Police have sought to arrest protesters at hospitals, so Calvin and other medics also do house visits for more seriously wounded people. That way, protesters could be treated without being identified as a frontline defender.
CALVIN: (Through interpreter) I'm a Hong Konger, and so I'm responsible for these people who are injured.
FENG: Police say they've arrested over 2,500 people for rioting so far. Those arrests infuriate more people into joining the front lines. One of those is B, a 41-year-old hairstylist. He only gave his first initial because his personal details have been released recently in a pro-Beijing website, and he's been receiving threatening calls. He's a little older, so he sees other front-liners a bit like his children to protect.
B: (Through interpreter) One night, riot police with water cannons were chasing us, but the front-liners didn't want to abandon their precious gear - their helmets and gas masks - which incriminate them. I had to talk them down into abandoning their toys and run.
FENG: B is also training to become a medic for future protests.
B: (Through interpreter) The protests won't stop. The fundamental issues are not resolved. Even if protests stop for the next 10 years, this discontent will only flare up again.
FENG: It's Tuesday, the day after a long weekend of protest. The city's dim sum parlors clatter back to life. An eerie normalcy quickly returns to a fatigued city. I'm meeting T, a volunteer human rights monitor. She only gave her initial because the monitors occupy a legal gray zone. They go to protests to film police, documenting brutality and creating a visual record of the protests.
T: I go into the office. Everyone's underslept (ph). Everyone's, like, feeling a little bit wired and strange and, like, not knowing how to talk at first.
FENG: The last four months of protests have felt like mourning a person that's dying in slow motion, says T, except that person is a city, and that city is her home.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Hong Kong.
[Editor's Note on October 25: The human rights monitor in the story did not want to be named because of possible retaliation, not because they "occupy a legal gray zone," as the story says. Both international law and Hong Kong’s Basic Law guarantees the right of monitors and journalists in observing protests.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.