The Molotov Cocktail, once a weapon for a nation’s survival, has become a symbol of protest and “freedom-fighting” often referred to in “David vs. Goliath” terms of the people vs. a repressive state apparatus. The incendiary is so ubiquitous to violent direct action that the contemporary artist Banksy painted it as a bouquet in his ‘Rage Flower Thrower’ mural; it also appears in countless video games, perhaps most memorably in all Grand Theft Auto titles since GTA II.
In real life, it has made noticeable appearances at historical events from the Los Angeles Riots in 1992 to those against police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2017. Most recently, it is an all-too common accompaniment to rioting across Indonesia, as the aftermath of the 2019 Presidential Election demonstrated, when its usage was coordinated and paid for. It is reported that a leader of the Left-wing Red Shirts in Thailand demanded that supporters to bring bottles and gas to rallies, in the wake of which dozens died in 2009/10. So too is it a staple at nearly every G20 event whether in Hamburg in 2017 or Brazil in 2018, often seen smashed against armored vehicles, or lines of crowd control police.
Indeed, in pop culture, as well as at anti-government demonstrations the world over, the weapon shows, with regional variations. In Venezuela, the so-called “puputov”, a glass jar filled with excrement was and remains popular, whereas a Black Bloc guide online suggests using all sorts of thickening agents “dish soap, blood, sugar, rubber cement, Styrofoam, motor oil or laundry detergent.” This commentary explores the weapon’s usage in recent history and its deadliness, thereafter attempting to sketch its genesis in the Hong Kong protests before concluding with remarks concerning its cultural and linguistic significance.
What’s the Harm?
At present, in Hong Kong, the weapon is rarely referred to by its proper name, designated instead a “gas” or “petrol bomb”. Protests are reported by external NGOs as peaceful, with militant activity whitewashed if mentioned at all. This is important, as several authors have noted that media frequently discerns a “protest” from a “riot” on the basis of the weaponry or methods adopted by those participating, itself based on differing applications of media linguistics, or framing.
The logic becomes brutally simple; if Molotov cocktails are present, the event is a riot; if they are absent, it is a protest. By not mentioning them at all, media outlets are free to designate the events in Hong Kong ‘protests’, even when Molotov cocktails are thrown since they are actually “petrol bombs”, with the throwers falling under one sympathizer’s classification as those who “flirt with the line between non-violent and violent protest, disrupting the usual functioning of the city in order to demonstrate that people have withdrawn their consent for how the city is being governed.”
Whatever the weapon or its user are called, their potency and deadliness remain the same. In 2013, the Queensland Government published a manual ahead of the G20 Summit entitled “Safety and Security” grouping Molotov cocktails with “a bomb, […] a container containing acid that is catapulted into a declared area [and] a ball bearing fired from a shanghai into a security area” as deadly and dangerous weapons for officers to be aware of.
Concerning the notion of “flirting the line”, US Federal Courts have drawn it distinctly. Wil Casey Floyd, a member of the Black Bloc who threw with what he claims were unlit Molotov Cocktails at police officers in Seattle during a May-Day celebration in 2016 is now “flirting” behind bars on a 3 year prison sentence. The presiding judge, Ricardo S. Martinez, noted interestingly that “this country was founded by protest, it’s as American as apple pie…but there are limits, there are rules of law.”
Elsewhere across the globe, others have perished from lit Molotov Cocktails with alarming frequency. In Cairo, Egypt in 2015, a disgruntled employee hurled one at his former place of employment, a restaurant, killing 16 people and wounding two. A year later in Bahrain, youths, subsequently described by the media as “terrorists” killed a police officer and wounded two others in a Molotov cocktail ambush against their squad car. Less than a month prior to publication, halfway around the world in Mexico a Molotov cocktail attack against a strip club in Coatzacoalcos led to 26 deaths, igniting a furious response from Mexican authorities to track down the perpetrators. In all three cases, as well as that of Wil Casey, terrorism-related charges have been leveled against the throwers.
The usage of Molotov Cocktails in Hong Kong described here is by no means exhaustive, but does cover the most recent incidents. The first appearance of a Molotov cocktail is believed to have been on the 7th of June, with the weapon thrown at police stations in Happy Valley and Wan Chai. In the Wan Chai incident, a figure dressed entirely in black in a Mercedes stopped in front of the headquarters and threw a Molotov cocktail at a police van which had just pulled up to an intersection and turned on its blue lights. Those arrested (reported as Triads) were subsequently charged with arson. The incident is remarkably similar to that in Bahrain which led to the death of an officer and injuring of two others. Although not an attack, in June Chief Executive Carrie Lam received a death threat which mentioned that both she and her husband would be killed by a “petrol bomb” if she did not withdraw the Extradition Bill.
Police reported on the 26th of July that they had found an unused Molotov cocktail in a car park in Sheung Wan following a protest march in the surrounding area. Two days later, fires were set to a shopping trolley loaded with cardboard and pushed downhill towards police at the junction of Des Voeux Road Central and Morrison Street, creating a makeshift incendiary.
On the 10th of August, a police officer sustained injuries from a Molotov cocktail thrown by protesters at Tsim Tsa Shui, believed to be the first appearance during street confrontations between protesters and police, with a second also thrown. From this point in time, the frequency and number of Molotov cocktails rises sharply.
Here it is crucial to note that by this point in time (10 August 2019) the Extradition Bill was declared “dead” (although not formally withdrawn) and had been so for the better part of a month; it would be formally withdrawn at the beginning of September.
Over the weekend of the 24-25th of August, multiple “gas bombs” were thrown by protesters at police in street clashes, featuring again during illegal gatherings outside of the Legislative Council building on the 31st. During that weekend alone, 80 Molotov cocktails were thrown and one-third of all MTR stations were damaged to varying degrees, many presumably by fire or incendiaries.
September has seen an unwelcome regularity accompany Molotov usage. On the 1st protesters lit their barricades and threw Molotov cocktails in the Admiralty and Causeway Bay districts. Four days later, in the early morning hours of the 5th, two men threw such devices at the home of Apple Media founder Jimmy Lai in Ho Man Tin, with the police launching a city-wide manhunt. Less than 24 hours following, a barricade outside of Mong Kok police station was set ablaze on the 6th. Wan Chai, specifically its MTR station was the target on the 15th, with fires set there and the station trashed, with damage estimates exceeding $HK10 million. One week prior to this commentary (21st) protesters marching from Tuen Mun threw Molotov cocktails and set fires outside of Yoho Mall.
And on the 28th at government headquarters, Molotovs were thrown (as well as bricks) by activists, prompting the largely peaceful gathering, to be ended abruptly owing to fears of bodily harm and life.
During press conferences, protesters and activists often refer to embracing non-violent civil disobedience, however, the importation of violent elements into this practice, such as Molotov cocktails or setting fires does not belong to this canon of passive resistance. This worrying trend is part of the larger “militarization” present among radical/extremist sections of the protesters.
Three days prior to publication of this commentary, Richard Scotford, a UK national and former long-term Hong Kong resident, called for protesters to “adopt guerrilla warfare tactics”, which would entail isolating, surrounding and ambushing small groups of police. Posts on LIHKG have called for surrounding police stations and attacking the buildings with fires and incendiaries.
Mirroring this, one group which rose to prominence following the 10/11 of August is the so-called “LIHKG Scorched-Earth Team”, the reference here again to a military practice of leaving nothing to one’s enemy and “burning the earth” a practice forbidden since 1977 by the Geneva Convention.
What connection these offensive tactics have, if any to the preservation of democracy or acceptance of the Five Demands is unclear. What remains clear, however, is that the tactical usage of Molotov cocktails (or their derivatives) on a battlefield setting is a brutal reality of war while their application in (un)civil protests only increases the threshold for violence and endangers those desiring to express themselves peacefully and in accordance with the rule of law.