The Hong Kong police seized control of a street on Wednesday that had served for two months as a base camp for pro-democracy protesters, who were forced into retreat after a night of clashes, pepper spray and more than 100 arrests.
The police removed, for now at least, a protest camp that had attracted many of the pro-democracy movement’s most combative voices. By noon, dozens of protesters watched quietly as officers dismantled the barricades that had protected the camp.
Early on Wednesday morning, lines of officers gathered in the neighborhood of Mong Kok and, after clashes with foot-dragging protesters, moved remorselessly down Nathan Road, clearing the street camp that had been established there since late September.
The previous night, however, the protesters had forced the police back, and officers had used batons and pepper spray to subdue the thousands of protesters who surged in, trying to defend their base in Mong Kok, a crammed, neon-lit shopping and entertainment district.
As the police moved to take control of Nathan Road, two student protest leaders, Lester Shum and Joshua Wong, were arrested, according to a statement on the Facebook page of the Hong Kong Federation of Students. Mr. Wong, 18, who helped start the citywide protests two months ago after climbing over a fence into the city government’s main office complex, was featured on the cover of Time magazine in October.
Hundreds of officers had assembled on Tuesday to enforce a court injunction demanding that protesters stop blocking Argyle Street in Mong Kok. Two sites in other parts of Hong Kong are also occupied by protesters, who are demanding fully democratic elections for the city’s leader.
On Tuesday, as has happened repeatedly since the street demonstrations erupted, the police had difficulty maintaining control after initially dispersing the crowds.
In the afternoon, the police encountered growing resistance from protesters and dragged off some of the people who had not left the area set for clearance. Protesters and onlookers massed outside a mall near the cleared street, and the police formed lines to try to get the growing crowd to move on, producing tense, chaotic scenes in the crammed area. By dusk, growing crowds of demonstrators had surged in, and Mong Kok erupted into a night of chaotic clashes.
“The protests have been losing steam in the past few days, but because of the police clearance, more people have come out today,” said Bruce Lee, 38, a construction worker who was among the protesters. “The government has ceded no ground, offered no concession to us. We will not retreat.”
The confrontations rumbled late into the night, with crowds behind improvised barricades facing lines of police officers who used nozzles to disperse pepper spray. But the protesters remained defiant, taunting and berating the officers. The two-day operation led to 148 arrests, according to a police spokesman, Hui Chun-tak, who said that people had “had enough” after two months of street blockades.
“I’m here to protect my daughter and the revolution,” said Eric Leung, a postman, standing next to his daughter, a student protester. “We can’t lose Mong Kok. If we do, we must come back.”
Protesters hit by pepper spray were carried back from barricades, and elsewhere the police pulled down people who taunted them. Some protesters left to catch the last trains, but thousands remained.
As the working day got underway on Wednesday, Nathan Road was strewn with debris and sleeping protesters, exhausted after the long night of see-saw confrontations with the police. At the intersections that had been the site of fierce stand-offs, fewer police officers and protesters were seen. But at one end of the road, new cordons of the police gathered, then moved into the protest site to help bailiffs prepare to enforce the court injunction and ensure that the demonstrators left.
Initially, that operation was trouble-free. “We’re all so tired,” said Cheng Chung-tai, a teacher at Hong Kong Polytechnic University who is a member of Civic Passion, a political group that has urged defending the Mong Kok site. “Some of us are quite worried that we won’t be able to hold here for another night. There weren’t enough people here last night.”
Many on Nathan Road appeared resigned to departing. Yet a minority, which has been especially vocal at the Mong Kok site, argued that only continued defiance could win concessions from the government. As the police tried to clear the street mid-morning, hundreds of protesters resisted, and clashes erupted. A struggle ensued, with the police in helmets and protective vests first plunging forward, then retreating before the shouts of the crowd.
“If there is enough of a public backlash against the police actions last night, we might be able to come back,” said Anthony Lam, a computer technician who was packing up a tent. “Only if there is enough public anger will there be enough people here to reoccupy somewhere.”
The demonstrators want the Chinese government to open elections for the city’s leader, or chief executive, to candidates who have not been screened by Beijing. In recent weeks, the loosely organized protest movement has become polarized between moderates, mostly student leaders and older politicians, and more zealous activists.
Mong Kok has seen some of the worst clashes of the protests, which have generally been nonviolent. An attempt by the police to clear the site on Oct. 17 ended in humiliation when thousands of protesters surged in and forced the officers to withdraw. Earlier in October, groups of men, some later identified by the police as members of criminal gangs, attacked protesters there in a failed effort to scatter them.
Source: The New York Times