Thousands of pro-democracy activists and supporters overwhelmed clearly exhausted riot police in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district early Saturday morning, reoccupying streets that police had opened to vehicular traffic only a few hours earlier.
Police used pepper spray and batons on the protesters, many of whom wore goggles and face masks as protection. But police did not fire tear gas, perhaps mindful that the use of tear gas three weeks ago had triggered massive support for the protesters.
Hong Kong authorities estimated that 9,000 protesters took part in the unrest. Twenty-six protesters were arrested and 15 police officers were injured, according to official accounts. There were no figures for injured protesters.
The reoccupation was a major reversal of what earlier had seemed like a success for the Hong Kong government, as traffic flowed along streets that had been closed for much of the last three weeks. But the events once the sun went down showed that the protest movement, which had been waning, had recaptured its momentum.
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“This protest is not over,” said Chris Lo, 22, a yellow-clad demonstrator who said he’d been supporting the Mong Kok occupation for two weeks.
“If this occupation ends, people will keep coming back. We will find a new place to occupy,” he’d said when the police were still in control of the area. “This can never stop until the government does something for the people.”
Protesters are seeking an open elections system to choose the city’s chief executive in 2017. The Chinese government, which took control of Hong Kong in 1997, has agreed to an election, but only one with two or three candidates that have been screened by a committee that Beijing controls.
Hong Kong’s chief executive on Thursday offered to start talks with protest leaders next week. One protest leader, Alex Chow of the Federation of Students, confirmed Friday that his group and the government have agreed to meet Tuesday, with talks that would be broadcast live on television.
Even if those talks lead to a negotiated solution, which is unlikely, it may not resonate with Mong Kok’s scrappy protesters. They’ve said repeatedly that they are independent from the larger student-led protests that have occupied space near Hong Kong’s government offices in Admiralty since Sept. 28.
Lo and others said their level of trust in the government reached new lows when police cleared Mong Kok’s streets early Friday, just hours after Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, also known as Leung Chun-ying, extended his olive branch.
The predawn operation, announced by police at a news conference at 5:30 a.m., was carried out with little resistance from some 30 protesters remaining at the site, according to reports by local media. Work crews quickly removed structures and tents and started cleaning up the streets, with some protesters complaining they didn’t have time to secure their possessions.
As soon as news spread of the cleanup, Mong Kok activists turned to social media to urge crowds to turn out Friday night. Joshua Wong, leader of the Scholarism group, called on protesters in Admiralty to move to Mong Kok and defend the occupation zone.
“If the defense line in Mong Kok is lost, Admiralty will be in danger,” he said, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.
The situation was tense across many city blocks along Nathan and Argyle streets, with sidewalks so crowded with protesters and onlookers that many couldn’t help but surge into the police lines. Numerous times, police waved “red flag” banners warning that, if the crowd didn’t hold back, they would have to use force.
Just after midnight, police retreated north from a section of Nathan Road, possibly to await reinforcements. A McClatchy reporter saw at least five protesters being hauled away.
Protesters are seething over a video released Wednesday that showed police beating a shackled man, who later turned out to be a prominent political activist, Ken Tsang Kin-chiu.
On Friday night, protesters also fought skirmishes with counterprotesters. Protesters believe that some of these anti-occupiers are paid thugs, connected to Hong Kong’s Triad gangs.
A former police commander, Steve Vickers, also has reported a likely Triad connection to the counterprotests. He expects such clashes to intensify in the absence of a political solution.
“As the anti-Occupy groups become more emboldened, stronger and better organized, there is a growing risk of clashes between the groups turning truly violent,” Vickers said in a statement Friday.
He added that recent events have led the demonstrators to become angrier and more disillusioned, prompting some to attempt ever more confrontational acts of civil disobedience.
“At the political level there is still room for the Hong Kong government to mishandle the final stages of Occupy Central,” Vickers said, referring to the protesters by one of the organizations. “Unfortunately, this prediction now appears to be even more likely.”