Police in Hong Kong clashed with pro-democracy demonstrators on Tuesday in what became a protracted effort to clear them from one of several streets they have occupied for nearly two months.
Officers used tear gas at the end of a day in which they arrested 30 protesters, including maverick Hong Kong legislator Leung Kwok-hung, widely known by his nickname Longhair.
The action to empty less than 100 yards of Argyle Street in response to a court injunction was a dry run for both sides ahead of a much larger eviction planned for tomorrow.
Today’s events showed that a planned clearance Wednesday of nearby Nathan Road in the Mong Kok area of Kowloon may be more difficult and prolonged, and possibly more violent, than initially expected.
An internal poll conducted by the Occupy Central movement showed that a majority of its protesters would return home if asked. But there remains considerable sentiment in their ranks for more aggressive action.
The protests started in September and are a demand, particularly by students, for greater democracy and more say for Hong Kong people in running their own affairs than China’s government in Beijing has been willing to allow.
Nathan Road is the major commercial north-south thoroughfare running through Kowloon, the peninsula where the bulk of Hong Kong’s seven million people live. The road is lined by hotels, banks, fashion boutiques, and tourist-oriented shops. Student-led demonstrators are camped out along several blocks of the broad avenue, as they are at other sites – still awaiting clearance – on Hong Kong’s main island.
Tuesday’s evictions on nearby Argyle Street involved court bailiffs, uniformed officers and, eventually, riot police armed with pepper spray. No spray was seen used during the seven hours needed to clear an area that was shorter than a soccer field and about half as wide. No more than about 100 protesters were inside the area, but they grudgingly relented every foot of the way.
Shortly after 7 p.m., police fired tear gas to break up the crowd of protesters outside an upscale shopping complex. Protesters scattered when the spraying began, but when they got a block away they opened umbrellas to protect themselves against it. Umbrellas have become a symbol for these occupations since they were used as shields against pepper spray in the early days of the Occupy Central protests.
At different points during the day, protesters were vastly outnumbered by news media from around the world.
Violence erupted when the demonstrators and members of the media were confined into the final 20 yards of the street. It could not be determined whether protesters and police first clashed, or whether a fight broke out between the so-called Occupy forces and some of the anti-Occupy onlookers, many of them older and rougher-looking, who were increasingly mingling in the crowd as police squeezed the encampment.
The police have scheduled a two-day period for enforcing a court order to open the Nathan Road area. But the action today along a far smaller stretch required much of the day, with police still on hand into the night to clear away demonstrators, who made good on their threat to disperse into smaller adjacent streets and protest. The smaller streets were not included in an eviction court order that was read out both in Cantonese and in English.
The news media were also advised over bullhorns that they could be arrested if they interfered with the removal.