Violent clashes mar the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong

Protesters cry as they are dispersed by police officers outside government headquarters in Hong Kong Monday, Dec. 1, 2014.
HONG KONG — For two months, the sprawling tent-studded demo site outside the main government offices in Hong Kong had been calm, cheerful and jam-packed with impromptu art. That changed dramatically late on Sunday and in the early hours of Monday, when protesters and police clashed in the most violent incidents that the “umbrella movement” has seen since it started in late September.
Dozens of people were arrested, and dozens more injured in the clashes, which began late Sunday after student leaders urged demonstrators to block the city's main government offices in an attempt to press for concessions in their demands for more democracy.
Both the protesters' call to besiege the government offices and the police's tough reaction made a big change from the more than two months of non-violent stalemate, and could see the protests descend into more messy clashes.
Thousands had turned out during the evening to listen to speeches being held amid the tent city that is pitched on a multi-lane highway, and show their continued support for the protests.
Many followed the call, late in the evening, to flood into a nearby park and surround the offices of the city's controversial and unloved chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.
“The government must respond to the people’s democracy demands,” Alex Chow, the secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students,Bloomberg reported. “We must exert pressure on the authorities and the government headquarters is the symbol of central power. By surrounding the headquarters, we are paralyzing its operations.”
Chanting “I want true democracy,” they brought umbrellas, goggles, face masks and hard hats to shield themselves from the push-back they were expecting to get from the police. “Take care, take a mask,” said one young woman handing out goggles to the people streaming into the park late last night.
The tension, frustration and anger were almost palpable in the crowd, which consisted not just of young students, but also older Hong Kongers, who are angered by Beijing's move to essentially vet candidates up for elections in 2017.
At one point, they blocked a wide road leading past those offices, noisily dragging metal fences to construct fresh impromptu barricades.
The police push-back duly came amid chaotic scenes as police used pepper spray and batons to re-take the blocked road.
The government was forced to close government buildings on Monday morning and suspend legislative meetings.
But by early Monday, the protesters had been pushed back to their tent camp, nursing a painful set-back in their efforts to campaign for free elections in this former British (now Chinese-controlled) city of 7.2 million people.
The government issued a statement stating it "strongly condemned the protesters” for what it said were acts showing “blatant disregard for the law and endanger public safety.”
As has been the case before, the police have come under harsh criticism for their use of batons and pepper spray -– a substance that causes much pain.
For more than a week, the authorities have stepped up their use of force, and court injunctions, to clear the demonstrations in a neighbourhood called Mongkok, which is home to many shops and low-income housing.
They had so far kept away from the main protest encampment, at the government offices in Admiralty, and for much of the past two months had kept a low profile at all three of the protest sites.
So the latest clampdown underlined a shift: The authorities are clearly no longer shy to use force.
This could well galvanise fresh support from ordinary Hong Kongers. Many angrily oppose police violence, and rally round the demonstrators each time the police act tough.
But many residents believe the demos, and the traffic disruption they have caused, have gone on long enough. What's more, the student leaders are facing increasing dissent and criticism from the ranks of the protesters, who want a way out of the stalemate.
Declan Siu, a 23-year-old part-time student, told the SCMP: "Some people are very frustrated that they are being led [by the student federation] to occupy roads only to allow police to beat them up and push them back out.”
And so, by Monday, the question of how long the street protests can continue loomed larger than ever -– though with no clear answer in sight.

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