HONG KONG — An attempt by Hong Kong authorities to clear a 2-month-old pro-democracy protest camp in Mong Kok district spiraled into chaos Tuesday as hundreds more protesters flooded the crowded neighborhood, a flashpoint for earlier violent clashes with police and angry mobs.
A total of 80 people were arrested, police said.
Twenty-three were detained for contempt of court after police warned them not to interfere with workers and bailiffs enforcing a court order to remove obstructions from part of the protest area, one of three sites in the city occupied by activists.
Workers in hard hats and gloves backed by bailiffs and police had spent most of the day clearing the 50-meter (160-foot) stretch of Argyle Street covered by the court order, which was granted to a minibus company complaining that its business was hurt.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung was among those taken to waiting police vans. By evening, traffic was flowing again on the street for the first time in two months, but tensions rose as protesters scuffled on surrounding side streets with police, who used pepper spray to force them away from the area. Fifty-seven more people were arrested for unlawful assembly and assaulting or obstructing officers, a police statement said.
The chaotic scenes underscored the challenge Hong Kong authorities face in trying to shut down the protest site in gritty, working-class Mong Kok. It's home to a more unruly and aggressive crowd compared with the main protest site next to government headquarters, where protesters last week put up little resistance to a separate court order to remove a handful of barricades.
Authorities are expected on Wednesday to enforce a second restraining order covering the rest of the Mong Kok site granted to taxi drivers.
"Tomorrow will be the main event," said lawmaker Albert Chan of the radical pro-democracy People Power party. "There will be more people joining the resistance. Maybe there will be more arrests tomorrow."
Protesters initially put up no resistance as workers started tearing down barricades, moving wooden pallets and other junk into the middle of an intersection to be taken away.
But as the authorities pushed down Argyle Street to remove tents and other debris, they faced defiance from protesters, who used delaying tactics such as asking for more time to pack up their belongings.
Protesters have been camped out on major thoroughfares since Sept. 28 demanding greater democracy in the semiautonomous city. The standoff has continued with no end in sight as neither the government nor the student-led protesters have shown any willingness to compromise.
"I'll continue to fight for true democracy," said housewife Candy Chan, 50, a frequent Mong Kok visitor. "We're fighting because we want the government to come out and respond to our demands."
A small crowd applauded police from the sidelines. Businessman Andrew Tang said the protesters were not realistic in demanding that Hong Kong's government scrap Beijing's requirement that a panel screen candidates in inaugural 2017 elections, adding that they miscalculated by not withdrawing earlier.
"The Communist Party will never surrender," he said as he gave a thumbs-up to the police.
The barricade clearances come at a critical phase for the protest movement, with student leaders running out of options, and public support and the number of demonstrators dwindling.
More than 80 percent of 513 people surveyed last week by Hong Kong University researchers said the protesters should go home. The poll had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points. A separate survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong released days earlier found about two-thirds of 1,030 respondents felt the same way.