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AP Photo/Vincent Yu
An umbrella doesn’t provide much protection against this sort of storm.

Violent clashes are the new normal for Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement

By Heather Timmons

Updated Dec. 1 at 7pm in Hong Kong

As Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests stretch into their third month, one question has loomed large—how much longer can the stand-off continue?

After all, the center of the city has been colonized by a pro-democracy tent city that looks more permanent by the day. It hasn’t prevented most Hong Kongers from getting to work, but serves as a daily public reminder of the deep ideological rift between Beijing and its allies, and many of Hong Kong’s citizens.

Not much longer, is the short answer. Hong Kong has just been rocked by a series of violent clashes between protesters and police—which started Sunday night and reached their zenith early this morning. And a court injunction handed down late Monday evening, which prescribes clearing the heart of the protests, means there is more to come.

Late Sunday the protesters, after more than a week of seeing their encampments systematically dismantled by police, decided to step up their actions to force the government to react and bring the demonstrations to a head. And police, after months of mostly non-confrontational tactics, seem to have lost any qualms about using violent force. In short, both sides appear to be acting with a new-found determination that seems likely to end the stalemate in a very messy fashion.

Here’s how the situation developed: On Sunday night, student leaders called on protesters to surround Hong Kong government’s headquarters, in a calculated bid to change the dynamics of the protests. At about 9pm, Nathan Law Kwun-chung of the Federation of Students urged people to make a “long journey” through the night. In response, thousands of demonstrators, wearing helmets, face masks and home-made shields came pouring into the area.

Reuters/Bobby Yip

“We feel that the government feels no pressure if this movement simply drags on like this,” Oscar Lai, leader of the Scholarism movement, told the New York Times (paywall). “This escalation shows that Hong Kong people can’t wait anymore.”

What followed was a series of nasty confrontations over more than 12 hours, as protesters filled a tunnel near the government headquarters, surrounded the building, and reportedly threw objects at police.

Police responded by clearing tents in the adjacent Tamar Park and spraying pepper spray into the crowds (which, as Quartz reported earlier, probably came from a family-run company near Ferguson, Missouri):

Reuters/Tyrone Siu

For the first time, police also pulled out fire hoses to disperse the crowds, Apple Daily reported:

They also used metal batons to beat back protesters:

AP Photo/Vincent Yu
Hong Kong police beat a pro-democracy protester in Admiralty.

And, after clearing pro-democracy signs from one walkway over the main protest site, even flipped protesters the bird.

Despite the police’s muscular reaction, as things stand late Monday morning in Hong Kong, protesters in Admiralty seem to have the upper hand, outnumbering police and blocking the entrance to a mall and office complex across the street from the government headquarters:

The government was forced to close government buildings Monday and suspend all legislative meetings. Police report that 45 people have been arrested and an unknown number injured, including one police officer who was removed on a stretcher.

Almost no one in Hong Kong (or for that matter almost anywhere else) believes Beijing will allow Hong Kong citizens to choose their own candidates in the next election. That means there’s a limited number of ways the situation can be resolved: Protesters could decide to voluntarily step down—which now seems increasingly unlikely—or police will use force to completely clear the protest sites across the city.

The injunction issued late Monday will allow police to clear Connaught Road, the main highway protesters have closed at Admiralty, but only in an eastbound direction, because that’s all the plaintiff (a bus company) asked for. The judge who penned the decision argued:

[T]he defendants simply have no legal rights to occupy the roads in the way as they do to completely deprive the rest of public’s right to use them, I am still of the clear view that, notwithstanding the delay, this is an overwhelming case that it is just and convenient to grant the injunction.

Based on the timing of previous injunctions related to the protests, police could come in to clear that area within a matter of days.

As some police left the scene on Monday morning, they were heckled and jeered. Reporter Tom Grundy called it the “the angriest scene I’ve seen” at the Umbrella Movement protests.

Expect things to get a lot angrier before it is all over.