The clearance of the Mong Kok occupation on 25 and 26 November 2014, Hong Kong Umbrella Movement
Excerpted from Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong
On Tuesday 25 November, the clearance of Mong Kok began. In one sense, it was swift and efficient, taking place in two distinct stages over the course of two days, 25 and 26 November. In another sense, it was messy and, in its various stages and manifestations, lasted over a month and resulted in hundreds of arrests. In the lead-up to the clearance, the police had announced that 3,000 officers had been called up to help, more than ten percent of the total force of 28,000, and other sources close to the police put the actual number at between 4,000 and 7,000. Over the weeks to come, Mong Kok would remain a heavily policed area, with the number of officers on the streets in the thousands over the first few days and eventually tapering down into the hundreds.
Beginning shortly after nine in the morning on 25 November, a lawyer for the injunction plaintiffs read out the court order to clear Argyle Street over a megaphone. Occupiers were given an hour to remove their belongings. At shortly after ten, bailiffs began clearing the intersection of Argyle Street and Nathan Road, and within an hour, they were finished and the intersection was partially re-opened to traffic. But the bailiffs encountered difficulties clearing the rest of the Argyle Street portion of the occupation, which constituted one block to the west of the intersection of Argyle Street and Nathan Road. It took them upwards of five hours. This was largely because demonstrators kept asking the bailiffs many questions about the exact terms of the injunction. Bailiffs, in turn, kept giving demonstrators deadlines to remove their items. Demonstrators would delay, dragging out the removal. Hundreds of people filled the one block of Argyle, packed tightly at times, and thousands more looked on. Police were initially patient and stayed out of the way, letting the bailiffs take the lead in the clearance. Strictly speaking, they were not there to fulfill the injunction but only to assist the bailiffs if called upon to do so. Even so, they became ever more aggressive as the afternoon wore on. While hundreds of them stood observing the scene at the west end of the block, they tried to prevent people from using the crosswalk there, though their effort served no immediate purpose since even if there were no people on the crosswalk, the police officers themselves as well as the hundreds on the street within that block were blocking the traffic. When this was pointed out to the officers, several of them began shouting and making threats. The hostility in some of their faces was striking. It was rage from weeks of built-up frustration at not being able to clear the streets.
Perhaps the sheer number of police officers in the area militated toward a more hardline, less diplomatic approach. Eventually, police couldn’t stand the delaying tactics of the demonstrators on Argyle Street any longer and intervened, cordoning off the area, declaring the remaining occupiers asking questions of the bailiffs in contempt of court for refusing to obey the injunction and arresting 32 on that charge.
The police intervention turned a peaceful if contentious scene into a serious confrontation that would last late into the night, involving thousands of police officers and thousands of demonstrators and spreading to many of the sidestreets adjacent to Nathan Road. The police decided to intervene in the clearance of Argyle Street in the late afternoon probably because they feared what might occur if it dragged on into the evening. Indeed, when people got off work, thousands flocked to Mong Kok. At dusk, there was a confrontation between police and demonstrators at the corner of Argyle Street and Portland Street over attempts by demonstrators to erect new barricades there. Police were apparently under strict orders to allow no new territory to be occupied under any circumstances, while some demonstrators believed the best tactic was that if police cleared one place, another should be taken, in order to keep the police on their toes and keep the occupations going. But beyond tactics, some demonstrators were coming out just to show defiance and express rage at the sheer injustice of the government denying their rights and the police acting on the government’s behalf. Police managed to at least temporarily dislodge demonstrators from the intersection of Argyle Street and Portland Street, but demonstrators regrouped and, a little after nine in the evening, occupied the junction of Soy and Reclamation Streets. There were showdowns in several of the sidestreets in the area, especially Shantung Street, Dundas Street, Reclamation Street and Soy Street. One particular flashpoint was the junction of Shantung Street and Nathan Road. That was where the last stand-off of the night occurred. By 4 am, the demonstrators who hadn’t been arrested melted into the night or retreated to the relative safety of Nathan Road, the other part of the occupied area that was to be cleared that coming day.
The next day, police announced that 93 demonstrators had been arrested during the night, the largest number of arrests within any twenty-four-hour period since the occupations began, including the 74 arrests of the occupiers of Civic Square on 26 and 27 September. The youngest arrestee was a 14-year-old boy. The police would later attempt to remove him from his parents’ custody, though the Department of Justice never initiated prosecution, let alone tried and convicted him.
Police claimed demonstrators had thrown umbrellas, water bottles and bamboo poles at them. They said demonstrators had come to fight and presented as evidence the fact that many were dressed in protective coverings, including kinds of “armor” such as foam pads wrapped around their forearms, and shields of different sorts, as well as the most common items, hardhats, helmets, goggles, masks, and the ubiquitous umbrellas. But this was all defensive equipment, not weapons, and, given police behavior up to that point, it was understandable that some might want to protect themselves from expected beatings. Throughout the night, the demonstrators, in spite of the high emotions, remained remarkably disciplined and nonviolent and showed great forbearance. The media often used terms like “clashes” and “scuffles” to describe the confrontations between demonstrators and police officers, but such terms were misleading since they suggested that the two sides were fighting one another, but instead it was protesters standing up to police and often refusing to retreat while police used pepperspray and batons against them.
The Mong Kok clearance was also the first occasion on which the police widely employed a new weapon in its arsenal, the CS gas jet pack, basically turbo-charged pepperspray, though a somewhat different chemical solution (in Chinese, it was called “liquefied teargas”). It had been purchased by the force the year before specifically in preparation for occupation-like scenarios and officially debuted on 28 September, but that night it was overshadowed by the police teargas display. It was really in Mong Kok that it became one of the foremost tools employed by police to fight demonstrators. Its advantage was that, on the one hand, it had a much greater range than the handheld pepperspray used by individual officers. It fell like rain, thus covering a wider area. It was easier to control than teargas, which, once shot, went just about anywhere the breeze took it. While police claimed it was “relatively mild” and downplayed its potentially harmful effects on those exposed to it, numerous demonstrators reported that it was more powerful than either pepperspray or teargas, blinding its victim for upwards of half an hour. Designated officers wore the backpacks on their backs and squirted the pepperspray out of large rifle-like squirters attached to the backpacks with a tube.
On the night after the first day of clearance in Mong Kok, there were oscillations in demonstrators’ tactics between, on the one hand, the strict nonviolence of the Indian independence struggle or the US Civil Rights Movement where what one did was simply sit and refuse to move or walk to where one wanted to go until one was beaten down (as at the Dharasana Salt Works) and, on the other, something resembling the tactics of street battle according to which one kept moving, dodging one’s adversary, popping up in one place while attacked in another. As so often, these tactics were not so much planned as developed on the fly. This had the advantage of responsiveness to the situation at hand and the disadvantage of being disorganized and incoherent. It was, for example, unclear exactly what the objective was: was it to re-occupy, to “gain territory”, or simply to send a statement? If the former, it failed as by morning, resistance had all but evaporated. Demonstrators didn’t entirely use the classic nonviolent method of sitting until removed, as the 511 sit-in demonstrators arrested after the 1 July march in Chater Road did or as the occupiers of Civic Square on 26 to 27 September. Some democracy movement supporters criticized the demonstrators for their tactics of confronting the police head-on, especially if they did not intend to remain until arrested. Indeed, if all had done so, it would have taken police many hours to clear and resulted in hundreds if not thousands of arrests. Other critics said demonstrators should have been much more fluid and, whenever police tried to clear them out of one street, enter another, in order to show that ultimately, the police simply could not clear them. But there was no overall strategy on the part of demonstrators; more than anything else, most were acting out of pure defiance of the police, who had been brutal and had not been held accountable, and to show they were not afraid of them or, by extension, the HK government or the Partystate. It was their way of saying, “We will be back,” which would become the refrain of the Admiralty occupation in its final days. There was no a plan to re-occupy, per se; there was no one saying, go here, do this, do that. The fearlessness and defiance shown by the demonstrators, and the decision to not just sit down and get arrested, could be seen as the beginning of trends of some protests to come, and a movement away from the more classical forms of civil disobedience as advocated by groups like OCLP. One might even say the tactics of that night of 25 to 26 November culminated fifteen months later in the outright violence between police and demonstrators, also in Mong Kok, on the night of Chinese New Year, 8 to 9 February 2016.
The next day, Wednesday 26 November, the police changed their approach. Rather than allowing the bailiffs to take the lead in clearing the remaining occupation area on Nathan Road, the police almost immediately dispensed with the pretext. The way the chain of events transpired, they had to have been planned in advance, as a means of preventing any resistance before it even had a chance of manifesting itself. Police tactics were aggressive. Those present, whether as witnesses, observers or occupiers, were repeatedly threatened with arrest for simply drawing the attention of demonstrators and journalists to the fact that police were tackling and pummeling demonstrators for apparently no reason at all. But the police were also more disciplined than on recent occasions, and the clearance operation was conducted with military precision.
A little before nine in the morning, a dozen or so bailiffs, surrounded by police, came to the middle of the remaining five-block-long stretch of Nathan Road between Argyle Street and Dundas Street still occupied and slated for clearance that day. Through a megaphone, one bailiff announced what would occur and gave the occupiers a half hour to leave. In the occupied area, a dream-like atmosphere prevailed. There were only a few dozen occupiers left, the ones who had been sleeping there night after night for almost two months. Quite a few had decided to pack up and leave before then, again departing from the classic civil disobedience tactic of sitting and waiting to be carried away by the police. Still, there were more than a thousand demonstrators present, including those who had frequently been present at Mong Kok during the occupation, some who had been there through the previous night of confrontations with the police, some who had come from other occupied sites, and many sympathizers who had come mostly to ensure that the police did not brutalize the remaining occupiers during the clearance.
The bailiffs were to proceed from Argyle Street and work their way southward down Nathan to Dundas. A line of several dozen bailiffs’ assistants stood on the north side of the barricades. They were bizarrely outfitted in matching red hats and white t-shirts sporting “I ♥ HK.” A strange and unlikely crew, most were middle-aged working class people, perhaps cleaners, who’d probably jumped at the chance to earn some extra money. Amidst the group were recognizable faces of some who had previously been seen to have assaulted demonstrators as well as of members of taxi groups opposed to the occupations. Behind them were hundreds of police officers. On the other side of the barricades stood hundreds of demonstrators. Near the front, next to each other, were Joshua Wong of Scholarism, Lester Shum of HKFS, Szeto Tze-long from the Chinese University Student Union, and Raphael Wong Ho-ming (黃浩銘) of League of Social Democrats. As leaders such as Yvonne Leung and Long Hair had the day before at the clearance of Argyle Street, these four were asking questions of the bailiffs about the clearance. There was shouting between the bailiffs’ assistants and other demonstrators. After a hefty assistant tried to punch a demonstrator, the police removed the assistants, who drifted behind the backlines of police and then simply disappeared. From that point in, the police entirely took over the clearance. They lunged into the crowd. They were obviously targeting Joshua, Lester, and Raphael, for they pounced upon them, grabbed them, and carried them away, thus signaling they would tolerate no questioning. What possible “crime” could they have committed for standing there and asking questions? They had been given no warning that they were acting in contempt of court. It was hard to imagine how a prosecutor could convince an impartial judge to convict Joshua, Raphael and Lester. They had made no physical contact with any bailiff or police officer or assistant, nor done anything else to impede or obstruct clearance, which had at the moment of their arrest just barely begun. There had been no active physical resistance to the clearance and no violence of even the most cursory sort, such as bottle-throwing. The only way the defendants could be convicted was if the DOJ could convince the judge that mere physical presence equaled contempt. Joshua Wong later reported that during the process of arrest, police had assaulted him, in particular grabbing his genitals multiple times. He showed injuries to his neck and face, even though he had not struggled or in any way attempted to resist arrest. Lester Shum also complained of mistreatment during the arrest.
Altogether, an astounding 55 people were arrested in the clearance operations of the areas under court injunction in Mong Kok. Most were double-charged with contempt of court and obstruction of police. Their arrest appeared arbitrary — again, above all else, to send a message. All they had in common was that they happened to be standing at the peripheries of the crowd, where it was easiest for police to grab them. Eventually, the obstruction of police officers charge would be dropped. Over two years later, by January 2017, 20 demonstrators were still facing contempt of court charges related to the clearance.
Once they had removed the leaders, the police proceeded in almost robotic fashion. The Police Tactical Unit, a paramilitary riot control unit, took the lead, dressed in blue uniforms, black helmets, black sunglasses, black boots and fortified black gloves. The officers climbed over barriers, destroying what they could as they went along, moving remarkably swiftly, in a straight line. Behind them, hundreds of other officers tore down what the front line had not. Not a single demonstrator sat and waited to be carried away. Instead, hundreds retreated, having to move swiftly to stay ahead of the police. Once the front line of police had pushed the demonstrators back to Dundas Street, the southern end of the occupied area, they were funneled off to either side of Nathan Road, and once all of the demonstrators had been forced to exit the occupied area, it was sealed off and kept that way until cleaners had removed everything that would prevent the free flow of traffic. And so the Mong Kok occupation proper ended. The whole operation took little more than a half hour — maximum efficiency coupled with no resistance. About five hours later, not long after 3:30 pm, all six lanes of Nathan Road had been reopened to traffic.
Later in the day, police announced that a total of 146 arrests had been made over the course of the two-day clearance. By the next day, that number would climb to 169, including two journalists. By 6 am of Friday 28 November, police announced 28 more arrests that night after a group of people tried to re-occupy Argyle Street. Police responded with batons and pepperspray. And on 30 November, police announced that 42 more had been arrested since the 28th.
 “Thousands of police called up to help clear Mong Kok roads”, Samuel Chan, Alan Yu, Chris Lau, South China Morning Post, 18 November 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1643355/thousands-police-called-help-clear-mong-kok-roads
 “Protesters in tense standoff”, Ernest Kao, Chris Lau, South China Morning Post, 26 November 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1648818/protesters-tense-stand
 “80 arrested in Mong Kok; police to clear area”, RTHK, 25 November 2014, http://rthk.hk/rthk/news/elocal/news.htm?elocal&20141125&56&1056024. Police reported 23 arrests in the clearance of Argyle Street: “2014–11–25 Police appeal to the public to avoid going to Mong Kok”, Hong Kong Police Force press releases, 25 November 2014, http://www.police.gov.hk/ppp_en/03_police_message/pr/pr201411.html Their announcement may have come earlier in the day.
 “Angry night-time standoff in Mong Kok amid Occupy clearance attempts”, South China Morning Post, 26 November 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1649073/angry-nightly-standoff-mong-kok-amid-occupy-clearance-attempts
 “2014–11–26 Opening remarks by Police Chief Superintendent at press conference”, Hong Kong Police Force press releases, 26 November 2014, http://www.police.gov.hk/ppp_en/03_police_message/pr/pr201411.html
“2014–11–26 Police appeal to people assembling unlawfully in Mong Kok to leave”, Hong Kong Police Force press releases, 26 November 2014, http://www.police.gov.hk/ppp_en/03_police_message/pr/pr201411.html
 “80 arrested in Mong Kok; police to clear area”, RTHK, 25 November 2014, http://rthk.hk/rthk/news/elocal/news.htm?elocal&20141125&56&1056024
 “Police jet pack solution more powerful than pepper spray or tear gas, says Post reporter hit by all three”, Samuel Chan, Emily Tsang, Danny Lee, South China Morning Post, 27 November 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1649877/police-solution-more-powerful-pepper-spray-or-tear-gas-says-post
 In his blog, “The Comparativist”, Trey Menefee addresses the relationship between the Mong Kok clearance and the Chinese New Year violence between police and demonstrators in February 2016: “Letter from a Fishball Riot”, Trey Menefee, 16 February 2016, http://www.comparativist.org/?p=2080
 “Stand-off ensues between protesters and police in Mong Kok”, Ernest Kao, Chris Lau, Timmy Sung, Danny Mok, South China Morning Post, 26 November 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1649110/live-police-prepare-clear-nathan-road-after-overnight-standoff; “Umbrella Movement — Mong Kok Clearance, 26 November 2014”, simon, BC Magazine, 26 November 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1649110/live-police-prepare-clear-nathan-road-after-overnight-standoff
 Dash, 26 November 2014, https://www.facebook.com/dashhk/videos/733932953355184/ ; “Hong Kong Protest Site in Mong Kok Cleared”, Mia Lamar, Isabella Steger, Fiona Law, Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/hong-kong-police-clear-main-mong-kok-protest-site-arrest-student-leaders-1416989241?tesla=y&mg=reno64-wsj&url=http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10909804295654494231304580300060988438290.html; “Video evidence: HK student leader Joshua Wong Mong Kok 26.11.2014”, Ethan Kuhl, November 26, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jim0d0mHHI . The following video shows a snippet of the questions Joshua Wong was asking moments before he was arrested: “Police clear protests, resulting in many injuries”, ChinaForbiddenNews, November 26, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhUEDOfQxeU
 “Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong alleges police assault during arrest”, Bex Wright, Tim Hume, CNN, November 29, 2014, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/28/world/asia/hong-kong-protests-mong-kok/index.html
 “2014–11–26 Opening remarks by Police Chief Superintendent at press conference”, Hong Kong Police Force press releases, 26 November 2014, http://www.police.gov.hk/ppp_en/03_police_message/pr/pr201411.html
 “High Court allows contempt of court actions against 20 Occupy activists over Mong Kok clearance to continue”, Eddie Lee, South China Morning Post, 8 March 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-crime/article/1922499/high-court-allows-contempt-court-actions-against-20-occupy. On 31 March 2017, Alvin Cheng and Au Yuk-kwan became the first demonstrators to be convicted of contempt of court in relation to the Mong Kok clearance, both for actions on 25 November 2014, the first day of the clearance. Alvin Cheng also became the first demonstrator sentenced to prison (three months) for a nonviolent offense related to the occupations, while Au received a suspended sentence of one month and a HKD10,000 fine.
 “After sixty days, final push to remove occupiers is over in just a few hours”, Chris Lau, Ernest Kao, Emily Tsang, Danny Mok, Timmy Sung, South China Morning Post, 27 November 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1649506/after-60-days-final-push-remove-occupiers-over-just-few-hours
; “Lawyers question police clearance of Mong Kok protest site”, Stuart Lau, Tony Cheung, Sammy Chan, South China Morning Post, 26 November 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1649503/lawyers-question-police-clearance-mong-kok-protest-site
 “Students threaten to target government buildings after night of clashes in Mong Kok”, South China Morning Post, 27 November 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1649808/violence-flares-overnight-protesters-clash-police-mong-kok?page=all