More than 200 people were arrested Thursday as police and workers hired by a Hong Kong bus company dismantled barricades erected by demonstrators who have occupied the streets for 75 days, the most protracted pro-democracy campaign on Chinese soil.
Backed by a court order, men wearing hard hats and orange vests started cutting apart the blockades outside the government headquarters at about 10:30 a.m. The sit-in area was largely calm, but police sealed off the entire protest zone and anyone still left inside the perimeter was subject to arrest.
More than 100 people -- including about a dozen Hong Kong legislators, plus members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and the student group Scholarism -- sat down in the road in the Admiralty district, waiting for officers to move in and make arrests.
Police approached each demonstrator one by one, with a female officer requesting that they walk under their own power. Those who refused to cooperate were physically lifted by groups of five or six officers and carried away.
"I will confess to the crime of civil disobedience, of having occupied the roadway," said Choi Suk-fong, 55, a volunteer from a local support group for Chinese dissidents, before the operation began. "I will take whatever force police will use on me one last time."
A few protesters, anticipating pepper spray or tear gas, donned protective gear, but most, like Choi, declined such precautions. Police were equipped with helmets, riot shields, batons and plastic handcuffs, but the atmosphere was generally calm.
Between bursts of political slogans, the demonstrators bantered with and comforted each other. "Hope springs eternal among the people," they chanted. "Change begins with resistance."
"I am here for justice and a more equal society," said Cherry Wong, 25, a recent college graduate risking arrest. "I really want to experience this historical moment in Hong Kong. Anyone with a conscience should be here."
Outside the offices of Hong Kong's chief executive, left-wing legislator and activist Leung Kwok-hung, better known as "Long Hair" Leung, led protesters in a chant, "Come out and face us! You have the police. We have the people."
Though the 2 1/2-month-long protests did not force the government to yield to demonstrators' demands for new rules concerning the 2017 chief executive election, Leung said the movement was not a waste.
"We didn't fail. We succeeded in lifting the democratic movement up one notch," Leung said.
Wong Weng-chi, an aide to Leung, added: "Some people thought we would succeed in one go, but our fight will be longer and more arduous than democracy fights in other countries, because the Chinese Communist Party is the most formidable political party on Earth."
Even in Taiwan, he said, the struggle for democracy "took more than a decade."
Before Thursday's clearance operation, demonstrators massed for a final rally Wednesday night. The gathering had the feeling of an overlong summer camp winding down. Knots of demonstrators belted out songs, reveling in the last moments of camaraderie forged on the streets.
Some started to stencil and paint slogans on the asphalt of the occupied highway. One read: "I won't acquiesce! I'm willing to wait a lifetime for democracy."
Student leaders appealed to those remaining to join them on the front lines Thursday morning when, in what they described as another act of civil disobedience, they sat down in rows outside the chief executive's office.
"I can't say this is a glorious retreat, but we'll sure make a comeback," said Alex Chow, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, about an hour before his arrest. "There'll be wave after wave of non-cooperation actions. Our sit-in today is only the beginning."
The student group kick-started the movement with a class boycott in late September.
After two recent arrests, Michael Chan, 20, stood back from the front lines Thursday but didn't retreat.
"It's too soon to tell if the public has woken up. Even some of those who did may well be lulled back into complacency again," said Chan, who was involved in planning the boycott. "I'll wait and see how many turn out for the next demonstration."
He planned to move to a public park at the government office compound. Thursday evening saw about two dozen tents remaining there, mostly inside the designated protest zone. Authorities have no plans to clear a small encampment in the Causeway Bay district.