HONG KONG – Police briefly scuffled with protesters camped out in Hong Kong's streets early Thursday, but held back from dismantling barricades erected by the activists pushing for greater democracy in the Chinese territory.
Public anger simmered over video showing a group of officers kicking a handcuffed protester on Wednesday morning as police charged the mostly student demonstrators occupying an underpass, using pepper spray and dragging dozens away.
Police used pepper spray again after midnight Thursday to push back crowds trying to occupy a road outside the government's headquarters. Police said two protesters were arrested, one for kicking a bottle at a private car and one for assaulting police, and three officers were injured.
Wednesday's police beating appeared to mark a change in mood for many protesters.
"I used to say at every rally that frontline police officers were just following orders. We shouldn't hurt frontline officers because we were angry or because we blamed them. Frontline officers were just doing their jobs," Joshua Wong, one of the protest leaders, said Wednesday evening at a rally at the main protest zone in Admiralty.
"But I won't say this again at future rallies," said the 18-year-old leader of Scholarism, one of three main groups leading the protests. "If they're just doing their work, why do they have to beat people?"
The two sides appear to be engaged in a cat-and-mouse game as the protests entered their third week.
Earlier this week, police had removed barriers in an apparent attempt to chip at the edges of the three main protest zones, which have blocked traffic and angered some local businesses.
Protesters reacted to those moves by building bamboo structures that police dismantled. Protested later moved into an underpass before police forcefully removed them early Wednesday.
Anger over the aggressive tactics used by police erupted Wednesday after local TV showed several officers taking a protester around a dark corner and kicking him repeatedly on the ground. It's unclear what provoked the attack. Local Now TV showed him splashing water on officers beforehand.
Protester Ken Tsang said he was kicked while he was "detained and defenseless." He added that he was assaulted again later in the police station. Tsang, a social worker and a member of a pro-democracy political party, lifted his shirt to show reporters injuries to his torso and said he is considering legal action against police.
Police spokesman Steve Hui said seven officers who were involved have been temporarily reassigned, and that authorities will carry out an impartial investigation.
Several hundred people turned up at Hong Kong police headquarters on Wednesday night for a protest organized by a social workers' union over the treatment of Tsang. They lined up to file individual complaints about the beating.
"He was handcuffed already, he was not able to resist but still he was beaten," said Maggie Yuen, one of the protesters. "I don't see any explanation other than that the police abuse their authority."
The demonstrators have taken to the streets since Sept. 26 to oppose the Chinese central government's decision to screen candidates to run in the territory's first direct elections in 2017. They also want the territory's unpopular leader who was picked by Beijing, Chief Executive Leung Chan-ying, to resign.
China's central government is becoming increasingly impatient with the mostly peaceful demonstrations, the biggest challenge to its authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997. There were no signs, however, that Beijing was planning to become directly involved in suppressing them.