December 15, 2014 3:13 AM EST

Hong Kong authorities on Monday began tearing down the last of the city’s pro-democracy camps, bringing a quiet end to two and a half months of street occupations that constituted the most significant political protest in China since 1989’s Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing.

By Tuesday, all three protest sites — in the Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay districts — will be gone. The streets will be tidied up and returned to traffic, office workers and shoppers.

The protesters are leaving the streets with few tangible results. Beijing has rejected their insistence that Hong Kongers should have the right to freely elect the head of the city’s government without a pro-establishment committee first handpicking the candidates.

The Hong Kong government has also made it clear that it sees itself as a local representative of the central government, and is unwilling to convey the democratic aspirations of many of its people to Beijing.

Yet what has appeared out of the political hothouse of the tent cities is something with much more potential to undermine the Communist Party’s control over this wayward southern city, already culturally estranged from the mainland — and that is a generation of Hong Kongers who have defied Beijing, who have vowed to defy it again, and whose actions have generated a collection of resonant images that will inspire Hong Kongers for a long time to come.

After police used tear gas against protesters on Sept. 28, tens of thousands rallied to the streets. Right by the walls of the People’s Liberation Army barracks and the Hong Kong government’s headquarters, demonstrators unfurled umbrellas to protect themselves against police pepper spray. The poignant image of ordinary Hong Kongers standing up to a foe like China with nothing but these everyday items gave birth to the movement’s name: the Umbrella Revolution.

By November, the protests had contracted. The weather turned petulant, the protest leadership sparred and splintered, and demonstrators camped in the streets began to wonder how long the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing were content to let them wait. Public opinion, too, turned against the protests, with commuters complaining of epic traffic snarls caused by barricaded thoroughfares — among them Hong Kong’s major arteries — and business owners in the occupied areas feeling the pressure of reduced takings.

In one of the last rites of defiance, more than 200 protesters, including leading democratic legislators, refused to leave the largest protest site as police and demolition crews approached it last week — except, those demonstrators said, under duress and in a police van. In a process that took hours and made for a dramatic scene, police escorted — and sometimes carried — protesters off the pavement, one by one, toward a waiting police bus.

Left behind in the streets, as the final demonstrators were shown out, were countless signs, chalked on the roads, posted on walls, hung as banners and even floated into the sky on balloons. They all promised the same thing: “We will be back.”

Here, in 30 photographs, is a record of Hong Kong’s political awakening, and proof that the threat to return to the streets is not an idle one.

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Write to Elizabeth Barber at elizabeth.barber@timeasia.com.

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