LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Police in riot gear closed in on anti-Wall Street activists in Los Angeles early on Wednesday, determined to enforce the mayor’s order to evict protesters who have camped outside City Hall for the past eight weeks.
Hundreds of Occupy LA activists, joined by supporters streaming into the area in a show of solidarity, crowded the lawn, sidewalks and streets around City Hall as hundreds of helmeted officers moved into the encampment.
They were followed by a separate line of police in white biohazard suits. Live local television news footage showed police shoving a man to the ground and arresting him after he confronted a line of officers.
The Los Angeles encampment, which officials had tolerated for weeks even as other cities moved in to clear out similar compounds, is among the largest on the West Coast aligned with a 2-month-old national Occupy Wall Street movement protesting economic inequality and excesses of the U.S. financial system.
Except for some initial minor scuffling, the crowd remained boisterous but peaceful. Police declared the crowd an “unlawful assembly” around 12:30 a.m. (0830 GMT) and ordered people to disperse within five minutes or face arrest. The announcement was met by boos from the crowd.
The crowd grew steadily more raucous before police arrived with protesters chanting “Move your feet, Occupy the street!” Several demonstrators climbed into trees, and fireworks were set.
City officials had hoped to keep the timing of the widely expected eviction operation under wraps.
But live local television footage revealed large numbers of police, patrol cars, buses and other vehicles massing at Dodger Stadium, a few miles away, in what appeared to be the staging of a major operation.
Asked how he planned to respond to the raid, Anthony Candelaria, 21, a Los Angeles college student among the crowd gathered at City Hall, said, “Hold the fort down until they drag us out by our feet.”
By contrast, about 100 Occupy protesters in Philadelphia peacefully vacated their camp early on Wednesday after police moved in and warned protesters they faced arrest unless they left on their own, police said.
One Los Angeles police supervisor told a group of officers to be ready for protesters who might put up a fight, warning that some demonstrators were believed to have gravel and other debris they were planning to throw at police.
Protesters began moving onto the City Hall park on October 1, and within weeks the encampment had grown to include as many as 500 tents, with between 700 to 800 full-time residents.
Their number diminished sharply after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced last week that he wanted protesters to pack up their tents and other belongings and leave by Monday or face forcible removal.
Since that deadline passed, the status of the camp had remained in limbo. Attorneys for Occupy LA asked a federal judge for a court order barring police from shutting it down, arguing city officials had violated their civil rights by ordering the camp dismantled. The judge has not yet ruled.
Initially, Villaraigosa had welcomed the protesters, going so far as to supply them with ponchos for inclement weather. But as city officials complained of crime, sanitation problems and property damage, the mayor decided the group had to go.
He issued his eviction notice last Friday after talks on a plan to induce the protesters to leave voluntarily collapsed, setting the stage for the latest showdown between leaders of a major U.S. city and the Occupy movement.