LOS ANGELES — Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gave a lengthy tribute to Occupy LA protesters on Friday before telling them they must leave their encampment on the lawn of City Hall by 12:01 a.m. Monday, citing public health and safety concerns.
Villaraigosa, who has expressed sympathy for the protest's aims from its beginning seven weeks ago, announced the ouster at an afternoon news conference with police Chief Charlie Beck. He said the movement that has spread in two months from New York to numerous other U.S. cities has "awakened the country's conscience" — but also trampled grass at City Hall that must be restored.
"The movement is at a crossroads," the mayor said. "It is time for Occupy LA to move from holding a particular patch of park land to spreading the message of economic justice and signing more people up for the push to restore the balance to American society."
The camp of about 485 tents was unsustainable because public health and safety could not be maintained, and the park had to be cleared, cleaned and restored for the public's access, he said.
Outside City Hall, Occupy LA protester Opamago Casciani, 20, said he found the Mayor's priorities insulting, and he intends to continue demonstrating peacefully through the deadline.
In response to the Mayor's comments, Casciani said "What I got from it is 'I value grass more than the people.'"
Immediately after the mayor announced the deadline, protester Jeremy Rothe-Kushel who was in the audience among the reporters, interrupted him, shouting that the group would not obey the order.
"As a collective, Occupy Los Angeles would like to express their rejection of the city of Los Angeles's alleged proposal that we leave City Hall," said Jeremy Rothe-Kushel, who said he represented the general assembly of Occupy LA and interrupted both Villaraigosa and Beck throughout the news conference.
It was not clear how much of the camp Rothe-Kushel spoke for, but the group issued a statement Thursday expressing the same sentiment.
Villaraigosa told campers to start packing up their tents and said he believed the move would be peaceful, unlike some of the tumult other cities have seen.
"I'm proud of the fact that this has been a peaceful, non-violent protest," he said. "I trust that we can manage the closure of City Hall Park in the same spirit of cooperation."
The mayor said in hopes of keeping the peace, social workers will begin walking through the camp offering help to protesters, 50 shelter beds will be made available for campers who are homeless, and special parking will be set aside to facilitate the exit.
"50 beds? There are at least 300 of us," said Casciani. "I personally plan to stay and stand my ground."
He added that City Hall's Spring Street steps — a traditional protest site — will remain open during the park restoration so Occupy LA or any other group can exercise free speech rights.
Protester Stephanie Lopez, 18, was sitting on those steps Friday evening after the announcement. Surveying the tent city below her and looking back on the 400-square-foot mezzanine where protesters would have to stand, she shook her head and said "that's ridiculous."
Lopez been living at City Hall Park since Oct. 2, when there were only a handful of tents, and plans to stay through the deadline.
"It's a complete offense to us — this grass isn't even good for the environment," said Lopez.
If the movement has to move, Lopez hopes occupiers will take over an abandoned building somewhere downtown.
Beck said police will be patient with laggards who were still packing belongings and working to leave at the time of the deadline — but said the city's law enforcement will no longer look the other way.
"After 56 days of not enforcing three city laws that prohibit the use of that park, the time is now," said Beck.