LOS ANGELES — Police arrested nearly 300 Occupy LA protesters Wednesday in a pre-dawn raid on their tent camp largely without use of violence.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said city leaders, who at first welcomed the protesters on the lawn surrounding City Hall, were determined to clear out the two-month-old camp of some 500 tents peacefully and succeeded.
"We took a measured approach, we did not dismiss the protesters out of hand," he said at a press conference hours after the sweep concluded. "What we demonstrated in this town is that working together we can respect the rights of people to speak out against the government."
Police Chief Charlie Beck praised the 1,400 officers who were deployed in the raid, which started just after midnight and ended about five hours later.
After days of warnings that the two-month-old camp would be cleared this week, word of the impending raid had spread during evening.
By 10 p.m. Tuesday, the park was packed with about 400 people, including members of the Service International Employees Union and supporters from throughout the city who had heeded pleas issued via Twitter for people to come to the site.
The atmosphere was festive, although protesters prepared themselves for police with gas masks, phone numbers for lawyers, and trash can barricades at the park's entrances.
Police waited to move in until after midnight and the crowd had thinned. Riot-clad officers who had quietly arrived in surrounding streets swarmed through the park. Some were inside City Hall and burst through doors that opened onto the park.
The site was secured within minutes and people were given 10 minutes to leave or face arrest on charges of failing to disperse an unlawful assembly, while a line of police officers forced the crowd of onlookers down the street until the street was clear.
A group of about 20 protesters had already decided to be arrested and linked arms in a circle around a tent in the park plaza. They said their arrests were statements of protest about economic injustice.
"It's worth being arrested for," said Sean Woodward, 28.
Scores of others later joined them and a handful scrambled up trees to evade capture. Police called in a high-tech cherry-picker vehicle dubbed the "Bat Cat" that lifted officers into the trees to haul out five protesters.
The final three protesters, who were holed up in an elaborate tree house built in a cluster of palm trees, were subdued after officers fired beanbags at them, police Cmdr. Andrew Smith said.
Smith described it as a minor use of force. No serious injuries were reported.
The vast majority of protesters did not resist arrest and were taken off to jail by the busload, with the park finally cleared shortly after 5 a.m.
City workers moved in immediately, installing concrete barriers around the park.
By dawn, trash, flattened tents, strewn clothing, bedding and the stench of urine were the legacy of the Occupy LA, which had mushroomed to about 500 tents over two months. Under a tree lay a guitar, a bullhorn, CDs and a black bandanna.
The raid stood in stark contrast to evictions at similar camps around the country that sometimes involved pepper spray, tear gas and batons. The movement against economic disparity and perceived corporate greed began with Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan two months ago.1 comment on this story
The Los Angeles officers staged for hours outside Dodger Stadium before the raid. They were warned that demonstrators might throw everything from concrete and gravel to human feces at them.
"Please put your face masks down and watch each other's back," a supervisor told them. "Now go to work."
The officers came from a wide range of specialized units within the force, including the bomb squad, and the arson unit. Scores of officers in hazmat suits also were sent in to deal with potentially unsanitary conditions in the park.
Associated Press writer Greg Risling in Los Angeles contributed to this report.