Police in riot gear began closing in early today on some 2,000 anti-Wall Street activists who defied a midnight deadline to vacate an eight-week-old encampment outside Los Angeles City Hall as some protesters blocked traffic.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had given Occupy LA protesters until midnight local time to dismantle their tents, pack up their belongings and clear out of the City Hall park, or face a forcible removal.
But Jim Lafferty, a National Lawyers Guild attorney and leading advocate for protesters in talks with the city, said two hours after the eviction deadline that police had assured him "there will be no move against this occupation tonight."
He said he expected police would end up giving Occupy LA a two-day reprieve and that the only demonstrators risking arrest before then were those who remained in the road.
A police commander on the scene, Andrew Smith, confirmed the encampment would be allowed to stay put until at least daybreak. But he said protesters who continued to block traffic had until 4.30am to move or face arrest.
"We have no plan at this time to go into the park and evict people," Smith said. "That could change in the near future, but right now we are hoping to clear the streets, and that'll be the end and people can relax for a little while."
Clark Davis, an Occupy LA organiser, said to Smith and a group of officers standing by, "You guys have been fantastic."
But some protesters expressed suspicion at word of a reprieve, saying it could be a ploy by police to get them to let down their guard.
The Los Angeles encampment is among the oldest and largest on the West Coast aligned with a two-month-old national Occupy Wall Street movement protesting economic inequality, high unemployment and excesses of the US financial system.
Staking its place since October 1 on the grounds surrounding City Hall, the compound has grown to roughly 400 tents and 700 to 800 people, organisers and municipal officials said. At least a third are believed to be homeless.
By last night the size of the crowd outside City Hall swelled further as supporters from organised labour, clergy, civil rights and other groups streamed into the area, answering a call for an eleventh-hour show of support for the campers.
Police estimated the overall number of protesters, some wearing gas masks, had grown to at least 2,000.
Police, who had kept out of sight during the day, began to make their presence known as the eviction deadline came and went, and the mood of the protesters, which had been calm and festive, turned more boisterous and rowdy.
Shortly after midnight, throngs of demonstrators began blocking traffic along a street running between City Hall and the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters across the street, finally moving to take over an entire intersection.
One group of protesters left the park and marched about a block away, where they were met by a phalanx of officers wearing helmets, carrying night sticks and what appeared to be tear gas rifles.
Some in the crowd advanced to the line of officers, shouting: "We are peaceful!" But police held their positions.
Smith's police truck was briefly surrounded by protesters, prompting more riot police to converge on the area.
At one point, a separate group of about 50 protesters gathered around a tent in the center of the park holding candles and linking arms. They had scrawled telephone numbers of lawyers on their arms anticipating arrest.
Dozens of others formed a human chain around the perimeter of City Hall, holding hands as they stood on the sidewalk.
After the announcement that eviction had been postponed, most of those protesters and others who had been disrupting traffic drifted away. But about a dozen remained in the intersection, sitting or lying in the street.
Hours earlier, the mayor issued a statement saying the park "will officially close tonight," but that police would allow campers ample time to remove their belongings peacefully.
"I wouldn't leave if they tell me to leave," said Jennifer Mawias, 24, who identified herself as a two-month veteran of the camp. Dressed in a black leather jacket with a black bandanna over her nose and mouth, Mawias said she was ready to be arrested even though she is due at work in the morning.
Occupy LA campers spent much of the weekend removing and placing into storage their more valuable equipment to keep it from being damaged or confiscated, including an array of solar panels, power generators, computers and a makeshift library.
Los Angeles has been relatively accommodating to its Occupy group compared to other major cities, with Villaraigosa at one point providing ponchos to campers when it rained.
But after the collapse of negotiations aimed at persuading protesters to relocate voluntarily, the mayor said last week the encampment would have to go. He said he hoped to avoid violence that erupted in other cities when police used force against Occupy protesters.
Former US Marine Scott Olsen was critically injured in one such confrontation last month in Oakland, California, a clash that helped rally Occupy protesters nationwide.
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