Police in riot gear closed in before dawn on Monday on anti-Wall Street activists who blocked traffic after defying a midnight deadline to vacate an 8-week-old encampment outside Los Angeles City Hall.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had given protesters until 12:01 a.m. local time to dismantle their tents and clear out of the City Hall park or face a forcible removal, setting the stage for the latest showdown between leaders of a major U.S. city and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
By Sunday night the size of the crowd swelled as supporters from organized 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.
About two hours after the eviction deadline had passed, police commanders said they would permit the Occupy LA encampment to stay put until at least daybreak.
Police, however, later declared scores of protesters blocking a downtown intersection at the edge of the park to be an unlawful assembly and gave them five minutes to disperse.
Minutes later, dozens of helmeted police carrying night sticks and special shotguns for firing bean-bag projectiles enclosed the intersection and forced their way into the crowd with batons, as demonstrators who had lingered in the street quickly retreated into the park.
Onlookers chanted Whose street? Our Street at police and shouted at those defying police to Get off the street!
At least one demonstrator was hauled away by officers after someone in the crowd hurled what appeared to be some pieces of a bamboo poll at police.
The Los Angeles encampment is among the oldest and largest on the West Coast aligned with a 2-month-old national Occupy Wall Street movement protesting economic inequality, high unemployment and excesses of the U.S. 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, organizers and municipal officials said. At least a third are believed to be homeless.
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 U.S. Marine Scott Olsen was critically injured in one such confrontation last month in Oakland, California, a clash that helped rally Occupy protesters nationwide.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting by Lucy Nicholson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Vicki Allen)