Hundreds of police officers in riot gear swarmed out of Los Angeles City Hall early Wednesday, batons across their chests, surprising and engulfing the Occupy L.A. protesters who had been camped in the surrounding park for two months.
PHOTOS: Occupy Los Angeles
"We are peaceful!" protesters yelled.
The operation began at 12:13 a.m., on orders from Deputy Chief Jose Perez, watching from the steps of Los Angeles police headquarters across the street.
Two minutes later, it was effectively over.
Although police spent hours more arresting protesters and clearing the area, there was never a fight for control of the park. Police made sure that was not really a question. And although a few protesters threw rocks or otherwise resisted, most kept their cool and urged their compatriots to do the same.
Through a combination of effective tactics, daunting numbers and — significantly — restraint by both sides, police managed to bring the encampment to a largely peaceful end, avoiding the melees that marred the eviction of protesters from similar camps in Oakland, New York and elsewhere.
In the process, the LAPD took a major step toward shedding a reputation earned over decades for heavy-handed crowd control.
"The LAPD had their A game on," said Pam Noles, an Occupy protester and legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild. "I was really proud of the Occupiers who stood on message, stood on discipline and stood on faith," she added. "Both sides did what they had to do."
Both protesters and police knew the end of the camp was near. Both had planned for the inevitable confrontation for weeks.
Modeled after the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York, L.A.'s camp began Oct. 1, part of a loosely organized national movement that has decried the gap between rich and poor in America and the influence of corporate capitalism on the political system. Within a short time, hundreds of people were camped in the 1.7-acre park.
Protesters received a relatively warm welcome, with the City Council endorsing their action and council President Eric Garcetti inviting them to stay as long as they liked. But as days rolled into weeks and months, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other city leaders began showing signs of impatience with rising costs, petty crime and property damage. Ultimately, Villaraigosa, saying he feared for the safety of children at the camp, ordered the protesters to leave. They refused.
At LAPD headquarters, meetings to plan how to clear the camp began about three weeks ago.
Police Chief Charlie Beck, Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger and others were certain that traditional approaches wouldn't work.
The accepted wisdom of crowd control that police have adhered to for decades called for a long, single line of officers to sweep through the grounds and push out protesters. That tactic was used in a costly 2007 debacle clearing a protest at MacArthur Park.
Police officials shuddered at the thought of employing that technique on the sloped, tree-filled lawns of City Hall that were covered with scores of tents. And while it might push protesters out of the park, it would not have given police control over how they dispersed, the officials said.
"We knew we didn't want to just push them out," Beck said. "The last thing we wanted was to be chasing them through the streets."