Police moved in on the Occupy San Diego protesters early Friday morning, forcing them out of their downtown encampments in Civic Center Plaza and Children's Park and arresting 51 people.
Police officers and sheriff's deputies in riot gear took action about 2 a.m. They used loud speakers to order the crowd, which was mostly asleep, to pick up their belongings and move.
The unsanitary conditions resulting from the unlawful camping were cited as the main reason the congregation was forced to vacate.
"We received complaints from the facility staff regarding human and animal feces, urination, littering, drug use and damage to city property," Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long said at a morning news conference at police headquarters downtown.
A caller to The San Diego Union-Tribune said the protesters at the plaza were "completely surrounded with cops in riot gear with guns pointed at them."
Videos show dozens of officers walking on Third Avenue holding batons and walking in a line down the street.
Some protesters yelled at the officers. One man screamed repeatedly, "Why are you trying to hurt us?" Another was heard singing the John Lennon song "Give Peace a Chance."
Protester Robert Stanley, 63, a marketing consultant from Pacific Beach, said he saw about 150 law enforcement officers move into the Civic Center Plaza.
"It looked like Napoleon's operation. Each position was taken up by a squad. It was like someone moving toy soldiers on a civil war front," Stanley said.
He said he thought the demonstrators should have been given more time to clear the space.
Occupy's Michael Basillas cried when talking about the arrests.
"We feel violated. We feel like it was invasive. ... We are going to stay here," Basillas said.
Police estimated about 65 people were in the plaza when they began asking them to leave, and 15 to 18 people at Children's Park, which is across the street from The New Children's Museum on West Island Avenue.
Frank Gormlie, one of the group's organizers, spoke Friday morning to a gathering of displaced protesters.
"We are here to rally about the brutal and unfair arrests of 40 or so of our brothers and sisters," he said using a bullhorn.
Police Lt. Andra Brown said people were taken into custody for a variety of charges, including illegal lodging, encroachment and curfew violations.
Forty people, who ranged in age from 18 to 50, were arrested at the civic center and 11 at the park. Most of the arrests were for obstruction and resisting arrest, Brown said.
"There were people who just sat down in the middle of the street," she said.
She said there were at least two protesters who struggled with officers after being awakened, but no one was pepper-sprayed or beaten, contrary to some reports.
"I think the officers were exemplary," Police Chief William Lansdowne said at the morning news conference.
As he spoke from inside the police headquarters, the sounds of drums could be heard outside, where about 50 protesters had gathered. They were shouting and chanting, "Hey ho. Hey ho. Lansdowne's got to go."
The chief said the last thing the department wanted to do was arrest anyone. "They put us in that position," he said.
Kevin Keeman, executive director of the ACLU for San Diego and Imperial counties, said he met with to the police chief Friday morning and urged him to drop charges against those arrested, who could spend three to four nights in jail if they can't afford to post bail.
In a written statement, Keeman said he asked that police find some way to accommodate overnight political protest.
Lansdowne said officers have been talking daily with the protesters. He said he had gone to the site to try to talk to someone in charge, but the group had no designated leaders.
Brown said that property the protesters had placed at the plaza and park, including tents, canopies, tables and other furniture, was a violation of the city municipal code.
Items left behind that have any value will be impounded and owners have 90 days to claim it. After the protesters were moved out of the Civic Center Plaza, which is next to City Hall, city cleaning crews washed the concrete with pressure hoses. Dozens of officers formed a perimeter around the area.
Initially, only people who work at the buildings surrounding the plaza were allowed through the police perimeter, but later anyone, including protesters, was allowed back in.
"The department supports the rights of those who choose to peacefully protest," Long said.
The assistant police chief said that people can be in the plaza 24 hours a day if they want, but they will not be allowed to sleep there.
John Kenney, 51, one of the protest's organizers, said he thought the action was an attempt by police to disrupt a march that had been planned for 8:30 a.m. Friday on the San Diego Association of Governments meeting.
The group was going to protest a plan to spend $200 billion over the next 40 years on transportation projects.
Mayor Jerry Sanders, who was at the SANDAG meeting, said the protesters have been told "dozens of times" to move their tents and should not have been surprised by the early-morning action of the police.
"I think the officers were looking at a strategy to find the least confrontational time," said Sanders, who was the city's police chief in the 1990s. "And if at two in the morning people just woke up and they're told to leave and they don't leave, you have fewer confrontations than if you do it in the middle of the afternoon with everyone in the world watching and everyone wants to put on a show.
"This is about following the law. This is about allowing people to protest. Our officers have done an outstanding job. Cops have really gone out of their way to work with these folks."
Occupy San Diego is an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York in September and has spread across the country. The protesters have said they are demonstrating against corporate greed.
The San Diego group moved into the plaza Oct. 7 but were ordered to remove their tents, sleeping bags and personal belongings a week later. Earlier this week, the protesters and their tents began to return to the area.
The area may not be clear of tents for long. What is being called a "solidarity sleepover" involving the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council is planned for 8 p.m. Friday in the plaza.