DENVER – They were prepared for a fight. They got little more than a staring contest.
Riot police cleared out a tent camp outside the state Capitol early Friday morning after a mostly peaceful standoff that didn’t end until daybreak.
“The vast majority of people voluntarily left the park. We had no violence and minimal arrests,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper.
State and Denver police arrested 23 people, said State Trooper Heather Cobler.
Earlier Thursday, Hickenlooper told Occupy Denver protesters they could not stay overnight in Lincoln Park, a one-block area bounded by four busy streets in front of the Capitol.
Demonstrators say they are working for the “99 percent” – working Americans who don’t have the same privileges as the top 1 percent.
Hickenlooper and Colorado State Patrol Chief James Wolfinbarger told protesters that the 70 or so tents they had set up were illegal, and the park was closed from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.
As the deadline passed, tension built while Denver Police vehicles cruised the streets.
“It’s anxiety. It’s restlessness. It’s uncertainty,” said Neil Therrell, one of Occupy Denver’s coordinators.
At 2:30 a.m., a State Patrol captain in an SUV began making a series of announcements that the park was closed and police would clear it out in 45 minutes.
At 3:20, dozens of police clad in riot gear marched from a nearby parking garage into the park.
A demonstrator with a bullhorn began chanting Darth Vader’s theme song, “Dum dum dum, dum-da-dum, dum-da dum” – bringing laughter from the state troopers guarding the Capitol.
Police quickly tore down most of the tents but made no arrests, ignoring both angry taunts from some demonstrators and invitations to join the protest from others. Instead, they set up a perimeter around the park and subtly shifted their positions, squeezing protesters onto the sidewalk a few feet at a time.
As the predawn chill set in, the number of protesters dwindled noticeably.
Protesters decided to make a stand at their kitchen tent, which they called the Thunderdome, and set up a human chain around it. Police did not dismantle the final tent until after dawn had broken.
Police closed the park indefinitely early Friday morning. Hickenlooper said state workers needed time to clean up “squalid” messes. He also said protesters hacked into an underground electrical cable to run their kitchen equipment.
Occupy Denver protesters reassembled Friday afternoon in Civic Center Park, which is city property and out of the state’s jurisdiction. They began their meeting with a chant at state troopers, who were maintaining a heavy presence in Lincoln Park.
“Hey cops!” they shouted. “We’re still here!”