Thousands marched through Oakland, California as part of a general strike in response to police brutality against the Occupy Oakland movement. Scott Olsen, 24, was critically wounded by a cannister fired into a crowd by police., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Protesters rally in Oakland, shut port operations
By Dan Levine and Emmett Berg
OAKLAND, Calif (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters shut operations at Oakland's port and blocked a major intersection on Wednesday to rally against economic inequality and police brutality, in demonstrations marred by scattered vandalism.
The protest fell short of paralyzing the Northern California city that was catapulted to the forefront of national anti-Wall Street protests after a former Marine was badly wounded during a march and rally last week.
But as evening fell, an official said maritime operations at the Oakland port, which handles some $39 billion a year in imports and exports, had been "effectively shut down" by the thousands of marchers.
"At this time, maritime operations are effectively shut down at the Port of Oakland. Maritime area operations will resume when it is safe and secure to do so," the port said in a written statement to Reuters.
Port spokesman Isaac Kos-Read said, however, that some activity may continue at the port, which was typically slower in the evening than during the day.
The anti-Wall Street activists, who complain bitterly about a financial system they believe benefits mainly corporations and the wealthy, had aimed to disrupt commerce, with a special focus on banks and other symbols of corporate America.
Other than the port and several downtown Oakland bank branches and stores that closed, schools and most businesses remained open and commerce largely carried on as usual.
"A lot of the small businesses actually have closed," protest organizer Cat Brooks said, describing her view of a response to a call for a general strike.
The demonstrations centered at Frank Ogawa Plaza adjacent to city hall, scene of a tug-of-war last week between police who cleared a protest encampment there and protesters who sought to return, and ultimately succeeded in doing so.
Protesters also blocked the downtown intersection of 14th street and Broadway, where ex-Marine Scott Olsen was wounded during confrontations with police.
Windows were smashed at several Oakland banks and a Whole Foods market, with pictures of the damage posted on Twitter.
Acting Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan said a group of 60 to 70 people he described as anarchists were responsible for the damage while the bulk of the protesters, a crowd he estimated at 4,500 people, had remained peaceful.
Few uniformed police officers were spotted at the rallies, but Jordan said that demonstrators would not be allowed to march beyond the gates of the port.
Local labor leaders, while generally sympathetic to the protesters, said their contracts prohibited them from proclaiming an official strike. Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said about 40 of 325 unionized port workers had stayed off the job.
"There was no call for a strike by the union," he said.
Port employees were sent home at 3:30 p.m., the port spokesman Kos-Read said, ahead of the planned port march.
SOME TEACHERS ABSENT
Oakland Unified School District spokesman Troy Flint said more than 300 teachers stayed home, most of those having made formal requests the night before.
"We did have to scramble a little bit to cover the extra absences," Flint said, adding that some classes were combined but that no students were left unsupervised.
He said some students were also thought to have missed school for the protests but "we haven't heard of major absences beyond the norm."
Thom Reinhardt, 33, who teaches biology and engineering at Oakland High School, said that about 10 to 15 teachers out of some 75 at the school decided to protest during the day.
"The sentiment (for the others) was that they didn't want to leave their students," he said.
Other residents like Rebecca Leung, 33, who works at an architectural lighting sales company, went about their ordinary activities. Leung said she supported the theme of the protests and would check them out during her lunch break.
"I don't really feel striking is necessary. I work for a small company, I don't work for Bank of America," she said.
The owner of a flower shop near the plaza, meanwhile, said that the weeks of protests and ongoing encampment had only served to hurt his small business.
"Business has not been the same. Everything has gone downhill around here, the noise, the ambience and the customers," the man, who identified himself as Usoro, told Reuters. "I can't afford to close down."
It was the wounding of Olsen, a former Marine turned peace activist who suffered a serious head injury during protests last week, that seemed to galvanize protesters and broadened their mission to include police brutality.
He remains in an Oakland hospital in fair condition.
Protest organizers say Olsen, 24, was struck by a tear gas canister fired by police. Acting Oakland Police Chief Jordan has opened an investigation into the incident but has not said how he believes Olsen was wounded.
"We stand in defense of Scott Olsen and in memory of Oscar Grant," Angela Davis, a radical leader prominent in the 1960s and '70s, said at a rally on Wednesday.
Grant, 22, was shot to death on an Oakland train platform on New Year's Day in 2009 by a policeman who said he mistakenly drew his gun instead of his Taser weapon during a scuffle.
Elsewhere, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told Wall Steet protesters he would take action if circumstances warranted, saying that the encampments and demonstrations were "really hurting small businesses and families."
(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Noel Randewich and Mary Slosson; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston)