By Lisa Leff and Terence Chea
Several thousand Occupy Wall Street demonstrators gathering in Oakland forced a halt to operations at the nation’s fifth busiest port Wednesday evening, pledging to stay until at least 10 p.m. PDT Wednesday and escalating a movement whose tactics had largely been limited to marches, rallies and tent encampments since it began in September.
Police estimated that a crowd of about 3,000 had gathered at the Port of Oakland by about 5 p.m. PDT. Some had marched from the city’s downtown, while others had been bused to the port. The protests marked an escalation from previous demonstrations as they went beyond boisterous rallies at park encampments and took aim at a major hub of commerce, such as the Port of Oakland. Organizers say they want to halt “the flow of capital” at the port.
The union representing port workers said it cannot ask members to participate in the protests because of clauses in its contract, potentially minimizing any disruptions.
Demonstrators as well as city and business leaders expressed optimism that the widely anticipated “general strike” would be a peaceful event for a city that became a rallying point last week after an Iraq War veteran was injured in clashes between protesters and police.
Embattled Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who has been criticized for her handling of the protests, said in a statement that she supported the goals of the protest movement that began in New York City a month ago and spread to dozens of cities across the country.
“Police Chief (Howard) Jordan and I are dedicated to respecting the right of every demonstrator to peacefully assemble, but it is our duty to prioritize public safety,” she said.
Protesters planned to hold rallies across the country in solidarity.
Along with protesting financial institutions that many within the movement blame for high unemployment and the foreclosure crisis, supporters of the Oakland events are expanding their message to include school closures, waning union benefits and cuts to social services.
Nurse, teacher and other worker unions are taking part in the protests, and Oakland is letting city workers use vacation or other paid time to take part in the general strike. About 5 percent of city workers took the day off Wednesday, according to City Administrator Deanna Santana.
About 360 Oakland teachers didn’t show up for work, or roughly 18 percent of the district’s 2,000 teachers, said Oakland Unified School District spokesman Troy Flint. The district has been able to get substitute teachers for most classrooms, and where that wasn’t possible children were sent to other classrooms, he said.
The day’s events in Oakland began with a rally outside City Hall that by midmorning drew more than 1,000 people who were spilling into the streets and disrupting the downtown commute.
About three dozen adults with toddlers and school-age children formed a “children’s brigade, gathering at Oakland Public Library for a stroller march to the protest in downtown Oakland. Demonstrators handed out signs written as if in a children’s crayon that read “Generation 99% Occupying Our Future,” which the marchers attached to their baby backpacks and strollers.
The protests were expected to culminate with a march to the Port of Oakland, where organizers said the goal would be to stop work there for the 7 p.m. shift. Organizers say they want to halt “the flow of capital” at the port.
About 70 percent of the port’s trade is with Asia. Seventeen percent is domestic and military cargo, 10 percent is European trade. The port imports electronics, apparel and manufacturing equipment, mostly from Asia. City spokeswoman Karen Boyd said the government “will be open for business as usual” and was encouraging businesses to do the same.
The president of the police officers’ union said he was worried officers were being scapegoated by Quan and “set to fail” if Wednesday’s actions got unruly.
“We’re going to be seen as the establishment, and it’s not fair to the police, it’s not fair to anyone,” Oakland Police Officer’s Association President Sgt. Dom Arotzarena said.
Unions representing city government workers, Oakland’s public school teachers, community college instructors, and University of California, Berkeley teaching assistants all have endorsed the daylong work stoppage and encouraged their members to participate.
“It’s sort of a realization that a lot of people are having that we’ve all been fighting our own issues, but really, it’s all related, it’s all the same issue,” Oakland Education Association Secretary Steve Neat said.