By Kristin J. Bender, Cecily Burt and Sean Maher
OAKLAND — Protesters have effectively shut down maritime operations at the Port, Director Omar Benjamin said at a media briefing Tuesday, as more than 4,000 people are at the gates.
The crowd stretched several blocks down Middle Harbor Road leading into the port as they begin their attempt to shut down the port for start of the 7 p.m. night shift.
Benjamin pledged that normal port operations would resume, however, and asked protesters to give workers safe passage to their homes.
As they walked the one mile from 14th Street and Broadway, the crowd fanned out for a least a mile, climbed on trucks and chanted. “Whose city is it? Our city!” Police cars are parked on side streets but are keeping a low profile. The march is peaceful so far and no injuries have been reported.
The action is part of the Wednesday general strike, the first one in Oakland since 1946, which was launched to shut down the city for the day in a rally cry against corporate greed, widespread unemployment and wage inequality.
Meanwhile at Whole Foods at 27th and Bay streets, a splinter group wearing all-black and face masks threw paintballs, left graffiti, tore up a fence and broke a window before the larger crowd turned on them and forced them to stop. There were about 75 people inside the store at the time. No injuries were reported.
A man who witnessed the attack but declined to give his name said he was buying an organic orange when the crowd arrived.
“I heard a thud as I walked out, and I looked and saw this whole parade of people walking toward the store,” the man said. “Most of them were holding signs, walking peacefully, but about three people ran out and kicked down the gate, so I turned to run away.”
Joan Bechtel, of Pittsburg, said she and her friend were inside when the vandalism started and were held inside the store for 45 minutes.
“People were scared at first, and there was a lot of tension there for quite a while,” Bechtel said. “We heard they were coming back and the employees said they had to close the store, and they let us out.”
Oakland City Council President Larry Reid took was not pleased with the destruction.
“Look at Whole Foods. Look at Bank of America and the Kaiser Center. Look at Chase Bank. It’s not even dark yet.” Asked if he thinks the city can control the vandalism, Reid sighed, and said simply, “No.”
Occupy Oakland demonstrators turned their ire on big banks, the Port of Oakland and corporations Wednesday by marching, blocking traffic and chanting — and in some cases, defacing ATMs and breaking windows — at Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Chase Bank branches around downtown Oakland.
At least 200 city workers took Wednesday off, about 5 percent of the city’s entire workforce. Other city and port workers were sent home early as the crowd of demonstrators swelled to about 5,000 strong downtown.
Police kept a low profile as the demonstrators took over downtown streets and committed sporadic vandalism. For much of the afternoon the large crowd split off into separate marches, with some staying at the Occupy Oakland camp at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza and participating in teach-ins and sit-ins, and others marching and protesting at various banks located near the Kaiser Center at 20th and Webster streets.
At Bank of America, some protesters pounded on the locked doors, defaced ATMs and broke a window before moving down the street to Wells Fargo.
Several windows were also broken at the Wells Fargo at 12th and Broadway by a splinter group as the majority of demonstrators urged them to stop.
A children’s brigade of parents with babies in slings and toddlers in strollers marched from the main library to Frank Ogawa Plaza about 4 p.m., carrying signs that said “Children’s Brigade: Occupy the Future.”
Earlier students and teachers from Berkeley and Laney College marched downtown to join the strike after first stopping to serve a symbolic eviction notice at Oakland Unified School District headquarters.
Joel Velasquez, a parent of two children at Westlake school, said school board members are “on notice that they will be evicted from office in the next election for doing the dirty work of the 1 percent.”
“They are part of institutional problems that cause hardship on low-income children,” Velasquez said.
A group of children were also gathering at the Oakland Main Library branch before marching to Frank Ogawa Plaza at 14th and Broadway, home base for thousands of demonstrators participating in the massive Day of Action.
Earlier the massive crowd had done a loop around downtown Oakland, stopping in front of the Elihu M. Harris state building on Clay Street before marching down Broadway and blocking the intersections at 12th and 14th streets, The march followed a peaceful rally at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza during the first of three planned actions to disrupt business.
There was nary a police officer in sight as some in the crowd stood in front of Wells Fargo and Comerica bank branches at 12th and Broadway — with a few in the crowd occasionally banging on the locked doors.
The general strike remained peaceful into the early afternoon, said Mayor Jean Quan on returning from a tour of the downtown area.
“I want to thank everybody, particularly the citizens of Oakland and the demonstrators who kept it pretty peaceful and orderly,” Quan said at a news conference from the city’s emergency operations center at about 12:30 p.m. Interim police Chief Howard Jordan said that as of noon there had been no arrests, but police were aware of “a small group of people in the crowd perhaps looking for a confrontation with the police.
“We ask that the peaceful folks continue to police themselves, and report them to us if they see anyone ready to become violent,” Jordan said.
Quan said that 200 of the city’s civilian workforce of 2,500 workers had taken advantage of floating holidays or furloughs to call in sick today, and she asked the demonstrators respect the rights of area employees who may support the movement but were unable to take time off.
“At this point we fully expect this is going to be a good day for Oakland, and we can show how people can protest and get their message across and we can keep the city safe at the same time. We’re looking forward to a day of peaceful protest,” Quan said.
Oakland police are the only enforcement officers on the ground, Jordan said, although mutual aid is available if the need arises.
Several businesses did close, including the Men’s Wearhouse and the Grand Lake Theater. Those businesses closed to support the general strike to protest the inequality of wealth and power, but other businesses, such as small restaurants in the plaza, opted to close for different reasons.
The UC office of the President decided to have its more than 800 employees work from home today over concerns that BART might be shut down at some point. About 1,300 people affiliated with UC work in the building, and all stayed away.
The city of Oakland remains open for business, as does the Port of Oakland, contrary to rumors. ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said that about 40 stevedores failed to come to work, out of about 325 expected on the morning shift. Trucks are going through the gates and cranes are moving cargo on and off the ships, although there is a backlog at some terminals also due in part to problems on Monday and Tuesday with the handling of refrigerated containers.
The Occupy Oakland camp got the rally going before 8:30 a.m., putting together signs and pumping music from speakers outfitted to a truck that will serve as a rolling platform.
Carey Dall, 35, a dockworker with the ILWU, was among the first to arrive at Frank Ogawa Plaza, which the Occupy camp has renamed Oscar Grant Plaza. He was standing next to a pile of about 100 signs “Stand with the 99 percent” ready to be distributed.
The strike is an important symbolic gesture, he said.
“Economic impact is how you make change,” Dall said. “It’s going to take sustained activity like this if we are going to see changes in this country.”
The planned strike may be the first of its kind since in Oakland since 1946, and it could potentially turn out to be the biggest demonstration in the East Bay since the Vietnam War.
The demonstration aims to shut down the city by targeting banks, corporations and the Port of Oakland in solidarity with worldwide Occupy movement that decries the economic wealth of the very rich 1 percent while 99 percent of the population struggles to find jobs and pay the bills.
And there is an Oakland twist to today’s action, with a call to “end police attacks on our communities and defend Oakland schools and libraries (against budget cuts).”
The General Strike was planned after the city raided the Occupy Oakland camp in the early morning hours on Oct. 25. That night police fired tear gas and less than lethal projectiles at about 1,000 protesters who gathered downtown and blocked streets.
Several people were hit, and 24-year-old former Marine Scott Olsen was struck in the head and suffered a skull fracture. Quan has since allowed the Occupy movement to rebuild the camp at Frank Ogawa Plaza and about 100 tents have since popped up.
The call for a general strike has gained momentum since the raid, with several labor groups picking up the cause.
Although Wednesday’s gatherings at Frank Ogawa were scheduled for 9 a.m., followed by another assembly at the Plaza at noon, and again at 5 p.m., followed a two-mile march to the Port of Oakland, the crowd had a mind of its own. The staggered times of demonstrations were designed to make sure everyone who wished had a chance to participate even if they could not take the entire day off work.
Several labor unions participated in the day of action, with hundreds of Oakland public school teachers calling in sick. The California Nurses Association has supported the movement from the beginning.
“Nurses are part of the 99 percent. We see the health impacts of job loss, home foreclosures, and poor nutrition related to the economic crisis,” said Martha Kuhl, an Oakland nurse. “Nurses care for patients experiencing who delay or forego needed medical care because of the cost, and see more stress-related disease, inability to afford medications, and rising numbers of the uninsured,”
Check back for updates.