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Occupy Oakland Shuts down the port

(11-02) 20:18 PDT OAKLAND -- Thousands of people jammed into downtown Oakland on Wednesday for a general strike called by Occupy Oakland to protest economic inequity and corporate greed - then marched en masse to the Port of Oakland and shut it down.

As many as 5,000 people, by police estimates, clogged the main port entrance on Middle Harbor Road and seven other gates as the sun went down, chanting slogans and halting all truck traffic going in or out.

"Whose port? Our port!" many yelled, while dozens climbed on top of the idled trucks and waved signs.

The few police officers within sight kept a considerable distance, and the waterfront took on the air a combination protest and street carnival, with everyone from office workers to gutter punks standing alongside each other denouncing inequality.

Port officials said in a statement that maritime operations were "effectively shut down." Dozens of trucks sat idling at the port, unable to enter or leave.

"It's a victory," exulted one protester, 21-year-old Oakland art student Umar Shareef. "To get all these people together as one unit is amazing."

Andrez Quintanilla, a 28-year-old truck driver, was trying to drop off a load at the port but was forced to cool his engines outside the entrance.

"It's good what they're doing," he said. "They're trying to make sure everyone has their rights, but I wish they would let me go. I need to go home."

Occupy Oakland, the activists who have camped outside City Hall for nearly a month, originally targeted the port to show solidarity with union workers embroiled in a dispute in Longview, Wash. But to most of the thousands of protesters who flowed west from around Occupy Oakland's nerve center in Frank Ogawa Plaza, it was a finale to a long day of outrage at the widening economic divisions in America.

Day of activism

The first general strike called in Oakland since 1946 was largely peaceful. Young activists, middle-class wage earners, students and homeless people mingled good-naturedly as they held rallies and meditation meetings, heard speeches and marched to protest at dozens of downtown businesses and banks.

An ice cream truck handed out treats with protest slogans, and a flash mob danced to the old disco hit, "I Will Survive."

Adam Bergman took his two children and one of their friends out of their Oakland elementary school for the protest. Concerned about violence, Bergman said he wanted to stay at the back of the pack.

"I think it is important to show them what's happening right now," he said. "It's part of our civic duty to support freedom of speech ... to stand up for the 99 percent of us."

There were some instances of vandalism, which interim Police Chief Howard Jordan said had been instigated by "60 to 70 anarchists ... bent on causing problems."

When protesters smashed windows at banks, a grocery and two small businesses, videos showed the instigators were mostly wearing black, with bandanas over their faces.

Jordan said in an evening press conference that there had been no arrests.

Mini city

Within Frank Ogawa Plaza outside City Hall, organizers expanded the Occupy Oakland encampment into a mini-city with medical pavilions, meditation tents and children's zones. Lines for the portable toilets were about 20 deep throughout the day, and the line for free food often had 50 people.

In between marches the plaza's amphitheater filled with more than 1,000 people as poets and others spoke to lambaste everything from excessive bank profits to capitalism itself.

"Today is about saying no to the 1 percent," said Cat Brooks, co-chairwoman of the Onyx Organizing Committee, an Oakland grassroots organization.

Few uniformed police officers were on the streets, although some showed up outside at least one bank to talk to the crowd about staying calm.

"Oakland has an opportunity tonight to show the country and the world what peaceful expression can look like," said City Administrator Deanna Santana. "The world is watching."

Businesses closed

In a statement, Mayor Jean Quan said she supported the goals of the protesters but noted that many residents would not be participating in the strike.

"We must make sure that those who have to go to work and keep their businesses open are able to do so," Quan said.

Some businesses did stay open, with a few of those bringing food to the protesters - but many downtown stores also closed for the day.

The closed stores included national chains such as Rite-Aid, Tully's Coffee and Foot Locker. Some of the stores that remained open would only accept cash to honor the strike and avoid sending credit card fees to multinational corporations and banks.

Major labor unions in the city expressed support for the movement, and though they could not legally strike for the day many workers said they would take paid time off to participate.

Port officials said about 35 to 40 longshoremen - or a little more than 10 percent - did not show up for the day shift.

Bank protests

The tensest moments during the daylight hours came when dozens of protesters clustered in front of bank branches, which quickly shut their doors and let in only a few customers at a time. Demonstrators pounded on the doors, chanted slogans including, "Don't feed the greed," and drew graffiti with the same sentiments on windows and walls.

Protesters smashed windows around 3 p.m. at a Wells Fargo Bank branch at 12th Street and Broadway, a Bank of America near Lake Merritt, a dry-cleaning store and a financial office on Webster Street near 21st Street, and at a Whole Foods store on Bay Place - where vandals spray painted "Strike" in large letters on the outside wall.

A spokesman at Whole Foods, which closed the store after the vandalism, said it had allowed employees to take part in the general strike.

Several protesters said the vandals did not speak for them.

"This is not what we represent," said Erin Sitt, a student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. "You can't let a couple of sour apples ruin the bunch."

The downtown vandalism declined as darkness came. Hundreds of protesters remained behind in front of City Hall, giving speeches and waving banners, but virtually everyone else wound up at the port.

Teachers participate

More than 300 Oakland public school teachers did not show up to work, and others used the day to teach their students about the dynamics of protest. Most who took the day off had alerted the district in advance that they would be observing the general strike, but a shortage of substitutes forced some classes to be consolidated, district officials said.

Pat Kaplan, who teaches fourth grade at Bridges Academy in East Oakland, was waiting at the Fruitvale Station to board a BART train and wearing a military uniform emblazoned with the title "Gen. Huelga" - "general strike" in Spanish.

"We've had tremendous cuts at our school and lost four staff people," Kaplan said. "We have no field trips and we have to ask parents for paper and pencils, but banks made billions of dollars this year."

City officials allowed public employees to take the day off, but every Oakland police officer was required show up for work. About 5 percent of city employees called in to say they would be taking either an unpaid furlough or paid vacation day, officials said.

Chronicle staff writers Jill Tucker, Carolyn Jones, Will Kane, Joe Garofoli, Carolyn Said, Justin Berton and Henry K. Lee contributed to this report.

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