'Occupy' Protesters Shut Down Port of Oakland

Maritime operations at the Port of Oakland, one of the largest container ports in the United States, were shut down Wednesday by demonstrators protesting against economic inequality, port officials said.

Thousands of protesters blocked a major Oakland intersection in what they called a general strike to protest economic conditions and police brutality, but fell short of their stated aim of paralyzing the city.

Business in the Northern California city appeared to be largely normal, with most stores and businesses remaining open and workers going to their jobs. The Occupy Oakland movement did succeed in shutting down the container port, which handles some $39 billion a year in imports and exports.

``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.

Oakland was catapulted to the forefront of national anti-Wall Street protest movement after a former Marine was badly wounded during a march and rally last week.

The protesters, who complain about a financial system they believe mainly benefits corporations and the wealthy, had aimed to disrupt Oakland commerce Wednesday, with a special focus on banks and other symbols of corporate America.

``A lot of the small businesses actually have closed,'' organizer Cat Brooks said of the strike's effectiveness. ``A lot of the food places and other things, we appreciate them staying open (to feed protesters).''

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 out of 325 unionized port workers had stayed off the job.

``There was no call for a strike by the union,'' he said.

City officials also said schools and government offices were remaining open.


Residents like Rebecca Leung, 33, who was headed to her job 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 complained about the impact of the demonstrations, which have gone on for weeks, as well as the nearby protesters' encampment.

``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.''

The focal point for the demonstration Wednesday, which drew an estimated 1,000 people, was the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway in downtown Oakland. Traffic was diverted, but few uniformed police officers were seen.

It was at that intersection that ex-Marine Scott Olsen suffered a serious head injury last week when marchers clashed with police, an incident that galvanized protesters across the country.

Protest organizers say Olsen, 24, who is in an Oakland hospital in fair condition, was struck by a tear gas canister fired by police. Acting Oakland Police Chief Howard 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 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 electroshock weapon during a scuffle.

Video of that incident touched off a night of rioting in the city in January 2009, and civil unrest erupted again in July 2010 when the officer was cleared of murder charges.

Elsewhere, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told Wall Street protesters he would take action if circumstances warranted, saying 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 Anthony Boadle)