OAKLAND, Calif. — Thousands of anti-Wall Street protesters marched in the streets of Oakland on Wednesday as they geared up with labor unions to picket banks, take over foreclosed homes and vacant buildings and disrupt operations at the nation's fifth-busiest port.
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 similar rallies across the country in solidarity.
In Philadelphia, police arrested about a dozen protesters who were sitting peacefully inside the lobby of the headquarters of cable giant Comcast. Officers moved in after they refused to leave. The protesters were handcuffed and led into police vans as supporters cheered.
In New York, about 100 military veterans marched in uniform through Manhattan to protest what they called police brutality against the Iraq War veteran injured in Oakland.
Students from colleges in Boston and union workers, for example, were expected to march on local Bank of America offices, the Harvard Club and the statehouse to protest the nation's burgeoning student debt crisis.
They say total student debt in the country exceeds credit card debt, increases by $1 million every six minutes and will reach $1 trillion this year, potentially undermining the economy.
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.
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.
It is the only West coast port that exports more than it imports, according to port spokesman Issac Kos-Read. About 55 percent of the goods it handles are for export. Much of California's agricultural production flows through to foreign markets, including wines from Napa and Sonoma valleys, fruits and nuts from the Central Valley and rice from farms near Sacramento.
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. The port also handles imported cars and car parts from Asian carmakers such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai.
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