Correction Appended: Nov. 11, 2011
As promised, the Occupy Oakland movement on Wednesday spilled from its home base in front of city hall, halting street traffic and blocking access to banks and businesses that defied its calls for a general strike. The mood was for the most part festive, full of homegrown pride for a hard-luck city enjoying a rare moment in the global spotlight. Concerts and prayer sessions, free barbecue and ice cream were among the offerings to a motley mix of protesters. Cannabis smoke was widespread. And of course, there were a lot of speeches: in the main amphitheater, on top of trucks, in the middle of the street. The "Day of Mass Action" culminated with a shutdown of the port, where as many as 7,000 people gathered peacefully to stop trucks in their tracks before things took a violent turn overnight for the second week in a row, with police using teargas after midnight, when a group of anarchists attempted to hijack the final hours of the protest.
But most of Wednesday provided further proof of how a small core of activists has managed to build a broader movement with substantial public sympathy with an energy and a vibe, as well as hazards, that are eclipsing Occupy Wall Street in New York City. "The [initial police] violence was massive propaganda on our behalf," says Ethan, 22, a shirtless protester with a Guy Fawkes mask who was out on the street on Wednesday for the general strike. Indeed, shared concerns over corporate greed and a dubious future have united blue collar workers and immigrants with punks and middle-class families. "We're out here as a family because our child's class is overcrowded, libraries are closing, there's runaway climate change and our planet is being plundered," says Mateo Nube, 40, an environmental activist who came to march accompanied by his 74-year-old mother, wife and two young children. "The CEOs of banks love their kids too, but the imbalance is criminal and the exploitation has to stop."
Union members, students and teachers were out in force. More than 300 took the day off, while some arrived at the marches after school. Dozens of small businesses, and some national chains like Rite Aid and Foot Locker, were closed. Others stayed open and lent support by distributing food and water to marchers though this was no free pass from harassment from a group allegedly sympathetic to the general strike but which appears to engage in vandalism. A Whole Foods that distributed water bottles to passersby was set upon by black-clad masked men, forcing it to close. There were several other instances perhaps connected to the suspected splinter group, including smashed windows at Wells Fargo and Bank of America branches.
Such incidents were the exception during the daylight hours. At another downtown Wells Fargo branch, about 20 good-humored protesters sat in front of the entranceway, blanketed by yellow police tape, chanting, "Shut it down, shut it down!" A dumpster blocked the ATM. No one attempted to get past the group, which refused to leave until the door was chained. "An emerging reality is being created," says Michael Babel, 38, a graduate student who lives in San Francisco. "This is the movement we've been waiting for." As he spoke, a passing man blared through a megaphone: "The 99% is here. They're not cracking down on us. We're cracking down on them."
A short distance away, Celina, 31, idled in her car for 15 minutes and honked in support as a marching crowd passed. The health care manager did not display the least irritation at the delay, unlike a motorist who later in the evening was reported to have run his Mercedes-Benz into a crowd of protesters crossing the street, injuring two of them. "Oakland is a beautiful place, and this is a great example," she exclaimed, adding that she would join the march once she picked up her child. She was less sure about the march to shut down the port. "I just hope people keep it light and don't get aggressive. That way, it's all good."
The marches rolled on late in the afternoon, from the city center to the country's fourth busiest port. On foot, in wheelchairs and on bicycles (and the odd unicycle), protesters converged under the watch of circling helicopters. Police officers were invisible. Mutt Mule, 39, a longtime Oakland resident, banged on a drum and took swills from a second champagne bottle after knocking an empty one over. "It's a big f------ party," he said. "We're having a ball." Nearby, fellow protesters danced to a break-beat DJ; others climbed on stranded vehicles with banners that spanned the angry ("They grind our bones to make their bread.") to the outlandish ("Occupy Everything!").
Occasionally, openings were cleared to allow weary port workers to drive home, but hauling goods or letting people enter ahead of the evening shift change was forbidden. Tensions briefly surged when a 25-year-old driver named Omar started his truck and tried to push through, only to be stymied by the crowd. "I want to go home. I'm tired," he pleaded. A protester shot back, "C'mon, you're one of us, man ... We're all walking home tonight." Omar was nonplussed, but after a short standoff, he finally saw the futility of pressing his case and turned around to park on the side of the road. A cheer went up in the crowd, which went on to achieve its goal of shutting maritime operations down late into the night.
Downtown, the good vibe soured. As midnight approached, a group of rabble-rousers moved into a vacant building two blocks from the occupied plaza, lighting street fires, scrawling graffiti and smashing windows as they barricaded the block. Riot police deployed to the scene again used teargas and stun grenades to clear the streets in the early hours of Thursday. Some protesters tried to de-escalate the situation but to no avail as the masked gang, estimated to number fewer than 100, faced off against police with rocks and bottles. Some 60 arrests were made by the time the melee was subdued at around 3 a.m. Mike Porter, 24, a protester who has lived with his dog in the tent city since the outset, blamed "anarchist" elements that he said took over the building after it had been reclaimed by the Occupy movement, and then prepared for a clash they were hell-bent on having. "They're totally taking advantage of our numbers and leaching off our movement," he said with disgust as the crowds thinned out for the night. How to deal with this? "I don't know, and that's what worries me," he said. "These people have no values."