Reporting from Oakland and San Francisco—Thousands of demonstrators chanted, marched, danced and waved signs Wednesday during a general strike called by Occupy Oakland, a largely peaceful protest that snarled downtown streets, rerouted buses, closed the busy port and drew hundreds of teachers and city workers from classrooms and offices.
The daylong, citywide protest against income inequality and corporate greed began about 9 a.m., as a crowd converged at the civic center, where Occupy Oakland has had its on-again-off-again encampment; it did not end until after an evening march, in which thousands swarmed the Port of Oakland, the country's fifth busiest.
PHOTOS: Occupy Oakland
Protesters at the port scrambled onto the roofs of container trucks as the sky darkened, and truckers honked and waved "to get us excited … when the crowd started dying down," said Audra Casanova, 26, who marched with her husband and 6-month-old son, Alexander.
"We're fighting for our children, really," said Casanova, a UC Berkeley comparative literature student with $42,000 in educational debt, "so they're not owned by federal loans like we are."
If there was a constituency with a beef, it was represented somewhere on the streets of Oakland on Wednesday.
Teachers marched on the state building to demand greater funding for education. About 16% of the Oakland Unified School District's instructors stayed away from their schools, where some classes were consolidated. Fifteen of the city's 17 Head Start centers were closed "due to staff participation in the day's event," according to a city bulletin.
The Disability and Senior Action Brigade held a sit-in to protest cuts in services. Feminists and Queers Against Capitalism protested — you guessed it — capitalism. Families, holding hands and pushing strollers, marched from the main library to City Hall. A flash mob danced in the streets to the strains of "I Will Survive."
Many downtown businesses were closed — some in solidarity with the strike, others in fear. Municipal workers were sent home early. Maritime operations at the port were shut down by late afternoon, Omar R. Benjamin, the port's executive director, said at an early evening news conference.
"We want you to allow our port workers safe passage home," Benjamin said, addressing the demonstrators. "Please allow our fellow 99% to get home safely to their families. Maritime operations will resume when it is safe."
As thousands of protesters flowed toward the port, truckers struggled to drive out. Others, like Mann Singh, stuck around with smiles on their faces. The 42-year-old Pittsburg resident said he arrived at 4:30 p.m. with an empty truck, hoping to park it and go home, but as the demonstrators gathered, he said, "I stopped to support them."
In addition to the port, where an average of $8.5 million in business is done each day, banks were a particular focus of Wednesday's action — and of its vandals. City officials said four branches were closed because of demonstrators.
David Solnit, a 47-year-old San Francisco resident, was among the protesters who strung yellow tape across the door of the downtown Wells Fargo branch and refused to budge. "A few young people sat down in front of the door, and within an hour, 25 people had joined them," Solnit said.
Vandals smashed windows at the Bank of America branch near Lake Merritt and spray painted "Class War," "Shut It Down" and "1946," the latter a historical reference to the general strike that shuttered Oakland for two days 65 years ago.
At a Chase branch near downtown, vandals painted ATMs black. "For the Commune," said one graffiti message. "Withdraw Only," said another. Police officers stood watch outside two shattered plate glass windows.
A stunned Sheila Dvorak, 29, who had geared up for a peaceful march to the port, said the damage "doesn't feel right." Dvorak was visiting from upstate New York and hoped to protest peacefully to voice her concerns about healthcare. Last month, she said, she marched across the Brooklyn Bridge with Occupy Wall Street.
"I think the root of the movement is peaceful," she said. "I would ask whoever broke these windows to remember that. It's the only way we'll get what we want."
As Dvorak spoke, another demonstrator walked up and posted a sign on the busted window: "We are better than this."
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and other city officials were hoping there would be no reprise of the violence that erupted last week when police moved in to raze the Occupy Oakland encampment. Police in riot gear lobbed tear gas 12 hours later into a crowd protesting the removal; the footage received international attention.
In an effort to placate protesters, Quan allowed the camp to rebuild, but many remain angry at her administration. In addition, business leaders and the police union are irate that she allowed the camp to flourish again, saying it creates uncertainty and economic stress.
These recent events have raised questions about her political future. The City Council plans to meet Thursday to discuss last week's police tactics. An overflow crowd is expected. One demonstrator — a former Quan campaigner named Jeff Baker, 60 — said he came out Wednesday to "support the effort to recall Mayor Jean Quan."
By late evening, no arrests had been made, and interim Police Chief Howard Jordan blamed the vandalism on 60 to 70 outside anarchists dressed in black with masks or handkerchiefs obscuring their faces. An ax-wielding vandal also smashed windows at Oakland's Whole Foods Market, which was splashed with paint and closed early.
"The world is watching Oakland tonight," City Administrator Deanna Santana said during the news conference. "We need to make sure this remains a safe place for everyone."
PHOTOS: Occupy Oakland