Protesters target downtown Oakland bank branches

Occupy Oakland protesters close the intersection of 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland, Calif., Nov. 2, 2011. AP Photo

Updated at 7:28 p.m. ET

OAKLAND, Calif. - Thousands of Occupy Wall Street protesters escalated their tactics beyond marches, rallies and tent camps Wednesday and moved to disrupt the flow of goods at the nation's fifth-busiest port.

Protesters were arrested as they held a sit-in at the headquarters of cable giant Comcast in Philadelphia. Military veterans marched in uniform in New York, angry at their dim job prospects. And parents and their kids, some in strollers, formed a "children's brigade" to join the Oakland, Calif. rallies.

"There's absolutely something wrong with the system," said Jessica Medina, a single mother who attends school part time and works in Oakland. "We need to change that."

In Los Angeles, New York and other cities, demonstrators planned their own rallies in solidarity with the Oakland protesters, who called for Wednesday's "general strike" after the city became a rallying point last week when an Iraq War veteran was injured in clashes with police.

Protesters, city officials and business leaders were optimistic the strike would be peaceful. There was little to no visible police presence all day. At a briefing, officials described the protests as peaceful and orderly and said no arrests had been made.

Potentially minimizing any significant disruptions at the port, leaders of the longshoremen's union said they could not call for members to join the protests under their contract with the port.

Organizers say they want to stop the "flow of capital." The port sends goods primarily to Asia, including wine as well as rice, fruits and nuts, and handles imported electronics, apparel and manufacturing equipment, mostly from Asia, as well as cars and parts from Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai.

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.

Special Section: Occupy Wall Street Protests
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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.

About three dozen adults with toddlers and school-age children formed a "children's brigade, gathering at Oakland Public Library for a stroller march to the protest in downtown Oakland. Demonstrators handed out signs written as if in a children's crayon that read "Generation 99% Occupying Our Future," which the marchers attached to their baby backpacks and strollers.

Some protesters broke off from the main rally near the city hall plaza to picket at nearby banks. All three banks located within blocks of the plaza were closed, though that didn't stop protesters from chanting and waving signs outside.

At a Citibank branch, more than a dozen protesters blocked the entrance, some with fake $100 bills taped across their faces. About 200 people chanted outside a Wells Fargo branch, which had graffiti scrawled on its wall. The messages read, "The 1 percent won't back down" and "Who's robbing who?"

College freshman Alan Yee joined a group of students at the Wells Fargo protest. He said he's marching for several of his classmates who are struggling to pay tuition.

As reported by CBS station KPIX San Francisco, Yvette Felarca from activist group By Any Means Necessary said that demonstrators were interrupting traffic because "these streets are our streets.

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.

On Wednesday morning, the port was operating as normal and most longshoremen had shown up for work, according to port and union officials.

Craig Merrilees, spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said its members were not being called to strike. The union cannot sanction a strike in support of Occupy Oakland under the terms of its contract, he said.

"The general message is that the ILWU and other unions are supporting the concerns raised by Occupy Oakland and the Occupy movement to speak up for the 99 percent and against the corporate greed that is wrecking America," Merrilees said.

Other demonstrators, some affiliated with established community groups, said they planned to target banks, convene a dancing flash mob, sponsor music and street parties, march with elderly residents and people with disabilities to the California state office building, hold youth teach-ins.

Because of the activities' free-flowing and unpredictable nature, city leaders said they had no idea how many people would take part or how much a disruption they could pose to the daily routines of residents and workers.

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