OAKLAND, Calif (Reuters) - Anti-Wall Street demonstrators, confronted by police in riot gear, marched on several West Coast ports on Monday seeking to disrupt cargo traffic and re-energize their faltering protest movement.
By singling out port operations from California to Alaska, organizers hoped to call attention again to U.S. economic inequalities, high unemployment and a financial system they complain is unfairly tilted toward the wealthy.
The protests disrupted morning arrivals of trucks and dockworkers at some waterfronts, including two terminals effectively closed in Portland, Oregon.
But demonstrators appeared to have failed in their bid to cause large-scale immobilization of commerce. A handful were arrested in San Diego, Long Beach and Oakland.
A second wave of protests was expected in the afternoon, including rallies in Seattle and Anchorage.
The actions come after the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York in September saw its tent camps there and in most big West Coast cities dismantled by authorities, leaving activists looking for new avenues to voice their discontent.
The largest protest on Monday unfolded in Oakland, where roughly 1,000 activists chanting “Whose ports? Our ports!” paraded before dawn from a transit station to the city’s cargo port and split into groups to try blocking terminal entrances.
Tractor-trailers en route into the facility, the nation’s fifth busiest container port by volume, were prevented from entering at least two terminals where protesters formed picket lines in front of police.
Police reported two arrests, but port authorities and protest organizers gave conflicting accounts of the outcome.
Occupy Oakland spokesman Mike King called the blockade a success, saying cargo traffic at the port was limited to just two vessels in anticipation of the demonstration, and that longshoremen and Teamsters were largely absent from work.
“Nobody crossed the picket line, and most truckers stayed away,” King said, adding that the only cargo loaded onto trucks in the terminal yards was material already taken off ships.
The port’s executive director, Omar Benjamin, acknowledged “sporadic disruptions” but insisted the facility “remained operational throughout the day.”
Benjamin had no details about the extent of disruptions, and could not say whether any ships were unloaded or how many were normally emptied at the port on a given day, or whether union workers had reported to their jobs.
Several hundred protesters at Portland’s harbor blocked the gates to two of its four main terminals, including the chief deep-draft container dock, forcing closure of both facilities.
“We are not able to get trucks through or employees in,” port spokesman Josh Thomas said. “Nobody is going to work, not the longshoremen, office workers or truckers.”
Separately, Portland police later said they had detained three men in a car on their way to the port about four hours before the march during a traffic stop in which officers seized a loaded .40-caliber handgun, a sword, radios and gas masks.
The men told police they had planned to attend the port demonstration and had arrived early to “scout the area.” Two were arrested — the driver on a charge of possessing a loaded firearm in public and one passenger on an outstanding warrant. The third man was released.
A smaller group of demonstrators, 250 to 300, rallied at a terminal facility in the Port of Long Beach, where they scuffled in the rain with helmeted police officers who shoved them back with batons in an effort to keep the entryway clear.
Two were arrested there, and demonstrators later left the area to block traffic along a main thoroughfare through the port. But as rains grew heavier and police converged in force threatening arrests, protesters began to disperse on their own. Long Beach ranks as the nation’s No. 2 container port.
Four people were arrested at the port of San Diego as demonstrators tried to block a road into that facility.
Protests at the Port of Longview in Washington state prompted officials there to send 16 longshoremen home after their terminal was deemed “an unsafe work environment,” said Dan Coffman, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21.
Opinions about the demonstrations were divided among affected workers.
“It’s not good for the economy,” said Agustin Luna, 39, an independent trucker waiting in his big rig hoping to deliver a load of alfalfa to a ship in Oakland bound for Japan.
But Sean Martin, another independent trucker waiting outside an Oakland terminal, said, “I support what they are trying to do. Wages have steadily dropped.”
The two largest labor unions caught up in the protests were split — with the longshoremen’s union opposed to the blockade and the Teamsters taking a neutral stance.
The protests were focused in part on truck drivers who earn low wages and cannot join unions because they are classified as independent, and must provide their own trucks.
Additional reporting by R.T. Watson in Long Beach, Dan Cook and Teresa Carson in Portland, Laura L. Myers in Seattle, Mary Slosson in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton