SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Hundreds of Occupy activists clashed with police and stormed a vacant hotel in San Francisco on Friday, capping a day of protests in the city’s financial district and separate anti-Wall Street rallies at federal courthouses across the country.
The rallies were seen as a bid by the Occupy Wall Street movement to reenergize protests against economic inequality and excesses of the U.S. financial system weeks after demonstrators were driven from tent camps in a wave of evictions nationwide.
The raucous takeover of the Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco’s upscale Pacific Heights neighborhood followed a march from downtown by about 1,000 demonstrators chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “Cops go home!”
The protesters were met by a phalanx of police in riot gear who had set up barricades at the front entrance to the U-shaped hotel complex, which stands several stories tall and takes up an entire city block.
The crowd surged toward the barriers to try to remove them and briefly scuffled with police, who jabbed protesters with batons and doused them with pepper spray, forcing demonstrators to retreat. Police said demonstrators hurled rocks, bottles and bricks at them, with two officers suffering minor injuries.
One man lay on the ground surrounded by fellow protesters yelling that he had been struck in the head. Demonstrators regrouped to march around the block, some breaking windows of a nearby car dealership, as police largely dispersed.
Later, a small group of activists who had earlier gained access to the hotel complex flung open the front doors, and scores of their cheering cohorts streamed inside without resistance from police.
“Now we occupy our new home,” organizer Craig Rouskie declared, adding that demonstrators planned to spend the night but expected that police would eventually move in to oust them.
Earlier in the day, Occupy San Francisco protesters staged various acts of civil disobedience at 22 bank branches and other offices in the city’s financial district, including a group who chained themselves to entrances of the Wells Fargo headquarters.
Police said 18 protesters were arrested throughout the day.
“Many banks have taken steps to mitigate the impact,” San Francisco Police Commander Richard Corriea said. Wells Fargo told many employees to work from home, he added.
Donna Vieira, 42, a real estate appraiser, said she was protesting because the bank had “unfairly” foreclosed on her home in Reno, Nevada, last year.
“Nobody is going after the big banks. And loss and pain and suffering doesn’t matter to the regulators,” Vieira said.
Protesters also turned out under the banner “Occupy the Courts” at some 150 courthouses nationwide to protest a Supreme Court decision in 2010 that protesters complain has led to unbridled corporate spending in political campaigns.
The Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot restrict political speech and spending by corporations, unions and other outside groups, allowing political action committees (PACs) to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in campaigns — creating what are known as Super PACs.
The ruling in the case known as Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission has led to more than $25 million in spending so far this campaign season by outside groups seeking to influence the 2012 presidential election.
In Washington, a couple of hundred protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court, chanting “Rights are for people, not for corporations!” Police arrested 12 people.
“I don’t see how a real democracy of the people can take place when so much money is in our electoral system,” said Lucy Craig, 36, a protester from New Jersey.
About 200 protesters demonstrated peacefully in Denver outside the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, carrying signs that read “Citizens United Not Fair.”
The nonprofit organization Move to Amend organized “Occupy the Courts” to launch its campaign to amend the U.S. Constitution, seeking to abolish corporate constitutional rights and establish that money is not speech.
Move to Amend had expected up to 25,000 people to rally across the United States on Friday, spokesman David Cobb said. Occupy protest crowds tend to number in the hundreds rather than thousands of people, despite the movement’s headline-grabbing actions and social media savvy.
More than 100 protesters rallied outside the federal courthouse in Boston, while 75 people protested in front of the federal courthouse in Atlanta. In Phoenix, about 50 protesters marched outside the Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. Court House.
“Four hundred Americans control all the wealth,” said Mickey Mize, a spokesman for Occupy Phoenix. “They are the ones who control the job market, they are trying to control everything from education to our birthrights.”
Protests at federal courthouses in New York City and Charlottesville, Virginia, each drew about 100 people.
Inspired by the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street began when protesters set up camp in New York’s Zuccotti Park in September, sparking demonstrations across the United States and elsewhere in the world and, in some cases, violent clashes with police.
But the eviction of protesters in New York and public spaces in other U.S. cities in November and December has made the protests less visible, and organizers now face the challenge of how to maintain momentum without the physical encampments.
Protesters say they are upset that billions of dollars in bailouts given to banks during the recession allowed a return to huge profits while average Americans have had no relief from high unemployment and a struggling economy.
Critics accuse the Occupy protest of not having a clear message or demands and a new poll on Friday of more than 17,000 people by global research company Ipsos for Reuters found the movement’s ambiguity could be hindering its growth.
More than half of those surveyed were unsure how they felt about the movement, while a third sympathized with the protesters and 13 percent had an unfavorable view.
Additional reporting by Lily Kuo in Washington, Lauren Keiper in Boston, David Beasley in Atlanta, Robert Boczkiewicz in Denver and Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; Writing by Michelle Nichols and Steve Gorman; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Johnston