OAKLAND, Calif (Reuters) - Calls for a general strike in Oakland by protesters against economic inequality gathered force on Friday as activists voted to march to the city’s busy port next week to disrupt cargo traffic there.
The Oakland demonstrators allied with the so-called Occupy Wall Street movement decided on the port action during a “general assembly” meeting by hundreds of activists gathered at an outdoor plaza near City Hall.
The group already had called for a citywide strike to be held next Wednesday, urging workers and students to stay at home for the day, to protest what they have called “brutal and vicious” treatment of demonstrators by the police and city officials.
But marching to the Port of Oakland, the nation’s fourth busiest container port by volume, raised the prospect of transforming what essentially has been a stationary protest confined to a city square into a large-scale disruption of commerce.
“At 5 p.m. (on Wednesday) the strikers are going to march from downtown Oakland to the Port of Oakland to shut it down,” said Tim Simmons, an Occupy Oakland organizer, after the group voted by acclamation.
Plans for the port march emerged a day after Mayor Jean Quan, booed out of the square by protesters on Thursday night, apologized for a clash between police and protesters this week that badly injured an ex-Marine.
Quan, who has drawn criticism for her handling of tensions caused by the Occupy Oakland protesters, said in a written statement that she had met with ex-Marine Scott Olsen and his parents and was concerned about his recovery.
Olsen, 24, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired on Tuesday by police, protest organizers said. His injury has become a rallying cry for the Occupy protesters nationwide.
City officials have not said how they believe Olsen was hurt, but police opened an investigation into the incident.
A spokesman for Highland General Hospital in Oakland said Olsen remained in fair condition on Friday, upgraded from critical one day earlier, and was visiting with his parents.
“I am deeply saddened about the outcome on Tuesday,” Quan said in the statement, which she also delivered from her office in a videotape posted online. Shouts of protesters rallying outside City Hall were heard in the background of the video.
“Ultimately, it was my responsibility, and I apologize for what happened,” she said, concluding: “We can change America, but we must unite and not divide our city. I hope we can work together.”
The disturbances in Oakland have made it one of the hubs of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in New York City last month to protest economic disparities, high unemployment and government bailouts of major banks.
Makeshift encampments sprouting up in cities across the country have forced local officials to walk a fine line between allowing peaceful assembly and addressing concerns about trespassing, noise, sanitation and safety.
Quan had paid a visit late Thursday night to a rally and speakers’ forum organized by protesters at Frank Ogawa Plaza, a public square adjacent to the mayor’s office that has been the fulcrum of demonstrations.
She was greeted with a hail of angry boos and catcalls and hastily retreated with her staff back to City Hall, followed by protesters shouting, “Get out, go home!” and “Resign!”
In her videotaped statement, Quan said she was “asking” protesters to refrain from camping overnight in the plaza.
Police forcibly dismantled the encampment on Tuesday, and protesters were marching to retake it when Olsen was injured.
Protesters reclaimed the plaza on Wednesday night and police have kept their distance since then.
On Friday, hundreds of protesters returned again to the square for a rally attended by documentary filmmaker and liberal activist Michael Moore, who was loudly cheered as he addressed the crowd.
“We’ve seen the militarization of our local police departments because Congress has spent billions to buy them armaments ... even spying systems to prepare them for what they believe is the inevitable,” Moore said. “Sooner or later the people aren’t going to take it any more.”
Additional reporting by Emmett Berg; Writing by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Bohan