OAKLAND, Calif. -- A day of demonstrations in Oakland that began as a significant step toward expanding the political and economic influence of the Occupy Wall Street movement, ended with police in riot gear arresting dozens of protesters who had marched through downtown to break into a vacant building, shattering windows, spraying graffiti and setting fires along the way.
"We go from having a peaceful movement to now just chaos," said protester Monique Agnew, 40.
The far-flung movement of protesters challenging the world's economic systems and distribution of wealth has gained momentum in recent weeks, capturing the world's attention by shutting down one of the nation's busiest shipping ports toward the end of a daylong "general strike" that prompted solidarity rallies across the U.S.
About 3,000 people converged on the Port of Oakland, the nation's fifth-busiest harbor, in a nearly five-hour protest Wednesday, swarming the area and blocking exits and streets with illegally parked vehicles and hastily-erected, chain-link fences.
Port officials said they were forced to cease maritime operations, citing concerns for workers' safety. They said in a statement they hope to resume operations Thursday "and that Port workers will be allowed to get to their jobs without incident. Continued missed shifts represent economic hardship for maritime workers, truckers, and their families, as well as lost jobs and lost tax revenue for our region."
Supporters in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and elsewhere staged smaller-scale demonstrations; each group saying its protest was a show of support for the Oakland movement, which became a rallying point when an Iraq War veteran was seriously injured in a clash with police last week.
The larger Occupy movement has yet to coalesce into an organized association and until the port shut down had largely been limited scattershot marches, rallies and tent encampments since it began in September.
Organizers in Oakland had viewed the day as a significant victory. Police said that about 7,000 people participated in demonstrations throughout the day that were peaceful except for a few incidents of vandalism.
One of the protest leaders, Boots Riley, touted the day as a success, saying "we put together an ideological principle that the mainstream media wouldn't talk about two months ago."
His comments came before a group of demonstrators moved to break into the Travelers Aid building in order to, as some shouting protesters put it, "reclaim the building for the people."
Riley, whose anti-capitalist views are well-documented, considered the port shut down particularly significant for organizers who targeted it in an effort 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. An accounting of the financial toll from the shutdown was not immediately available.
The potential for the chaos that ultimately erupted was not something Riley wanted to even consider.
"If they do that after all this ..." He paused, then added, "They're smarter than that."
But the peace that abided throughout the day, did not last into the night.
Occupy protesters voicing anger over a budget trim that forced the closure of a homeless aid program converged on the empty building where it had been housed. They blocked off city streets with Dumpsters and other large trash bins, starting bonfires that leapt 15-feet in the air.
City officials released a statement describing the spasm of unrest.
"Oakland Police responded to a late night call that protesters had broken into and occupied a downtown building and set several simultaneous fires," the statement read. "The protesters began hurling rocks, explosives, bottles, and flaming objects at responding officers. Several private and municipal buildings sustained heavy vandalism. Dozens of protesters wielding shields were surrounded and arrested."
Protesters reported running from several rounds of tear gas and bright flashes and deafening pops that some thought were caused by "flash bang" grenades. Fire crews arrived and suppressed the flames.
Meanwhile, protesters and police faced off for the rest of the night in an uneasy standoff.
In Philadelphia, protesters were arrested earlier Wednesday as they held a sit-in at the headquarters of cable giant Comcast
In New York, about 100 military veterans marched in uniform and stopped in front of the New York Stock Exchange, standing in loose formation as police officers on scooters separated them from the entrance. On the other side was a lineup of NYPD horses carrying officers with nightsticks.
"We are marching to express support for our brother, (Iraq war veteran) Scott Olsen, who was injured in Oakland," said Jerry Bordeleau, a former Army specialist who served in Iraq through 2009.
The veterans were also angry that returned from war to find few job prospects.
"Wall Street corporations have played a big role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Bordeleau, now a college student. He said private contractors have reaped big profits in those countries.
In Boston, college students and union workers marched on Bank of America offices, the Harvard Club and the Statehouse to protest the nation's burgeoning student debt crisis.
They say total outstanding student loans exceed credit card debt, increase by $1 million every six minutes and will reach $1 trillion this year, potentially undermining the economy.
"There are so many students that are trying to get jobs and go on with their lives," said Sarvenaz Asasy of Boston, who joined the march after recently graduating with a master's degree and $60,000 in loan debt. "They've educated themselves and there are no jobs and we're paying tons of student loans. For what?"
And among the other protests in Oakland, parents and their kids, some in strollers, joined in by forming a "children's brigade."
"There's absolutely something wrong with the system," said Jessica Medina, a single mother who attends school part time and works at an Oakland cafe. "We need to change that."
Associated Press writers Garance Burke and Marcus Wohlsen in San Francisco, Beth Duff-Brown in San Francisco, Mark Pratt in Boston, JoAnn Loviglio in Philadelphia, Jon Fahey and Verena Dobnik in New York and Christina Hoag in Los Angeles contributed to this report.