- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 1, 2012

OAKLAND, Calif. — Hundreds of activists across the U.S. joined the worldwide May Day protests on Tuesday, with Occupy protesters in several cities leading demonstrations against major financial institutions.

In Oakland, stinging gas sent protesters fleeing a downtown intersection where they were demonstrating. It was unclear whether police fired the gas, but officers took four people into custody.

Crowds had blocked intersections in the city and tried to force businesses to shut down for not observing calls for a “general strike.” The city has been the scene of some of the fiercest clashes between police and Occupy protesters in recent months.

In New York, police in riot gear lined the front of a Bank of America, facing several dozen Occupy activists marching behind barricades. “Bank of America, Bad for America!” they chanted. About 50 demonstrators in Chicago rallied outside another of the bank’s branches.

Across the world, protests drew tens of thousands of demonstrators into the streets from the Philippines to Spain. They demanded everything from wage increases to an end to austerity measures.

In France, tens of thousands of workers, leftists and union leaders marked May Day with glee, hoping that a presidential runoff vote Sunday will put a Socialist - Francois Hollande - at the helm for the first time since 1988.

Tuesday’s U.S. protests were the most visible organizing effort by anti-Wall Street groups since Occupy encampments were dismantled last fall. May Day protests have in recent years focused on immigrant rights.

From New York to San Francisco, organizers of the various demonstrations, strikes and acts of civil disobedience said they were not too concerned about muddling their messages. They noted that the movements have similar goals: jobs, fair wages and equality.

Organizers of Chicago’s rally said they welcomed participation from the Occupy groups. “I definitely see it as an enrichment of it,” Orlando Sepulveda said. “It’s great.”

In Atlanta, about 100 people rallied outside the state Capitol, where a law targeting illegal immigration was passed last year. They called for an end to local-federal partnerships to enforce immigration law.

The May Day protest was significantly smaller than last year’s, which drew about 1,000 people. Organizers said turnout last year was greater, in part, because the rally was on a Sunday, rather than during the work week.

In New York, where the first Occupy camp was set up and where large protests attracted some of the earliest attention and mass arrests to the movement, protesters gathered at Bryant Park in Manhattan.

They prepared to march to financial institutions, including Chase and Citibank. The crowd grew to several hundred with a drum-and-brass live band as a soundtrack.

Threatening letters containing a white powder that appeared to be corn starch were sent to some institutions.

Three letters were received Tuesday, two at News Corp. headquarters and addressed to the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, and one to Citigroup. The message in the letters said: “Happy May Day.”