NEW YORK — Thousands of anti-Wall Street demonstrators converged on New York's financial district yesterday, their ranks swelled by nurses, transit workers, and other union members joining the protest over economic inequality and the power of U.S. financial institutions.
The Occupy Wall Street march, estimated at about 5,000 people, was loud but orderly and the largest so far, while smaller protests were staged in cities and on college campuses across the country.
The protesters object to the Wall Street bailout in 2008, which they say left banks to enjoy huge profits while average Americans suffered under high unemployment and job insecurity with little help from the federal government.
The movement has surged in less than three weeks from a ragged group in downtown Manhattan to protesters of all ages demonstrating from Seattle to Tampa.
"I am a mother. I want a better world for my children," said Lisa Clapier, 46, a producer who lives in Venice, Calif., who joined protesters in Los Angeles.
In Seattle, where protesters had set up an encampment in a city park, about two dozen people were arrested for defying police orders to dismantle their tents.
In New York City, bus mechanic Mike Pellegrino said, "We're here to stop corporate greed. They should pay their fair share of taxes.
"We're just working and looking for decent lives for our families."
Joining the march in New York were members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; Communications Workers of America; the Amalgamated Transit Union, and National Nurses United.
"Our workers are excited about this movement. The country has been turned upside down," said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.
In San Francisco, a crowd of several hundred people marched around the financial district, chanting, "They got bailed out, we got sold out," and, "Join our ranks, stop the banks."
"This is the beginning of a movement," said Sidney Gillette, a nurse at Children's Hospital in Oakland.
Filmmaker Michael Moore was among the crowd in New York, shaking hands and posing for pictures.
"Everywhere you go in this country, you see the Occupy Wall Street movement," he said. "In the first days, people were putting it down, saying these are a bunch of hippies.
"But the average American who has lost health care, who is going to lose his job, whose home is in foreclosure can relate to this," he said.
Camped out in a park in Manhattan, the New York protesters have been dismissed at times by Wall Street passers-by or cast as naive students and mischief-makers without realistic goals.
But, said office manager Hari Bala, who stopped to watch the protest as he left work, that perception may be changing.
"It took young people to take risk, for people to take to the streets," he said. "They have reminded everybody about the realities of this country."
There were signs that the protesters were catching the attention of Washington politicians. U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D., N.Y.) endorsed the movement.
"The gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen in the wake of the 2008 recession, precipitated by the banking industry," she said in a statement. "I'm so proud to see the Occupy Wall Street movement standing up to this rampant corporate greed."
Several other Democratic lawmakers have expressed support for the protesters, but some Republican presidential candidates have rebuked them. Herman Cain called the activists "un-American" yesterday at a book signing in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"They're basically saying that somehow the government is supposed to take from those that have succeeded and give to those who want to protest," the former pizza-company executive said. "That's not the way America was built."
On Tuesday, CBS reported that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called the protest "class warfare" at an appearance at a Florida retirement community.
Students on some college campuses added their voices. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, students walked out of their classrooms at noon.
Hundreds of college students walked out of classes in New York.
The protests began in New York on Sept, 17 and have spread to Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Tampa, St. Louis and elsewhere. A protest in planned in Washington today.