NEW YORK (Reuters) – Protests against the US financial system and economic inequality spread across America yesterday and found unlikely sympathy from a top official of one of the main targets of scorn — the Federal Reserve.
The Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York last month with a few people expanded to protests in more than a dozen cities.
They included Tampa, Florida; Trenton and Jersey City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Norfolk, Virginia, in the East; Chicago and St Louis in the Midwest; Houston, San Antonio and Austin in Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and Portland, Oregon, Seattle and Los Angeles in the West.
Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher surprised a business group in Fort Worth, Texas, yesterday when he said, “I am somewhat sympathetic — that will shock you.”
The Fed played a key role in one of the protest targets, the 2008 Wall Street bailout that critics say let banks enjoy huge profits while average Americans suffered high unemployment and job insecurity.
“We have too many people out of work,” Fisher said. “We have a very uneven distribution of income. We have too many people out of work for too long. We have a very frustrated people, and I can understand their frustration.”
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden also acknowledged the frustration and anger of the protesters yesterday.
“People are frustrated and, you know, the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” Obama said at a news conference in Washington.
Biden, speaking at the Washington Ideas Forum, likened the protest movement to the Tea Party, which sprang to life in 2009 after Obama’s election and has become a powerful conservative grass-oots force helping elect dozens of Republicans to office.
“The American people do not think the system is fair,” Biden said.
With support from unions boosting the protesters’ ranks, organizers predicted the momentum would build across the country.
“This is the beginning,” said John Preston in Philadelphia, business manager for Teamsters Local 929. “Teamsters will support the movement city to city.”
In Philadelphia, up to 1,000 protesters chanted and waved placards reading: “I did not think ‘By the People, For the People’ meant 1 per cent,” a reference to their argument the country’s top few have too much wealth and political power.
In Los Angeles, more than 100 protesters crowded outside a Bank of America branch downtown, while a smaller group dressed in business attire slipped inside and pitched a tent. Eleven were arrested when they refused to remove the tent.
In Washington, protesters carried signs that read: “Human Needs, Not Corporate Greed” and “Stop the War on Workers.”
“I believe the American dream is truly in jeopardy,” said protester Darrell Bouldin, 25, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “There are so many people like me in Tennessee who are fed up with the Wall Street gangsters.”
On Wednesday, about 5,000 people marched on New York’s financial district, the biggest rally so far, swelled by nurses, transit workers and other union members. Dozens of people were arrested and police used pepper spray on some protesters.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he understood the anger being felt by the protesters but had to balance that with the economic importance of Wall Street to the state. Wall Street is the pillar of the New York state economy, making up 13 percent of tax contributions.
The head of General Electric Co finance arm, Michael Neal, said he was sympathetic to the cause.
“People are really angry, and I get it. If I were unemployed now, I’d be really angry too,” Neal told Reuters in Columbus, Ohio, after a GE event.