In a sign that it is shifting from a loose-knit fringe group to a bloc that could draw in mainstream America, the movement called Occupy Wall Street brought thousands of people to the streets of New York on Wednesday after major labor unions gave their backing to its anti-greed message.
The march, from Occupy Wall Street's makeshift headquarters at a small park in the financial district to Foley Square in Lower Manhattan, was the largest since the group launched its movement Sept. 17. At its peak, the crowd of several thousand filled Foley Square and covered the steps of the courthouse across the street as speakers from several labor groups railed against corporate America.
"Every one of us is here because of corporate greed," yelled Christopher Shelton, vice president of the regional branch of the Communication Workers of America. "It's time not to occupy Wall Street, but to take back Wall Street."
Shelton spoke to a crowd waving signs that reflected their varying ages, backgrounds and professions. Teachers and nurses mixed with students holding placards lamenting soaring tuition and their inability to repay student loans. Veterans complained of being out of work and homeless. Senior citizens lamented the hardships facing their grandchildren.
There were signs protesting racism, President Obama, Republicans, Democrats, hunger and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were as many signs supporting workers' rights, hunger-striking prisoners, higher taxes for millionaires and an overhaul of the country's financial system.
"Wall Street needs an enema," read one sign. "Corporations are NOT people," read another, a dig at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's statement during a campaign appearance in August that "corporations are people."
"It's hard because there are so many issues at stake," said Melanie Hamlett, 33, when asked what her main gripe was. "But it all comes down to money."
Hamlett had come from her home in New Paltz, Pa., to take part in Wednesday's protest, and she spoke from Zuccotti Park, where dozens of Occupy Wall Street supporters have been camped since Sept. 17.
"I've been waiting for this to happen for years. Finally, an awakening," she said as a group of protesters meditated. Behind Hamlett, a topless woman with a black mustache painted on her upper lip moved through the crowd, her particular gripe unclear but her presence welcomed by a movement that prides itself on turning nobody away.
Occupy Wall Street, a leaderless organization, also has become known as a movement with plenty of complaints and few specific demands other than holding banks and major corporations responsible for the country's economic crisis.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the U.S. labor movement joined the New York march to support Occupy Wall Street, not to usurp it. He said the labor movement had long backed the goals of Occupy Wall Street, including making the richest 1% of the population pay higher taxes to help the rest of the country.
But the labor leader was specific as he summarized his demands: Make Wall Street invest in creating jobs for Americans, stop foreclosures and write down problem mortgages. Paying for government programs would come from a "very tiny" tax on speculation, he said.
The protests have spread across the country but drawn far smaller crowds than in New York. Another movement, Stop the Machine, planned a protest Thursday in Washington.
In Seattle, police arrested 10 people who tried to prevent the dismantling of tents in a downtown plaza where protesters had set up camp.
Protest organizers were defiant and said their numbers would grow as public anger spread over the arrests. "My personal view is we will be there even if the tents come down," said Michael Hines, who was laid off from his job in the computer gaming industry and has joined the protest.
The White House has yet to comment on Occupy Wall Street, but at least two Republican presidential hopefuls have weighed in. Herman Cain dismissed them, saying at a book-signing Wednesday in Florida: "I don't have much patience for someone who does not want to achieve their American dream the old-fashioned way."
Romney has called the protest "class warfare."
"I'm just trying to occupy the White House," he said during a stop in Florida on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
Alexa Vaughn in the Washington bureau and Times staff writers Kim Murphy in Seattle and Michael Muskal in Los Angeles contributed to this report.