Protests spread across America

The Wall Street protests against economic inequality and corporate greed that targeted the nerve centre of American capitalism are no longer merely a New York phenomenon.

At the weekend, from Seattle and Los Angeles on the west coast to Providence, Rhode Island, and Tampa, Florida, on the east, as many as 70 cities and more than 600 communities have joined the wave of civil dissent.

The slogan “Occupy Wall Street” has been suitably abbreviated to a single word: “Occupy”.

Protests broke out last week in Chicago, Boston, Memphis, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Austin, Louisville, Atlanta and dozens of other cities. Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary are set to add themselves to the ranks next weekend.

The National Air and Space Museum in Washington was closed yesterday after demonstrators swarmed the building to protest against a drone exhibit and security guards used pepper spray to repel them.

The group included protesters taking part in the October 2011 Stop the Machine demonstration in the city’s Freedom Plaza, which has an anti-war and anti-corporate greed message. The group also included protesters affiliated with Occupy DC, a group modelled on the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. Occupy DC has been holding marches and meetings in Washington’s McPherson Square.

“This could be the tipping point,” said Dick Steinkamp, 63, a retired Silicon Valley executive at the Occupy Seattle protest being held in the heart of the city’s shopping and restaurant district yesterday. He and his wife had driven two hours from their home in Bellingham, north of Seattle, to join the rally and give it support from more conventional professionals.

“I marched against the Vietnam war before I was drafted into the army and this movement is now getting towards that critical mass,” he said.

One of the favourite messages of the protesters is that almost 40 per cent of US wealth is held in the hands of 1 per cent of the population, who are taxed more lightly than most Americans. Steinkamp was holding a sign saying “I am the 99 per cent”. And there is widespread anger that ordinary people have borne the brunt of the financial crisis with dire job losses and house repossessions.

“I came here because I wanted to show it wasn’t just young anarchists,” said Deb Steinkamp, also 63 and a retired marriage counsellor.

Motorists honked their support as they passed the Seattle demonstration, which was around 500 strong yesterday and likely to swell as the weekend progressed. Last week the police forced protesters to clear away tents that had been multiplying across the square. Seattle’s liberal mayor Mike McGinn supports the protesters – but drew the line once they started camping in the middle of downtown.

In New York more than 700 people have been arrested while marching on the stock exchange and over the Brooklyn Bridge in the name of Occupy Wall Street and 20,000 marched in lower Manhattan last Thursday.

The sheer proliferation of the rallies across 45 states has drawn attention.

“It expresses the frustrations the American people feel about the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression,” President Barack Obama said.

“There has been huge collateral damage all across ‘Main Street’ [from the financial crisis] and some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly are now trying to fight a crackdown on the abusive practices that got us into this in the first place.”

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