NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York police prevented protesters from shutting down Wall Street on Thursday, arresting at least 177 people in repeated clashes with an Occupy Wall Street rally that grew to several thousand strong.
Occupy Wall Street protesters took to the streets in rainy New York and elsewhere in the United States for a day of action seen as a test of the momentum of the two-month-old grassroots movement against economic inequality.
Demonstrators targeted bridges they considered in disrepair in cities such as Miami, Detroit and Boston to highlight what they said was the need for government spending on infrastructure projects to create jobs.
In the biggest New York protest since a police raid broke up the protesters’ encampment in a park near Wall Street on Tuesday, organizers and city officials had expected tens of thousands to turn out.
A crowd that disappointed organizers throughout the day grew to several thousand after the standard workday ended and labour union activists joined a march across the Brooklyn Bridge, where last month more than 700 people were arrested during a similar march.
“If you look at the crowds today, they are getting larger and more diverse. It’s wonderful when you see the unions get involved. It truly shows this movement represents people from all different walks of life,” said Terri Nilliasca, 38, a United Auto Workers member from New York.
Many protesters complained of police brutality, pointing to one media image of man whose face was bloodied during his arrest and another of a woman who was dragged across the sidewalk by an officer.
Police reported seven officers were injured, including one whose hand was cut by a flying piece of glass and five who were hit in the face by a liquid believed to be vinegar.
Police barricaded the narrow streets around Wall Street, home to the New York Stock Exchange, and used batons to push protesters onto the sidewalk as they marched through the area to try and prevent financial workers getting to their desks.
Workers were allowed past barricades with identification and the New York Stock Exchange opened on time and operated normally.
Protesters banged drums and yelled “We are the 99 percent” — referring to their contention that the U.S. political system benefits only the richest 1 percent.
At the Union Square subway stop, one of the busiest in the city, protesters tried to crowd the entrance but police repeatedly moved them against the walls to make way for subway riders.
“The mayor wanted to shut us down at Zuccotti Park, but try shutting this down,” said Travis McConnell, 27, of Brooklyn. “They can’t. This movement is now worldwide and the more politicians and police try to stop us, the stronger we become.”
In St. Louis, more than 1,000 protesters marched through downtown in support of the Occupy St. Louis movement which was evicted last week from its campsite near the Gateway Arch. The Thursday march was by far the largest since Occupy St. Louis began in support of the New York demonstrators.
In Los Angeles, hundreds of anti-Wall Street demonstrators blocked a downtown street, snarling traffic on surrounding freeways, before police moved in and arrested 23 people.
The Los Angeles protest took place near demonstrators’ encampment on the City Hall lawn, and a handful of people in grinning Guy Fawkes masks — a style hallmark of the Occupy movement — joined the march.
“I think we’re all saying the same thing, but in a million different ways,” said Good Jobs LA organizer Sandra Gonzalez, 42, in explaining the relationship between her group, which organized the march, and the nationwide Occupy protests.
At least 300 people gathered at Chicago’s Thompson Centre, giving speeches in English and Spanish. The protest was focussed on jobs with signs reading “We need jobs, not cuts” and “Jobs, schools, equality: end the wars.”
The Washington gathering was smaller than hoped for by organizers. One protester in McPherson Square said he expected about 1,000 people while perhaps 200 showed and many left within the hour.
In Dallas more than a dozen people were arrested when police shut down their six-week-old camp near City Hall.
Before dawn on Thursday, police cleared away a protest camp from a plaza at the University of California, Berkeley, where 5,000 people had gathered on Tuesday night.
Protesters say they are upset that billions of dollars in bailouts given to banks during the recession allowed a return to huge profits while average Americans have had no relief from high unemployment and a struggling economy.
They also say the richest 1 percent of Americans do not pay their fair share of taxes. (Additional reporting by Sharon Reich in New York, Deborah Charles in Washington, Mary Wisniewski in Chicago, Bruce Nichols in Houston, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Laird Harrison in Oakland and Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Writing by Michelle Nichols and Daniel Trotta; editing by Doina Chiacu and Cynthia Osterman)