Protests against corporate power in the US have taken root in Washington DC, with hundreds of people occupying Freedom Plaza in the city centre to demand progressive reform.
The “Stop the Machine” rally organised by a group called “October 2011” echoed the demands of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in New York that drew more than 5,000 people, including labour-union support, on Thursday.
“The poor are no longer patient,” said one of the speakers, Ben Manski, a Green Party activist from Wisconsin, from a stage near the White House, decorated with the “We the People” preamble of the US constitution.
“It took us long enough, but we are no longer patient,” Manski told the crowd, a mix of young people and veterans of protest movements of past decades who descended on the square with placards, drums and sleeping bags.
“This is a sacred struggle, on a par with the abolition of slavery, voting rights for women and civil rights,” Manski said, “and just like those movements, we are going to win.”
The protest – which has a four-day permit – got under way just as Barack Obama, the US president, called the Wall Street protests an expression of the frustration that Americans are feeling.
“I think people are frustrated, and the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” he told reporters at the White House.
Obama also used the opportunity to push forward his $447bn jobs bill, the American Jobs Act, saying it would ensure tougher oversight of the financial industry.
“Any senator out there who’s thinking about voting against this jobs bill when it comes up for a vote needs to explain exactly why they would oppose something we know would improve our economic situation at such an urgent time,” Obama said.
Congress is to vote on the bill before the end of the month.
Since October 1, a separate but like-minded protest group called Occupy DC has brought together about 30 people daily to McPherson Square, a stone’s throw from both the White House and the offices of powerful lobbying firms.
But it was overshadowed on Thursday by “Stop the Machine”, which originated a decade ago in opposition to the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent Iraq war.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Freedom Plaza, said, “There are many desperate groups here. There’s not just one group with one message.
“There are anti-war protesters here, anti-globalisation protesters, anti-capitalist protesters. People who are just saying that the financial system is broken,” he said.
No uniformed police were seen at Freedom Plaza as the crowd swelled towards 1,000 around lunchtime under sunny skies in an open square that is a frequent venue for political protests.
In the afternoon, many of the protesters – led by a banner that read: “Chamber of Corporate Horrors” – set off in the direction of the White House, pausing at one point at the offices of the US Chamber of Commerce.
Several dozen people brought camping gear to Freedom Plaza, planning to sleep on the concrete surface through the weekend.
“It is time to light the spark that sets off a true democratic, nonviolent transition to a world in which people are freed to create just and sustainable solutions”, said a “call to action” published on Stop the Machine’s website.
Around 5,000 demonstrators converged on New York’s financial district on Wednesday, their ranks swelled by nurses, transit workers and other union members who had joined the protest over economic inequality and the power of US financial institutions.
Police arrested at least 28 people and used pepper spray and batons to confront the crowd after protesters joined forces near police barricades.
According to protest organisers’ website, OccupyTogether.org, frustrated Americans have planned “Occupy Together Meetups” in more than 500 cities across the nation.
The “Occupy Wall Street” protests started on September 17 with a few dozen demonstrators who tried to pitch tents in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Since then, hundreds have set up camp in nearby Zuccotti Park and have become increasingly organised.