Craig Ruttle, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Unions gave a high-profile boost to the long-running protest against Wall Street and economic inequality Wednesday, with their members joining thousands of protesters in a lower Manhattan march. Across the country, students at several colleges walked out of classes in solidarity.
People gathered at Foley Square, an area encircled by courthouses and named for "Big Tom" Foley, a former blacksmith's helper who became a prominent state Democratic leader. From there they marched to Zuccotti Park, the protesters' unofficial headquarters, where they refueled with snacks and hurriedly painted new signs as the strong scent of burning sage wafted through the plaza.
Competing drum circles went full speed on the north and south sides of the square as people continued to chant and march around the perimeter.
Susan Henoch, 63, of Manhattan said she was a "child of the '60s" and came out to the park for the first time Wednesday. She held a sign that read, "Enough."
"It's time for the people to speak up," she said. "Nobody's listening to us, nobody's representing us. Politics is dead.
"This is no longer a recognizable democracy. This is a disaster," she said.
Sterling W. Roberson, vice president for the United Federation of Teachers, said union members shared the same ideals as activists who have been camped out in sleeping bags for more than two weeks.
"The middle class is taking the burden but the wealthiest of our state and country are not," he said.
Some union members were there from other states.
Karen Higgins, a co-president of National Nurses United, came down with a group of colleagues from Boston. She said they had seen patients who skipped important medical tests because they couldn't afford them.
"Tax Wall Street," she said. "Those who make all the money need to start paying their fair share."
Roxanne Pauline, a coordinator for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Area Labor Federation, said some of her union's members plan to stay in Zuccotti Park over the weekend.
"They'll teach the younger people what unions are — that they're not thugs or mobsters, but working people," she said.
The Occupy Wall Street protests started Sept. 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 nearby in Zuccotti Park and have become increasingly organized, lining up medical aid and legal help and printing their own newspaper.
The protesters have varied causes but have reserved most of their criticism for Wall Street. They've spoken out about unemployment and economic inequality, saying "we are the 99 percent" — in contrast to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.
Rachelle Suissa, 25, of Brooklyn, held up a sign that read: "I have a 4.0 GPA & $20,000 in debt. Where's my bailout?"
Since graduating from Brooklyn College about a year ago, Suissa has applied for at least 200 jobs but is still looking, and is finding it difficult to remain optimistic.
"I don't understand what's going on here," she said.
Several Democratic lawmakers have expressed support for the protesters, but some Republican presidential candidates have rebuked them. Herman Cain, called the activists "un-American" Wednesday at a book signing in Florida.
"They're basically saying that somehow the government is supposed to take from those that have succeeded and give to those who want to protest," the former pizza-company executive said. "That's not the way America was built."
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