WASHINGTON — It wasn't the slick suits, pricey heels and sense of purpose of the congressional staffers that Susan Wilkinson saw this week on Capitol Hill. What stung about crossing paths with them, she said, was this: "They wouldn't make eye contact with us," the unemployed Seattle activist recalled Thursday. "When did I get invisible?"
Wilkinson was among hundreds of angry Americans who streamed through Washington and its corridors of power this week to command attention for the 99 percent of Americans that protesters claim are struggling to survive the recession. They were hard to miss.
Dozens were arrested for disrupting traffic. Others crashed a campaign fundraiser for Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. Their fist-in-the-air chants — "We are united" — echoed through the canyons separating the Capitol's office buildings.
The message to the power brokers: They should be making laws for people who can't afford lobbyists. Much of it was taken from the Democrats' playbook, like extending unemployment insurance, and making wealthy people pay more taxes.
"Things have reached a boiling point," observed protester Ed Vining, a small businessman from Boise, Idaho, who took photos of his fellow protesters passing in near silence in front of the Capitol. "This (protest) is as American an act as you can imagine."
Their top target: House Speaker John Boehner, the Ohioan from modest roots they accuse of making law to benefit of the richest 1 percent while nearly 1 in 10 American workers is unemployed.
Fresh off a night of political party-crashing, the protesters carried their message as close to Boehner as they could get, marching from a Senate park across the East face of the Capitol to a sidewalk outside his personal office building.
"One: We're unemployed! Two: We are united! Three: Tell the speaker we're not leaving," they hollered. From the terraces of the House building across the street, business-suited people watched and took pictures.
Boehner's office responded that he "understands that the American people want a government that listens to their concerns and works together to help create a better environment for job growth" and that the House would "continue to work to do just that."
Dozens of police officers on foot, bikes and motorcycles kept a watchful eye, and eventually the crowd moved down the street, back toward their home base on the National Mall, under white event tents that the Service Employees International Union had helped provide.
Wednesday night, a few had dropped in on a candlelit fund raiser for GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich at one of Washington's most stately hotels. "Hey you millionaires, pay your fair share!" they chanted.
Many others shut down the city's K Street lobbying corridor at rush hour. More than 60 were arrested.
The protesters late Thursday moved to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building, site of a Christmas party expected to draw prominent lawmakers. The demonstrators staged a "human red carpet," by lying in front of the entrance. The idea, organizers said, was to force Washington's well-heeled partiers to tread upon the less fortunate.
The movement even followed much of the Republican political world to Iowa in advance of the Jan. 3 nominating caucuses.
"Put people first! Put people first!" the protesters yelled at an event in Des Moines featuring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.Comment on this story
Christie laughed. "Work it all out, work it all out of yourselves," said Christie. "You know what? We're used to dealing with jokers like this in New Jersey all the time."
The protesters say there's nothing funny about being out of work, or of struggling to pay bills and reading about corporate titans who bring home eight-figure pay checks.
Wilkinson, a 65-year-old a former administrative assistant who's lost her home and declared bankruptcy, said she was wearing her friend's boots because she couldn't afford her own. She said she felt the first real anger when she heard politicians saying the unemployed should blame themselves for their problems.
On Capitol Hill, she looked at the congressional staffers and thought, "God, I miss that. I miss having something I'm responsible for," she recalled, like a job.