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 the 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, a businessman and GOP presidential candidate, 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."
On Tuesday, CBS reported that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called the protest "class warfare" at an appearance at a Florida retirement community.
Other groups are replicating the "Occupy Wall Street" movement around the country. One of the larger protests Wednesday was in Boston, where about 200 Northeastern University students gathered on campus to condemn what they called corporate control of government and the spiraling costs of their education.
"We're letting inequality build in this country and there's not enough resistance," said senior international affairs major Andrea Gordillo, of Sarasota, Fla.
"There are real bread-and-butter issues in this country — like the future of Social Security and our parents' retirement — that aren't being taken care of now, and we're the ones who are going to be called on to fix that," she said of her generation.
Hundreds of college students at New York's sprawling public university system walked out of classes Wednesday afternoon, some in a show of solidarity for the Wall Street movement but many more concerned with worries closer to home. Protests were scheduled at State University of New York campuses including Albany, Buffalo, Binghamton, New Paltz and Purchase.
Danielle Kingsbury, a 21-year-old senior from New Paltz, said she walked out of an American literature class to show support for some of her professors who she said have had their workloads increased because of budget cuts.
"The state of education in our country is ridiculous," said Kingsbury, who plans to teach. "The state doesn't care about it and we need to fight back about that."
Not every campus appeared to feel the rumblings of dissent Wednesday. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, there were students publicizing breast cancer awareness and National Coming Out Week, students crawling on their elbows in an apparent fraternity hazing ritual, quarreling evangelicals and even a flash mob to promote physical fitness, but no sign of the Wall Street protests.
Senior Alex Brown tried to promote an event on Facebook, but wasn't having success. "While people are really disgusted with a government that can't compromise and the richest 400 people have more wealth than the poorest 150 million, it's not enough to reach a fever pitch," he said.
In New York, police spokesman Paul Browne said the NYPD was prepared for a large group march Wednesday.
No one needs a permit to protest in New York City, where picket lines and marches go on nearly every day. But a permit allows demonstrators to do things that would normally be illegal — like filling an entire street.
About 700 members of the Wall Street group were arrested and given disorderly conduct summonses for spilling into the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday despite warnings from police.
It's not clear whether the protesters meant it as civil disobedience; some say they were tricked by police into entering the road and were wrongly arrested. Police video shows officers with bullhorns telling them to keep off the road.