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Frustration over widening rich-poor gap

Cara Buckley
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Not much to bank on: Occupy Wall Street protesters fill Times Square in New York on Saturday. — PHOTO: AP
Not much to bank on: Occupy Wall Street protesters fill Times Square in New York on Saturday. — PHOTO: AP

Buoyed by the longevity of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City, a wave of protests swept across Asia, the Americas and Europe on Saturday, with hundreds and in some cases thousands of people expressing discontent with the economic tides in marches, tallies and occasional clashes with police.

In Rome, a rally thick with tension spread over several km. Small groups of restive young people turned a largely peaceful protest into a riot, setting fire to at least one building and a police van and clashing with police officers, who responded with water cannons and tear gas. The police estimated that dozens of protesters had been injured, along with 26 law enforcement officials; 12 people were arrested.

At least 88 people were arrested in New York, including 24 accused of trespassing in a Greenwich Village branch of Citibank and 45 during a raucous rally of thousands of people in and around Times Square. More than 1,000 people filled Washington Square Park at night, but almost all of them left after dozens of police officers with batons and helmets streamed in and warned that they would be enforcing a midnight curfew. Fourteen were arrested for remaining in the park.

Other than Rome's, the demonstrations across Europe were largely peaceful, with thousands of people marching past ancient monuments and gathering in front of capitalist symbols like the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany. Similar scenes unfolded across several continents, including in Sydney, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles, where several thousand people marched to City Hall as passing drivers honked their support.

But just as the rallies in New York have represented a variety of messages signs have been held in opposition to President Barack Obama yards away from signs in support of him so did Saturday's protests contain a grab bag of sentiments, opposing nuclear power, political corruption and the privatisation of water.

Yet, despite the difference in language, landscape and scale, the protests were united in frustration with the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

“I have no problem with capitalism,” Herbert Haberl (51) said in Berlin. “But I find the way the financial system is functioning deeply unethical. We shouldn't bail out the banks. We should bail out the people.”

In New York, where the occupation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan was moving into its second month, a large crowd marched north to Washington Square Park, where it was joined by several hundred college students who decried, among other things, student debt and unemployment.

Saturday's protests sprang not only from the Occupy Wall Street movement that began last month in New York, but also from demonstrations in Spain in May. This weekend, the global protest effort came as Finance Ministers and central bankers from the Group of 20 industrialised nations meet in Paris to discuss economic issues, including ways to tackle Europe's sovereign debt crisis

Tens of thousands of protesters assembled in Madrid on Saturday evening, when chants mingled with live music, including a rendition of Beethoven's “Ode to Joy,” lending the downtown area an upbeat feel on an unusually balmy fall afternoon.

In Rome, the protests on Saturday were as much about the growing dissatisfaction with the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who narrowly survived a vote of confidence on Friday, as they were about global financial inequities. Tens of thousands of people turned out for what started as peaceful protests and then devolved into ugly violence. The windows of shops and banks were smashed, a police van was destroyed and some Defense Ministry offices were set alight.

''We don't feel represented by the government. We feel made fun of,” said a protester in Rome. “We're upset because we don't have prospects for the future. We'll never see a pension. We'll have to work until we die.” — New York Times News Service


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