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Thousands Rally in New York for Showdown with Wall St.

Over 10,000 protesters gathered in New York's financial district to demand financial reform.

After a year of what seemed like nonstop Tea Party coverage, it's easy to forget that Americans ever protested in anything but solid ethnic blocs, or that Americans ever gathered to express coherent grievances grounded in reality.

Yesterday's AFL-CIO-led protest on Wall Street was an overdue reminder.

More than 5,000 union members and others delivered a crisp message with their march from City Hall to the Bowling Green Bull. In contrast to recent protests on the right, the event was noticeably lacking in loaded and ahistorical symbols like Gadsen flags, and refrained from vilifying individuals in favor of calling out institutions. Of hundreds of signs hoisted, only one was branded with the Obama logo. The signs were non-partisan and dealt with real problems -- namely, this country's rogue, unregulated finance sector. There was only one puppet, a fanged vampire squid meant to symbolize Goldman Sachs. The banners declared "Wall Street: Never Again" and "Less Audis, More Audits." Almost to a one, they echoed the clear policy demands of the day: regulatory reform, new taxes on banks and speculators, and a jobs bill.

The afternoon began with direct action protests in the lobbies of Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan Chase. Next came a series of speakers -- teachers, students, workers -- that put New York City faces on the nationwide hard times. Representing hundreds of labor, religious and community groups, they demanded Wall Street do its part to fix the mess it created. They railed against budget cuts in city housing, health and education, overseen by the city's billionaire mayor who opposes a financial transaction tax.

"The result of these cuts will be more homelessness, more joblessness and more hunger," said Sean Banks, a high school teacher in Brooklyn. The planned cuts will also result in bigger class sizes. Currently the New York state House and Senate are considering bills that would see New York lay off between 4,000 and 8,500 teachers.

Before leading the march to the Bowling Green Bull, the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka issued a direct three-part challenge to the banks: stop fighting reform and call off the lobbyists; stop speculating and start lending; and "take responsibility for the mess you made."

The demands resonated with a crowd thick with the unemployed and city workers facing layoffs in their departments and agencies. "These bankers have no shame," said Marie Mitchell, a city clerical worker. "I saw the Goldman Sachs guys on TV the other day, still refusing to apologize for anything. They should be sent to jail, like Madoff."

"Wall Street created this mess," said Brussard Alston, a train conductor with Transit Workers Local 100. "So let's tax them and their million dollar bonuses. Make them share. Why make everyone in the city suffer from cut services?" The MTA recently announced its plans to fire hundreds of bus drivers, station agents and train conductors, as well as reduce transit vouchers for students. "In effect, that's a tax of $1,000 dollars on the poor," said Alston. "Some kids just won't go to school. But Bloomberg is against a financial trade tax?"

Bruce Vari, an unemployed electrical worker with Local 3, agreed that some sort of Wall Street tax should go toward shoring up local budgets. But he worried that there wasn't enough pressure from below. "There should be more people here," he said. "This is a start, but we're hurting more than we're showing."

Ed Lonergan, another out-of-work electrician, argued that another jobs bill would pump-prime the economy quicker than any other measure. "There's no work and all this money was poured into Wall Street," he said. "When I work, I buy gas, I buy lunch. The money is real; it goes to real places. We should bring the soldiers home and put them to work building houses, bridges. Take it out of the fat cats' wallets and put it in the workingman's wallet. Ninety-seven percent of the population made three percent rich. Enough is enough."

Lonergan concluded by noting that he's never seen the economy this bad. "It used to be you could go on the road for work, now there's no work anywhere. I'm about to lose benefits. My Plan C is a bucket of change. My wife is terrified."

As the protest shuffled past Wall Street, the bankers who stopped to watch seemed more bemused than terrified. One man in a pin-striped suit walked up to the marchers and began chanting, "Astroturf!" Next to him, two young bankers snickered as they observed the scene. "These guys just want money," said one who only gave the first name of Mike, a copy of the Economist tucked under his arm. "They want to tax Wall Street, which would be a disaster for the economy, to fund their bullshit public sector union jobs. God, I hate the labor agenda."

The anger and purpose on display Thursday suggested that the labor agenda will increasingly make its voice heard. This, at least, was the hope of Marie Mitchell, the clerical worker. "My knees hurt like hell and I have to lean on this cane," she fumed in Caribbean-accented English. "But there's no way I was gonna miss this. I'll be there next time, too. This can't stop. We need to make them understand that we won't tolerate this anymore. We should be out here every week."

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Alexander Zaitchik is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and AlterNet contributing writer. His book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, will be published by Wiley in May.