By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Anti-Wall Street protests that took shape in New York weeks ago, prompting hundreds of arrests, have spread across the nation with one organizer saying their message had "captured everyone's imagination."
Demonstrations have sprouted from Los Angeles to Boston, and in plenty of cities in between, led by protesters voicing discontent and anger over such issues as high unemployment, home foreclosures and the 2008 corporate bailouts.
Washington will be the site of a protest on Thursday, according to organizer Kevin Zeese, who said economic insecurity was encouraging people to take to the streets.
"Just like the Vietnam war draft made the war more personal, economic insecurity is making the economic policies of this country more personal," Zeese said.
The New York protests, working under the banner of "We are the 99 percent", have become bolder since they started on September 17 and while they have been largely peaceful, aside from occasional scuffles, they have sometimes challenged police.
On Saturday, more than 700 people were arrested when demonstrators blocked traffic lanes on the Brooklyn Bridge while attempting an unauthorized march across the span.
In Florida, a weekend protest drew a crowd carrying signs reading "End Corporate Welfare" and "It is Time for a Revolution." Another protest was planned for Tampa on Thursday.
Unions were also joining the fray. The New York branch of the Transport Workers Union asked a federal judge on Tuesday to bar police from using city bus drivers to transport protesters who were under arrest. The judge denied the request.
The nation's largest union of nurses, National Nurses United, said it would join a New York march on Wednesday. And Healthcare-Now, which advocates for a national single-payer system, said it was joining the Washington protest to "demand human needs over corporate greed."
"This could have legs to it," said author Michael Lewis, who has written books about Wall Street and more recently the global economy.
The New York protesters, camped out in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan, have sometimes been dismissed by Wall Street passersby or cast in the mainstream media as naive students and mischief makers without realistic goals.
Members of the group have vowed to stay at the park through the winter.
The protesters have complained of a heavy-handed police response to the protests. Police say that they gave protesters ample warning that their march across the Brooklyn Bridge was illegal before they started making arrests.
Attorneys for a nonprofit advocacy group called the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund filed a federal lawsuit against Mayor Michael Bloomberg, police and other officials charging the constitutional rights of the demonstrators arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge had been violated.
The suit said New York had "engaged in a premeditated, planned, scripted, and calculated effort to sweep the streets of protesters and disrupt a growing protest movement".
The protests appeared to be gaining steam across the nation. In Los Angeles, protesters camped out in front of City Hall. They too have pitched a tent city, and organizers say they will be there for the foreseeable future.
In Boston, protesters have set up a make-shift camp in the city's financial district. A few dozen tents were pitched across from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston building, and protesters have been well behaved, Boston police said.
"Occupy Wall Street has captured everyone's imagination," said protester Larry Hales in New York.
"One criticism of us has been that our demands are not clear, but I think for most people, the message of why Wall Street is the target is very clear," he said. "It's the banking capital of the world."
Protests have also popped up in Chicago, where around 50 protesters have gathered at the heart of the financial district around lunchtime every day, banging drums and holding signs.
In St. Louis, about two dozen people carrying signs protested on Tuesday at a downtown federal building, about four blocks from the city's landmark Arch.
"People are starting notice that this movement is not just a flash mob," said Victoria Sobel, 21, an art student who has been with Occupy Wall Street since it began on September 17.
"I think labor and community organizations held back at first because they wanted to see our commitment. They wanted to see how serious we were," she added. "We are elated that this is spreading. If nothing else comes from this, at least we started a dialogue."
(Additional reporting by Ray Sanchez, Basil Katz and Mark Egan in New York, Lauren Keiper and Roz Krasny in Boston, Mary Slosson in Los Angeles, Bruce Olson in St. Louis and Mary Wisniewski in Chicago, editing by Cynthia Johnston)