CHICAGO (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters including teachers and religious leaders came to downtown Chicago on Monday to rally against economic inequality, with two financial industry events in their crosshairs.
Some demonstrators gathered outside a meeting of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, while others came together near a luxury hotel where a U.S. futures exchange trade association was holding a conference.
Protesters were due to march from several locations in protests expected to coincide with the evening rush hour. The marches were inspired by, but not formally affiliated with, the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York last month.
Organizers of the “Standup Chicago” coalition expected thousands of people to take part in five separate feeder marches from downtown locations “to reclaim our jobs, our homes and our schools,” the coalition’s website said.
If the coalition — which includes teachers, union officials and religious leaders — gets the numbers it expects, this would be the biggest Chicago protest since demonstrations focusing on economic inequality began in New York last month.
Chanting “we are the 99 percent,” a crowd that numbered in the hundreds gathered in front of the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank.
Protesters carried handmade signs demanding “Liquidate the Fed” and “Repeal Bush tax cuts.” Another read: “I smell a general strike.”
“We really want to highlight the role the financial industry has played,” said Adam Kader of Arise Chicago, an interfaith workers’ rights group that is part of the coalition.
“They’re here in our backyard, so this is the time to send a message about how we’re really hurting,” he added, saying the demonstration would focus on foreclosures, unemployment and lack of municipal funding for key services.
Other groups participating include the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
“I’ve got loads of loans,” said Wedad Yassin, a student at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois, who was among the protesters. She said she wanted a fairer tax system that “stops putting our taxes toward war” and invests in education.
“Obama talks about there’s going to be some answers to the education problem, but I don’t see it,” Yassin said.
Organizers said Monday’s marches would ultimately converge outside the Chicago Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, where the Futures Industry Association was to hold an evening reception.
Kader said hundreds of people were willing to risk arrest by sitting on Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s main shopping street, and blocking traffic.
More demonstrations were planned for the next three days.
Roderick Drew, spokesman for the city’s law department, said protesters had been working with police, who aimed to allow free speech without impairing people’s ability to get around.
Mortgage Bankers Association CEO David Stevens warned the morning general session of the conference that protesters were expected at the hotel later. He told attendees not to “engage or confront” the protesters, and advised they use pedestrian tunnels and other means to leave the building if needed.
The Association said in a statement it was concerned that the focus of the protesters was about what was not working, while inside the conference, “we are working on building a safe and sound system to support the dream of home ownership.”
“We all recognize that our industry faces a trust deficit with policymakers and the public, and that people in our industry contributed to the events that led to the financial crisis,” the statement said.
“The mortgage professionals who have gathered in Chicago this week are about sustainable home ownership and ensuring access to affordable mortgage credit for qualified homeowners.”
Chicago has already seen weeks of daily protests outside the Federal Reserve Bank by “Occupy Chicago,” an echo of the much larger Wall Street protests. Occupy Chicago demonstrators planned to join in the Stand Up Chicago demonstration.
About three dozen people were at the corner of LaSalle and Jackson on Monday morning, the site of the ongoing Occupy Chicago protest, beating drums and carrying signs.
“Some people say we are the Tea Party for the Democratic Party,” said Emilio A. Baez, a 17-year-old Barrington High School student who said he had spent several days and nights with the Occupy Chicago protesters. His voice was hoarse. “We are the working class, for a mass movement of democracy.”
The group’s demands, he said, include turning banks into public utilities and changing the social structure so that it is no longer what he described as “a minority elite ruling over a mass majority.”
Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Reporting by Ann Saphir, Margaret Chadbourn, and Joseph Rauch; Editing by Greg McCune