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Protests spread to more than a dozen cities

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Protests against corporate greed and economic inequality spread across America on Thursday and found unlikely sympathy from a top official of one of main targets of scorn -- the Federal Reserve.

The Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York last month with a few people has expanded to protests in more than a dozen cities.

They included Tampa, Florida; Trenton and Jersey City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Norfolk, Virginia in the East; to Chicago and St. Louis in the Midwest; Houston, San Antonio and Austin in Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and Portland, Oregon, Seattle and Los Angeles in the West.

Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher surprised a business group in Fort Worth, Texas on Thursday when he said: “I am somewhat sympathetic -- that will shock you.

The Fed played a key role in one of the protest targets, the 2008 Wall Street bailout that critics say let banks enjoy huge profits while average Americans suffered high unemployment and job insecurity.

“We have too many people out of work,” Fisher said. “We have a very uneven distribution of income. ... We have a very frustrated people, and I can understand their frustration.”

In addition to the bailout, protesters have raged against corporate greed and influence over American life, the gap between rich and poor, and hapless, corrupt politicians.

“I’m fed up with the government, I’m fed up with the bailouts. If I fail at my job, I don’t get a bonus -- I get fired,” said Tim Lucas, 49, vice president of a software company, who was protesting in Austin.

Hundreds of people have been arrested in New York since the protests began last month. On Wednesday, the biggest crowd so far of about 5,000 people marched on New York’s financial district, and police used pepper spray on some protesters. But protests for the most part have been nonviolent.

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On Thursday, a few hundred protesters milled about a park near Wall Street where they have set up camp, but there were no immediate plans for another march.

With support from labor unions boosting the protesters’ ranks, organizers predicted momentum would continue to build.

“This is the beginning,” said John Preston in Philadelphia, business manager for Teamsters Local 929. “Teamsters will support the movement city to city.”

In Philadelphia, up to 1,000 protesters chanted and waved placards reading: “I did not think ‘By the People, For the People’ meant 1 percent,” a reference to their argument the country’s top few have too much wealth and political power.

In Los Angeles, more than 100 protesters crowded outside a Bank of America branch downtown, while a smaller group dressed in business attire slipped inside and pitched a tent. Eleven were arrested when they refused to remove the tent.

In Washington, protesters carried signs that read: “Human Needs, Not Corporate Greed” and “Stop the War on Workers.”

“I believe the American dream is truly in jeopardy,” said protester Darrell Bouldin, 25, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “There are so many people like me in Tennessee who are fed up with the Wall Street gangsters.

In San Antonio, protesters gathered at the city’s Confederate War Veterans Monument and chanted: “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out.”

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In addition to the Fed’s Fisher, senior politicians and corporate executives including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, tried to show empathy for the protesters.

“People are frustrated and, you know, the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” Obama said at a news conference in Washington.

Biden, speaking at the Washington Ideas Forum, likened the protest movement to the Tea Party, which sprang to life in 2009 after Obama’s election and has become a powerful grass-roots conservative force helping elect dozens of Republicans to office.

“The American people do not think the system is fair,” Biden said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he understood the anger being felt by the protesters, but said that he had to balance that with the economic importance of Wall Street to the state. Wall Street is the pillar of the New York state economy, making up 13 percent of tax contributions.

The head of the General Electric Co finance arm, Michael Neal, told Reuters in an interview: “People are really angry, and I get it. If I were unemployed now, I’d be really angry too.”

Additional reporting by Corrie MacLaggan in Austin, Bruce Olson in St. Louis, Jim Forsyth in San Antonio, Ian Simpson in Washington, Dave Warner in Philadelphia, Chris Baltimore in Houston, Tim Ghianni in Nashville, Mary Wisniewski in Chicago, Teresa Carson in Portland, Nicole Neroulias in Seattle and Luch Nichols in Los Angeles; Writing by Michelle Nichols and Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune