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World Leaders Weigh Impact of Spreading Occupy Wall Street Protests

October 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The anti-Wall Street protests went global over the weekend. And, today, world leaders took note of the spreading movement and its possible implications.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Obama drew on public discontent without mentioning the protests directly as he promoted his jobs bill in Asheville, N.C.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When you hear what’s going on out in the country, when you take the time to listen, you understand that a lot of folks are hurting out there.

KWAME HOLMAN: The nearly month-old Occupy Wall Street movement had started with 1,500 gathered in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, but the ranks surged on Saturday. An estimated 6,000 people joined a rally in Times Square, insisting the system is weighted in favor of the rich and against everyone else.

ANNELIESE TRAINER, protester: We’re out here as citizens. We’re out here as women. And we’re here to talk with, to learn more from other people who are frustrated with the system, with this system. We’re here with people who know that they’re frustrated, they’re suffering, and, like, want to have something done about it.

HECTOR SANTANA, protester: The poor can’t do anything but go and talk about their views. They don’t have any money. The banks are taking the money from them. Somebody is taking it from them.

KWAME HOLMAN: As many as 1,000 demonstrators paraded to a J.P. Morgan Chase bank branch, where some closed their accounts in protest.

LILY PAULINA, protester: It feels really good. I don’t want Chase Bank to have my money.

KWAME HOLMAN: In Chicago, there were overtones of the 1968 protests against the Vietnam War.

PROTESTERS: The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.

MAN: Move back so we can do our business. Step back, please.

KWAME HOLMAN: As crowds refused to leave a makeshift camp site in Grant Park on Saturday night, 175 were arrested.

Nearly 1,000 people attended a rally in downtown Denver, where two dozen were arrested.

MAN: In the name of the people of the city and county of Denver, I can have all of you to disperse.

KWAME HOLMAN: And there were demonstrations and rallies from Los Angeles, where thousands marched through the city’s financial district…

MAN: Power to the people!

KWAME HOLMAN: … to Milwaukee…

MAN: These are intelligent people, educated people, teachers, union members. These are working people. This is America right here.

KWAME HOLMAN: … and in Atlanta as well. Overall, organizers said more than 100 U.S. cities had protests on Saturday.

Occupy Wall Street began as opposition to the perceived greed of large U.S. financial firms and growing wealth disparities made worse by the recession. But over the weekend, it gained momentum abroad, especially in Europe, where it dovetailed with long-running demonstrations against wage and benefit cuts recently adopted by cash-strapped European governments.

In Rome, throngs filled the streets near the ancient Roman Coliseum, but the peaceful gathering turned into a riot when some in the crowd smashed windows and burned cars. Police used tear gas and fire hoses to push back crowds, and officials estimated property damage at more than a million dollars.

There were clashes in Germany as well, as protesters marched on the Parliament Building in Berlin, and in London, where protesters were pushed away from the London Stock Exchange before making their way to Saint Paul’s Cathedral. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange addressed the crowd there.

JULIAN ASSANGE, WikiLeaks: This movement is not about the destruction of law. It is about the construction of law.

KWAME HOLMAN: But, today, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that the protests can be destructive.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian prime minister (through translator): Things can get to a situation that we are now seeing in certain countries with developed economies, when hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets, not a marginal group, but hundreds of thousands and are demanding things that the governments of these countries cannot actually carry out.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, in the streets, at least, the movement seems to be gaining strength organically. Activists claim there were protests Saturday in more than 1,000 cities worldwide.