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Protests against corporate power in the United States took root in Washington on Thursday, with hundreds of people occupying Freedom Plaza in the city center to demand progressive reform.

The Stop the Machine rally -- midway between the Capitol and the White House -- echoed the demands of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York that Thursday drew more than 5,000 people as well as labor-union support.

"The poor are no longer patient," said one of the speakers, Ben Manski, a Green Party activist from Wisconsin, from a stage decorated with the "We the People" preamble of the US constitution.

"It took us long enough, but we are no longer patient," Manski told the crowd, a mix of young people and veterans of protest movements of past decades who descended on the square with placards, drums and sleeping bags.

"This is a sacred struggle," on a par with the abolition of slavery, voting rights for women and civil rights," Manski said, "and just like those movements, we are going to win."

The protest -- which has a four-day permit -- got underway just as President Barack Obama called the Wall Street protests an expression of the "frustration" that Americans are feeling.

"I think people are frustrated, and the protestors are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works," he told reporters at the White House.

Since October 1, a separate but like-minded protest group called Occupy DC has brought together about 30 people daily to McPherson Square, a stone's throw from both the White House and the offices of powerful lobbying firms.

But it was overshadowed Thursday by Stop the Machine, which originated a decade ago in opposition to the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent Iraq war.

No uniformed police were seen at Freedom Plaza as the crowd swelled towards 1,000 around lunchtime under sunny skies. The open square is a frequent venue for political protests.

In the afternoon, many of the protesters -- led by an ironic banner that read: "Chamber of Corporate Horrors" -- set off in the direction of the White House, pausing at one point at the offices of the US Chamber of Commerce.

Several dozen people brought camping gear to Freedom Plaza, planning to sleep on the concrete surface through the weekend at least.

"It is time to light the spark that sets off a true democratic, nonviolent transition to a world in which people are freed to create just and sustainable solutions," said a "call to action" published on Stop the Machine's website.

"This is the beginning, isn't it, a non-violent movement to turn this country around," said health care activist Margaret Flowers from the stage, adding -- to applause -- that the movement would be non-violent.

In the event of a confrontation with police, she recommended singing, "a powerful way to calm things down."

"In this country, people are disappointed," said Bruce Wright, a pastor and veteran poverty activist in Florida.

"We are here in the name of the people from the bottom to demand our economic human rights: the right to a shelter, free health care, housing and clothing."

Jerry McDonough, a labor union activist from Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker sought earlier this year to strip collective bargaining rights, predicted the movement would grow and grow.

"It's got to go everywhere," McDonough told AFP, adding that Obama's remarks Thursday "didn't go far enough" in measuring the scale of anger felt by many Americans.

"People are getting kicked out of their homes," he said. "They're getting out of school with $50,000 of debt, and when they do they can't find a job."

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