In the latest act of a drama unfolding in many U.S. cities, demonstrators protesting Wall Street corporate power congregated Friday at the Hennepin County Government Center plaza in downtown Minneapolis, lingering into the night and vowing to occupy the space indefinitely.

By midafternoon, more than 500 people had participated in OccupyMN protest, some coming and going, and the crowd grew after evening rush hour.

The tone was festive, despite serious themes -- deploring corporate greed and the coziness of government and big business.

"My question to you is, 'What took you so long?'" community organizer Sunday Alabi asked the evening crowd, drawing cheers.

As darkness fell, a handful of people spread blankets on the lawn on the south side of Government Center, intending to spend the night. They had been prohibited from using tents, and organizers advised them to sleep under nearby skyways in the event of rain.

"I don't enjoy sleeping outside, but I'm going to do it because I believe in the cause," said Grace Kelley of Minneapolis. "This is a movement that shows the people are willing to fight back."

Among those stopping by over the course of the day were former Gov. Jesse Ventura, Mayor R.T. Rybak, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.

As of 10 p.m., no one had been arrested. Minneapolis police and Hennepin County sheriff's deputies maintained a daylong presence on the edge of the gathering. The crowd was a mix of young, middle-age and elderly people, first-time and veteran protesters.

Judy Kjenstad, 62, a Minneapolis artist, held a sign that read: "End corporate rule; jail Wall St. crooks, tax the rich."

Jan Wilson, 65, of Alexandria, Minn., a retired nurse, said, "I came [to join] this, instead of just complaining." She held a sign supporting unions.

In the afternoon, about 350 protesters marched to the Federal Reserve Bank's plaza and resumed their boisterous but peaceful denunciations before heading back to the original gathering spot.

Jane Conrad, 49, who operates a granite construction business with her husband, was at the front of the march, chanting a refrain repeated through the day -- "This is what democracy looks like!"

Marching with her was son Sean, 16. His mother said she got him out of school because, "he could learn more here than he could in school today."

Said Sean: "This is my first protest. I'm liking it."

'One of the 99 percent'

Protester Elise Baichtal, 38, of Minneapolis, said she was laid off by a bank a year and a half ago and is unemployed. "I am one of the 99 percent," she said, a reference to the slogan that the protesters reflect the large percentage of the population that does not control the wealth in the United States.

Mel Reeves of Minneapolis, an event organizer, noted that many protesters helped elect President Obama in 2008, drawn to his message of hope. "It's significant that this is going on during a Democratic administration," he said. "This is a vote of no confidence."

At a table at one side of the plaza, volunteers handed out portions of rice and beans, apples, bananas and bottles of water. "We are trying to get a permit for a proper food kitchen," said Ray Stowers, 23, of St. Paul.

The tone between protest organizers and law enforcement in the Twin Cities was cordial. While the Sheriff's Office has laid out rules -- no tents, alcohol, drugs, barbecues or smoking -- Stanek told organizers "arrest is the last option" for his deputies to exercise.

Chatting with protest organizers on the plaza, Stanek told them it reminded him of the Minnesota State Fair.

Expecting bigger crowds

After a 7 p.m. rally on the plaza, about 400 protesters moved across 6th Street to the Government Center lawn to strategize on everything from logistics to political positions.

Sitting on a slope in three neat sections divided by clear aisles, they re-created the "mike check" procedure instituted in New York, where public address systems are banned. Speakers shouted phrases, which the crowd then shouted back, word-for-word, as amplification. "It's going to be! A long process!" went one exchange. "Do not expect! Immediate! Gratification!"

By 9 p.m., perhaps 100 people remained in the park-like area south of the Government Center and 200 were on the plaza.

Cole Randall, a student at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, said he thinks there is wide sympathy with the protest.

"A lot of people just want to wait and see what kind of momentum comes from this before they come out," he said.

An orientation session is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday. Another general assembly will take place at 4 p.m. and a centralized rally at 5 p.m. • 612-673-7382 • 612-673-7646 • 612-673-4482