The group, which included people of a wide variety of ages, milled about in front of the historic building and chanted the slogan, "We are the 99 percent." Many carried signs bearing slogans over a host of complaints, including the bank bailouts and the war in Afghanistan, while calling for the government to answer more to individuals and less to big businesses. Some people carried backpacks and sleeping bags in preparation for what organizers said could be a days-long sit-in.
Authorities did not immediately announce any arrests. In the afternoon, protesters did a lap around City Hall while being escorted by police.
May Chan, 32, a science researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, carried a sign that read "Accountability & Jail Time for Wall Street Fat Cats," featuring a drawing of an imprisoned - and portly - feline.
"I'm outraged by the whole bailout," said Chan, who lamented what she said was a lack of accountability for business leaders responsible for the recession. "I think someone should go to jail."
Organizers said Thursday's demonstration is meant to be a stand against corporate greed. Cindy Milstein, a facilitator speaking at the rally, told the crowd that the group would be talking and meeting and then voting on proposals such as whether to apply for a permit and what times their "general assembly" should meet. Organizers said city officials told them they were welcome to set up camps and express their opinions for "as long as it takes."
The city has encouraged the group to apply for a permit, according to Philadelphia Managing Director Richard Negrin, noting that it helps with coordination in a space that is frequently used by many groups. The group could face a fine if it doesn't get a permit, he said.
"This isn't about fining people and acting like tyrants," he said. "If they choose not to (get a permit), we can talk about that."
In about a month, he said, there is also a construction project planned for the space. If the protest is still going on then, that could provide a logistical problem. "We are going to absolutely within reason allow them access to that space for the time being," Negrin said.
Rally leaders called out instructions to protesters encouraging them to be peaceful and find a police officer if there was any problem - and dozens of police officers milled about among the crowd. Over the weekend, about 700 protesters in New York were arrested as they tried to march over the Brooklyn Bridge. The New York protests have inspired similar rallies in cities across the country, with more planned in Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre.
In Philadelphia, protest leaders said those at the gathering may camp there and plan to give out food to the homeless. The event appeared peaceful Thursday morning, with people carrying homemade signs that read "Bail Out Students Not CEOS," "Smash Capitalism," "People Over Profit," "End Corporate Greed" and other slogans.
Mindy Noble, a retired school teacher from Philadelphia, wore a sign that read: "The rich get bailed out, the poor get sold out."
"The split between the rich and the poor is getting greater and greater," said Noble, a Democrat who said corporations have far too much influence on politics. "The country is on a decline, a very serious decline."
Another protester, Ben Walls, 22, of Philadelphia, said he was working as a temp six months after graduating from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, with a degree in political science and music.
Walls, who recently switched his registration from Democrat to Independent, said the bailouts were a good deal for the banks, but did nothing to help regular folks. He also lamented that the economic stimulus package didn't do enough to help.
"We need to show government that the people are mad," said Walls, who said big business has way too much influence on all levels of politics. "You pay to play, that's what corporations do."