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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Occupy Pittsburgh: The ball is in Mellon's court

Posted By on Thu, Oct 13, 2011 at 4:17 PM

As we noted earlier today, the most contentious part of Occupy Pittsburgh's demonstration -- which will begin Saturday -- may be its choice of occupation site.

Protesters have selected Mellon Green -- a Grant Street parklet located conveniently near One Mellon Center, and the US Steel/UPMC building -- as the site for their encampment. As a political statement, it's an ideal location: Grant Street is the heart of the city's political and corporate establishment. But the site is owned by Bank of New York Mellon itself.

And Mellon, ultimately, will decide whether the protesters are allowed to stay or not.

"We met with city officials this morning," says ACLU attorney Sara Rose. "The city has said they can't issue a permit for the encampment because it isn't city property. It's owned by Mellon, so it's going to be up to them if the [occupiers] can stay." On the other hand, she adds, that means "The police aren't going to kick them off unless Mellon asks." 

City officials were a bit less forthcoming when we called them. City solicitor Dan Regan said that until our call, he hadn't known that the occupiers were planning to use Mellon Green at all.

"It's hard to provide an opinion when we don't really know the facts," he said, and largely begged off answering further queries.  He did confirm that the city would be approving a permitted march taking place before the Mellon Green occupation. (Police spokesperson Diane Richard echoed that, adding that the bureau was expecting somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 marchers.) 

We have called Bank of New York Mellon itself, and have yet to hear back. When we get a response, we'll post it here. 

In the meantime, protesters are citing a provision in the city's zoning code which governs "urban open spaces." These are spaces that are essentially open to the public, though they have private owners. Section 910.01.C.3 ("Urban Open Space Requirements") of the code includes the following provision:

The Urban Open Space shall be open without restriction to the general public at least during business hours normal to the area in which it is located and during periods of heavy pedestrian movement in the area.

Sounds great, but as everyone knows, in Downtown, "business hours normal to the area" pretty much wrap up at 5:01 Friday afternoon. Moreover, the owners of these places have previously cleared out citizens with much less cause

In general, the ACLU's Rose says, the code's language "would probably make it hard for Mellon to prevent Occupy Pittsburgh participants from passing through the park. They'd have the same right to be there as any other pedestrian. But I think Mellon could keep people from camping there. I think it would be hard to argue that they have a First Amendment right to camp there."

Rose says that if Mellon did object to the protesters' presence, "the police would give them time to leave, and probably charge anyone still left with defiant trespass." She noted that Occupy Pittsburgh had lined up a fallback location -- Monumental Baptist Church on the Hill District's Wylie Avenue.

Will the ACLU be on hand to keep an eye on things? Rose said that free-speech monitors will be on hand for the march itself.  "But I think it's still up in the air whether anyone is going to be on Mellon Green. I'm not sure we'd be able to provide observers 24 hours a day."

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