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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy Pittsburgh: Day 1

Posted By on Sat, Oct 15, 2011 at 7:38 PM

It seems almost impossible, given the series of excruciating deliberations over the past two weeks. But Day 1 of Occupy Pittsburgh seems to be going off almost without a hitch. And police confirm that unless that changes somehow, the occupation of Mellon Green, a privately-owned parklet along Grant Street, can continue indefinitely.  

Today's proceedings began before 11 a.m. this morning, when a march stepped off from Freedom Corner in the Hill District. 

The crowd, about 1,000 strong when it left Freedom Corner, was a mixture of old and young, and more ethnically diverse than the typical antiwar march. Notably, it also included many rank-and-file union members, as well as a handful of veterans. Among them was Joshua Heidecker, a former Marine who'd served between 2001 and 2005, and who came down from Erie to attend.

Heidecker acknowledged that the majority of servicemen are fairly conservative. "But there are a lot of people" in the service who sympathize with the Occupy critique. "A lot of us go in young -- we're 18-year-old kids," he told me. "And a lot of guys come out and get dealt a shitty hand of cards" in terms of finding a job.

The signage carried by protesters reflected a diverse array of concerns. "Will Work for Money" and "Dumpster Divers Unite" spoke to the economic malaise. Others warned that "When the poor get hungry, we'll eat the rich" and called for "Healthcare, not wealthcare." A handful of signs imparted a Pittsburgh accent to the proceedings: "Bankers are jagoffs," one sign read. "We're the 99 percent n'at," said another.

Some marchers brought very specific demands to the protest. Carrying a sign that said "Stop RAipe" was Art Institute of Pittsburgh student Tye Silverthorne. The Art Institute, he said, "overcharges us for everything." While he said he was getting a good education in  his field -- interior design -- he also worried about the likelihood of graduating with as much as $100,000 in student loans. "Everybody at our school has a lot of debt," he said. As City Paper readers know, that's not a new complaint. But Silverthorne added that he'd served a stint in Germany with the Air Force: "They have free education over there," he said.

Public officials were in short supply at the event -- a fact noted during the march by city councilor Doug Shields. "Where are all the other officials?" demanded Shields, a lame-duck on council who has been a sharp critic of natural-gas drilling -- and who was helping to carry an anti-drilling banner. 

Also on-hand was county councilor John DeFazio and Ed Gainey, who chairs the city's Democratic Committee. "We have to put America back to work," Gainey said. "And it's good to see the people standing up for jobs today. We are the working class that built America." 

Around him, the chants continued: "Stand with the millions, not the millionaires." There were occasional pauses along the parade route at various bank buildings, where protesters shouted, "'You want a class war, we'll give you what you ask for."

Occasionally, when marchers saw observers on the sidewalk, they called out, "We are the 99 percent -- and so are you." 

But there were few people to call to. As the parade progressed, many Downtown streets were empty but for police escorts and building security. But the crowd's enthusiasm was undimmed: "This is really energetic," said Pete Shell, a veteran march organizer as he walked along the route. "There are a lot of young people here, and it's one of the most diverse marches I've been to." As more marchers joined inside the Golden Triangle itself, the numbers nearly doubled by the time the march reached its endpoint at Market Square.

There, an impromptu "speakout" was held: Rather than subject the crowd to a series of speakers, organizers opened the mike up to anyone who wished to speak. Speakers ranged from Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers Union, to a speaker whose address was simply this: "My name is Puja. I am 18 years old. My future is fucked. We are Occupy Pittsburgh. And that's it."

There were some poetry readings as well, but because of a call-and-response presentation -- in which the audience compensated for a poor PA system by loudly repeating the speaker's words -- even brief political declarations took on a certain haiku-like quality:

I'm a student

My parents went bankrupt

I'm up to my ass in loans

And I just want to say, 

fuck you, 1 percent.

Even Joe Rittenhouse, a self-described conservative wielding a sign that read "I am the 53 percent" (a right-wing jibe), said the experience was eye-opening. "I have met people here who are absolutely insane -- people who believe Bush and Osama bin Laden conspired to take down the World Trade Center," he said. "But I've also met people who are really really upset because they aren't being heard. And there were people here who were all about having a civil discussion."

The upbeat vibe continued as demonstrators moved into Mellon Green, where by 4 p.m. some 350 to 400 people had made their way up from Market Square.

For much of the day, uncertainty reigned about whether the Mellon Green occupation would result in mass arrests. A Tribune-Review story noted the bank was willing to leave the park open for "today's protest," but demonstrators were unclear what would happen tomorrow. Rumors swirled that they might be forced to leave by 9 p.m. tonight ... or 9 a.m. tomorrow. It wasn't until 5 p.m. that protesters were assured -- by police lieutenant Ed Trapp -- that BNY Mellon had consented to allow them to remain indefinitely, as long as no harm came to either people or property. 

Demonstrators seem sincere about keeping their end of the bargain. During an impromptu voting session, some two-dozen who planned to camp overnight on the site discussed plans for cleaning up the site, keeping participants safe, and minimizing wear-and-tear on the Mellon Green lawn. (It may be too late: By the time of Trapp's announcement, much of the lawn was already turning to mud.) 

Trapp later told me that the march went "great" and was  "probably the smoothest I've handled. Our biggest concern was the weather," with marchers being buffeted by high winds.

Not everyone was so impressed.  As tents began sprining up on the Green, a handful of demonstrators holding signs along Grant Street was getting some abuse from fans wearing Pitt gear. (Whose mood was presumably not improved by the Panthers homecoming disaster.) 

"You suck!" one of the fans shouted. "Keep buying Nikes!"

Demonstrator Joyce James -- who acknowledged this was indeed not her real name -- said that most passers-by simply ignored the protest. "That's the vast majority," she said. As for the others, while some were supportive, others were not. "I think people are mad, and I can understand that," she said. "But they need to think about who to blame. I'm not the one who took half your pension, or killed your union, or got a bailout. But I'm the one getting yelled at out here."

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