Say this for the Occupy Pittsburgh demonstrators currently living on Mellon Green: This is one group of dispossessed Americans that a big bank isn't rushing to evict.
That alone should tell you how powerful this grassroots movement has become -- all in the four weeks since demonstrators began occupying Wall Street's Zuccotti Park.
This is Mellon Green, after all. Owned by Bank of New York Mellon, the Grant Street parklet shares the family name of our very own Depression-Era Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon. The same Andrew Mellon who practically coined the phrase trickle-down economics: "Give tax breaks to large corporations," he said, "so that money can trickle down to the general public." And yet dozens of tents have mushroomed on the lawn bearing his name, following an Oct. 15 march in which 2,000 people stood outside BNY Mellon's Pittsburgh headquarters, shouting, "You want a class war, we'll give you what you ask for."
So as protesters tread upon the grass of Mellon Green, imagine what's going on inside Mellon's grave.
Still, it's about time someone in management felt some discomfort. BNY Mellon is almost a case study for the perils of Mellon's policy. The bank earned more than $2 billion last year … and yet according to the Institute of Policy Studies, somehow garnered a $670 million tax refund. Former CEO Robert Kelly got a $33.8 million severance package in August -- just weeks after the company announced plans to lay off 3 percent of its workforce. Their severance packages, presumably, will be considerably less generous.
For now, BNY Mellon is allowing the protesters to stay on the green, provided no harm comes to people or property. Occupiers are under no illusions about Mellon's motives -- ousting them would simply call attention to itself -- but are doing their part. Within an hour of occupying the Green, they'd made plans to keep it picked up, and to minimize their impact on the lawn. When Mellon later brought in straw to protect the grass, Occupiers helped spread it -- an ironic display of labor/management cooperation.
Even police were impressed. Pittsburgh Police Lieutenant Ed Trapp told me that Saturday's march was "probably the smoothest I've handled."
Not everyone is convinced, of course. While many passing drivers and pedestrians express support of the occupation, Occupiers have been keeping a tally of how often someone yells "get a job!" from a passing car. As one protester told me, "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."
The laziest criticism of the Occupy movement is that it isn't making a coherent statement, or offering concrete proposals. Apparently, a month-old social movement is expected to do what Washington politicians have failed to do for years: Provide viable remedies for dwindling economic opportunity.
But the Occupiers' message isn't hard to understand: Just look at the cardboard signs lining Mellon Green. Where Tea Partiers oppose government intervention in the marketplace, Occupiers object to corporate meddling in our government. They object to a system in which CEOs ensure subsidies and bailouts for themselves, while shredding the safety net for everyone else.
That's why, in the end, the Mellon Green gathering itself is the statement. Occupy Pittsburgh has stood up to one of the country's largest banks, literally on its own turf. For once, the people have foreclosed on the bank's property. In clawing back a bit of real estate, they've reclaimed a sliver of the discourse. They can't afford to buy airtime, or politicians, yet they have claimed our attention -- just by showing up.
During Saturday's demonstration, participants held a "speak out" in Market Square. Anyone could take the mike, and partly because the PA system was so crappy, everyone else would amplify their words, loudly repeating each phrase as it was spoken. The words of a union president like Leo Gerard, whose United Steelworkers represents 850,000 people, were echoed no more zealously than those of a debt-ridden college student.
That is democracy in its purest form. If some of us don't recognize it, it's a symptom of how sick our democracy has become. And how much this protest has been needed.
For our continuing coverage of Occupy Pittsburgh, see tinyurl.com/cpoccupypgh