Thursday, October 27, 2011

Anti-fracking activist Dana Dolney taking another shot at county executive

Posted By on Thu, Oct 27, 2011 at 4:41 PM

We're not sure why anyone would want to get into the middle of the donnybrook for Allegheny County Executive, but anti-fracking activist Dana Dolney is doing exactly that.

Dolney made a splash during the May Primary when she launched a write-in campaign on an anti-fracking platform just 24 hours before Fitzgerald tangled with Democratic challenger Mark Patrick Flaherty.

Dolney and other anti-drilling activists were worried that there were no real differences between the candidates when it came to Marcellus Shale drilling so they decided to mount the write-in campaign.

The campaign was run mainly on social media, and in less than a day Dolney managed to garner nearly 500 votes. And although she could do better with two weeks to campaign, Dolney say her candidacy is not about numbers.

"For us this is not about a number, this is about the message," Dolney told City Paper. "This is about the future and what type of candidates both parties will choose to endorse.

"The public will not be limited to an R and a D if neither candidate can stand for what is best for the people."

The campaign, she says belongs to the people and "will not have yard signs, mud-slinging commercials, or campaign contributions."

CP's coverage of the county executive race was one of the reasons Dolney decided to run, according to her campaign press release.

In that story GOP political consultant Bill Green said, "There are no issues in this campaign...They both want to drill [for natural gas] and while they differ on methods, both want to clean up the Port Authority ... what it comes down to is a battle of personalities." 

"This is unacceptable for we, the people of Allegheny County," Dolney says. "Which is why I am asking for your vote.  

"I will do better for the people of our county. You are my priority, not the gas drillers with their lavish campaign contributions."

Both Fitzgerald and Raja have said they intend to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale on county-owned land like parks and Pittsburgh International Airport.

"I pledge to work diligently to protect our county's parks from the destruction caused by shale gas drilling," Dolney said in her statement. "Together we will protect our air and water from the onslaught of carcinogens, toxins, and pollution with which this industry has already burdened other communities throughout our region."

Dolney says a campaign Facebook page will be up and running soon and the campaign will be sponsoring a voter's challenge. Residents will be asked to commit to voting in the upcoming election and get five additional people to make the same commitment.

"Right now, in this moment, we can pull together and stand for what is right, getting our message heard throughout Allegheny County," says Dolney. "Many young adults may sit this election out, which is a tragedy because their future is at stake." 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Raja announces plan for first 100 days

Posted By on Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 4:47 PM

Republican Allegheny County Chief Executive candidate D. Raja rolled out the plan for his first 100 days in office Wednesday afternoon. And while most of the press event went according to the plan, Raja also found himself dogged by questions regarding 84 lawsuits he filed against employees between 1996 and 2009.

Raja said that if elected, he would quickly implement benchmarks to measure performance, and take on issues facing the county including property assessments, the Port Authority and Marcellus Shale drilling.

For example, Raja said he would list what the unemployment rate is when he takes office, and then set a goal for where that number should be after a set period of time. A plan will then be developed and executed to try and reach that goal.

And because the goal has been clearly stated, the public will know how his administration has performed. Raja said even great ideas can fail because of bad execution but, "average ideas can become great because of great execution.

Of note in Raja's plan is the inclusion of a "focus to eliminate disparity ... to ensure that all residents are successful. In particular, the objective is to see significant progress in the African American community." One of his plans is to start creating minority business districts within his first year in office.

Raja said the fact that this region's African American community is the poorest in the country is "appalling" and says he will take steps to improve conditions. The entire plan can be found here.

After introducing his plan, Raja was once again by reporters asked about his decision to file lawsuits against 84 former employees, as first reported in City Paper a week ago. The campaign of his opponent, Democrat Rich Fitzgerald, also released a press release shortly before the press event questioning Raja over the suits.

Mike Mikus, Fitzgerald's campaign manager called the event "staged ... in an effort by his campaign to deflect attention from his lawsuits against his own employees."

"Raja needs to stop with the gimmicks and explain why a man of his wealth feels the need to sue 84 of his own workers."

The events are nothing new for Raja: He has been holding policy roll-outs every 10 days to two weeks for the past few weeks. But in response to the accusations, Raja said the lawsuits were being used as distracting tactics from Fitzgerald.

"People have been asking me why don't I address these lawsuits," Raja said. "But this is exactly what Rich Fitzgerald wants me to do." He says Fitzgerald wants Raja talking about the lawsuits because "he doesn't want me talking about the issues."

Raja says that the number of lawsuits has to be put in the context of the "thousands" of people who've worked at his company over the years. "Ninety-nine percent of our consultants have had no issues."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Note to Occupy Pittsburgh: Put on your Guy Fawkes mask before talking to the Trib

Posted By on Thu, Oct 20, 2011 at 4:56 PM

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Scaife
  • I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Scaife

In all the coverage of Occupy Pittsburgh, you may have seen a handful of protesters wearing funny masks, or scarves over their faces. And you've probably wondered, "If they aren't criminals, why do they hide their identity?"

Well, I give you Exhibit A, courtesy of our own Tribune-Review. Where today we learned the following: 

One of the Occupy Pittsburgh movement's most vocal figures announced on Wednesday that he is quitting the organization because the Tribune-Review began asking questions about his finances.

Nathaniel Glosser, 46, of Friendship left the group on a day 100 protesters rallied outside the Downtown offices of BNY Mellon, a global financial services giant.

Oh, man. This is gonna be good. It has to be, right? After all, the Trib put this story on its front page.

I mean, come on: They gave it top billing over the story about exotic animals escaping from an Ohio farm. One of those animals is an escaped monkey carrying the herpes virus. And I can tell you: When the Trib gets hold of a diseased monkey, it doesn't let go. In fact, it often hires that monkey to write its editorials.

Haha! I kid the Tribune-Review!

Because sure enough, it turns out that Glosser, this perfidious charlatan, this public menace, this shiny-pated Mephistopheles who smiles out at us*, is the type of guy who ... racks up a bunch of overdue bills. And then pays them. 

Oh, it's true. Tribune-Review reporter Bill Vidonic gives us the details:

  • Over the past 15 years, Glosser has been hit with federal income-tax liens totaling just under $20,000. He's since paid them.
  • In the past eight years, Glosser racked up $8,000 in local tax liens to the county, school district, and city. Those liens have also been paid.
  • Last year, Glosser had a dispute with a landlord, who was seeking $3,700 in back rent and legal costs. Glosser paid that bill several months ago.
  • Glosser once ran up a bill with a credit-card company. He paid that $4,500 bill more than five years ago.
  • Also, Glosser inherited a Highland Park home from his family, which he sold earlier this year for just under a half-million dollars. 

Given a chance to comment, Glosser cited some "very personal issues" he didn't want to discuss. He also surmised that "you're going to run something with no news value and no value other than to personally destroy me." 

I want to thank the Trib for bringing this to my attention. Should I ever encounter Glosser socially, I will insist that he buy the first round. A valuable public service has been performed. 

Or has it? It's not like Glosser is running for county treasurer. The story itself can't seem to cite a reason why any of this matters. About as close as it gets is this: "Glosser emerged as the main person fielding media calls ... and his name appeared on the permit with Pittsburgh police allowing last Saturday's march and rally."

So I guess the lesson here is: If you want to have a march decrying economic hardship, make sure that the person applying for the permit has a good credit score.* 

As for the rest, yes, the Trib itself quoted Glosser multiple times in the days prior to Vidonic's big expose. On each occasion, Glosser spoke -- quite accurately -- about the movement's tactics and plans. He didn't offer his own critiques of capitalism or the wealthy. 

But no matter: Having relied on Glosser so much for information, the Trib could justify its story at least partly on the grounds that he was so vocal. If Glosser didn't want the Trib poking into his private affairs, he shouldn't have answered its phone calls. Based on some conversations I had over on Mellon Green this afternoon, I've got a feeling you won't see Occupiers making that mistake again.

I should say here that Vidonic himself has a good reputation as a reporter and human being, and much of the rest of his reporting on the Occupy movement has been quite good. And in any case, it wasn't Vidonic who put this thing on page 1.

But if you're looking for reasons to deride the Occupy movement -- as publisher Richard Mellon Scaife's coterie of editors no doubt is-- the story will no doubt have you licking your lips. "The guy owned a half-million-dollar house! He must be one of those trust-fund lefties you hear about! And while these Occupiers complain that the rich don't pay their fair share of taxes, he let his own taxes be overdue! It's liberal hypocrisy!" 

And yes, it certainly makes a great right-wing talking point. (Glosser himself clearly understood the danger: On Tuesday night, Glosser sent fellow Occupy organizers a message "disassociating" himself from the group "due to the possibility of negative publicity and perception about me.")

But that just raises the question: Why is a daily newspaper devoting its front page to right-wing talking points? The front page ought to be devoted to the important stuff -- like wars, the economy, and the strange death of Vince Foster. What's happened to news judgment in the House of Scaife?

Well, I think it's pretty clear: We're seeing a daily newspaper using its resources to bully people around, embarrassing them with personal information the paper can't even claim any public interest in -- simply for availing themselves of their First Amendment freedoms. Not the noblest use of a printing press I've ever seen. 

It probably goes without saying that right-wing figures don't have to worry about the same degree of scrutiny from the Trib. Folks who join the Tea Party movement, for example, can count on the Trib not asking too many questions. 

Consider the case of Dale "Dale the Electrician" McCoy, a Beaver County fixture on the local Tea Party circuit. McCoy purports to have been a Democrat and a union member at one time, and his role at Tea Party rallies has been to make people feel OK about hating unions. McCoy has appeared in the Trib plenty of times, but without attracting any apparent scrutiny.

Check out this story -- written by Vidonic himself -- that mentions an appearance by McCoy this past April:

Rally speaker Dale McCoy, 49, of Hopewell, Beaver County, an electrical foreman with a local company that he declined to name, said he does not have a problem with individual union members, but many members don't believe they are represented well by their leadership.

Wait a minute: "A local company that he declined to name"? C'mon, Tribune-Review -- are you just gonna take that? Here you've got a guy claiming to speak for "many" union members. Don't you think your readers deserve to know whether his company is a union shop? How are labor relations there? You've had six months to follow up on that stuff. 

At a bare minimum, I think we're entitled to know how much McCoy's house is worth. Or would that be too intrusive?

* Editor's note: More over-the-top language was added to this post hours later. I'm still irked by this.

Jasiri X gives the Occupy movement an anthem

Posted By on Thu, Oct 20, 2011 at 1:28 PM

Thanks to Pittsburgh's own Jasiri X, the Occupy movement now has an anthem.

On Tuesday, the local hip-hop artist released his latest video, "Occupy (We the 99)," a song whose lyrics warns Wall Street that if "you want class war, we'll give you what you ask for."

The video, which was filmed at Occupy demonstrations in both New York and Pittsburgh, begins with dramatic footage of police clashing with Occupy Wall Street protesters. Before Jasiri chimes in with the first verse, the video shows an Iraq war veteran screaming at a line of New York police, "These are U.S. citizens! ... They don't have guns! Why are you hurting these people?"

A vocal activist, Jasiri is known for writing powerful, meaningful lyrics (See his controversial video "What if the Tea Party Was Black," which went viral last summer). And "Occupy (We the 99)" is no exception.

"Nobody got more welfare than Wall Street," he raps. "Hundreds of billions after operating falsely / and nobody went to prison that's where you lost me / but my home, my job, and my life is what it cost me."

The video is filmed and directed by Paradise Gray and produced by Cynik Lethal.

Here are the lyrics in their entirety:

Verse 1
The Power's with the people don't let these cowards deceive you
and be the next mouse in the talons of a eagle
this country's wealth gap isn't unbalanced it's evil
we celebrate access while the people have less
in poverty abject madness
while the economy collapses add stress
that's the last straw
you want class war well give you what you ask for
the have nots at the have's door
we came to crash your party
and we aint leaving until we're even
the Constitution guarantees these freedoms
any one against that's committing treason
your not a real patriot unless you stand for what you believe in
and nobody got more welfare than Wall Street
hundreds of billions after operating falsely
and nobody went to prison that's where you lost me
but my home, my job, and my life is what it cost me

Verse 2
Remember when police beat the Egyptians who were defiant
even president Obama condemned the violence
but when NYPD beat Americans there's silence
it's apparent that there's bias
sticks for the people but give carrots to the liars
those crooked cops just for embarrassment should be fired
and if you want to see terrorists then look higher
they in them skyscrapers with billions from my labor
forcing people out of there homes with falsified data
so we either unify now or cry later
1% got the wealth but the 99's greater
so in every city we gone occupy major
cause nobody got more welfare than Wall Street
hundreds of billions after operating falsely
and nobody went to prison that's where you lost me
but my home, my job, and my life is what it cost me

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Pittsburgh Protests BNY Mellon

Posted By and on Wed, Oct 19, 2011 at 5:08 PM

Chanting "BNY Mellon, corporate felons," roughly 100 Occupy Pittsburgh protesters picketed outside BNY Mellon late this morning. They then marched to the state attorney general's office, demanding an investigation into Mellon's handling of Pennsylvania's pension funds.

The demand was inspired by civil suits filed by the Department of Justice and the attorney general of New York, which allege that Mellon has taken advantage of pension funds, charging them unfair rates on foreign currency exchanges.

"[Mellon] took money from workers' pension funds, and we want it back!" protester Maria Somma shouted as occupiers gathered at their Mellon Green encampment -- which BNY Mellon owns -- shortly before heading to the bank's front steps. "The 99 percent is not going to take thieving anymore!"

At around 11:45 a.m., protesters marched the short distance from their encampment to the front of Mellon, where they formed a moving circle at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Grant Street -- to the apparent bewilderment of Mellon employees looking on. Many demonstrators hoisted signs: "BNY Mellon Bank of the 1%," read one. All joined in songs and chants: "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!" Many chants specifically targeted Mellon, which one song described as "a corporate crook."

Protesters largely singled out the bank because of the pension-fund allegations, and because it acted as the custodian administrating the U.S. Treasury's highly controversial bank-bailout program. (BNY Mellon, like other major banks, itself receieved funding from the Troubled Assest Recovery Program, but returned the funding in 2009 alongside nine other large banks.) The bank's executive-compensation policies have also drawn criticism

Mellon has denied any wrongdoing in its handling of pension funds. And in a statement handed to CP today, the bank rejected the protesters' and lawsuits' allegations:

On behalf of our nearly 7,800 employees in Pittsburgh, we recognize the right to protest and express opinions. However, the concerns regarding our foreign exchange services are misguided. The suits against us are not supported by the facts or the law. The foreign exchange market is highly competitive and we are proud of the valuable services we provide our clients. We will defend ourselves vigorously on behalf of our shareholders and employees.

As they marched, protesters handed out fliers explaining their arguments against Mellon's actions. "Workers lost money in their pension funds, and taxpayers are on the hook for BNY Mellon's actions," the flier reads. "Today we're marching to tell the bank to pay back the $2 billion!"

"My message is that our elected officials have to start opening their eyes to see what they're doing to middle-class America," Jill Fleming-Salopek, a recently furloughed school teacher, told us. "If places like BNY Mellon are skimming off the top of pension funds, it's the responsibility of our attorney general to investigate."

After demonstrating at Mellon for roughly half an hour, protesters marched to a satellite office of state Attorney General Linda Kelly. Outside the office, located at 564 Forbes Avenue, roughly 75 demonstrators continued to sing and chant as they walked around a small plaza in front of Sammy's Famous Corned Beef.

Shortly after they arrived, protesters asked a security guard if some of the protesters could go inside the building to speak with AG staff members. But a security guard told them that she was told not to let anyone inside.

"Apparently, the attorney general of our state has decided this is a private building and has given orders not to let four of us in," John Lacny, 33, of Overbrook, announced to the protesters.

The group then decided to bombard the office with phone calls until they agreed to meet.

"Keep calling the number!" one protester yelled.

"They put me on hold, John!" joked activist Barney Oursler.

A few minutes later, a Pittsburgh police officer informed protesters that the attorney general's office agreed to meet with one representative of the group.

"I think they're tired of putting up with us," announced Lacny, "so they're letting somebody go up."

The group decided to send Fleming-Salopek in. While waiting for her to return, they moved their demonstration from the patio in front of Sammy's to the sidewalk down below -- so as not to block foot traffic into the sandwich shop.

"We don't want to hurt their business," protester Calvin Skinner told CP.

Fleming-Salopek returned after about 10 minutes. She announced that "two very nice gentlemen" advised her to contact the office by writing letters -- news that wasn't very well received by protesters.

"I told them that we expect that they will investigate the accusations," said Fleming-Salopek, noting that she gave the officials a copy of the group's flier. "We expect [the attorney general] to be accountable and listen to us, because we're not going away."

As protesters began marching back to their camp at Mellon Green, they chanted "We will win!"

Magazine offers tax proposal for Occupiers to rally behind

Posted By on Wed, Oct 19, 2011 at 9:22 AM

One of the frequent criticisms of the Occupy Pittsburgh movement, and similar protests taking place in cities around the nation, is that for all its complaints about economic inequality, it offers few solutions. 

That may change in the next few weeks.

Adbusters -- the countercultural magazine that launched the Occupy movement -- has put out the call for another demonstration: an Oct. 29 rally for a tax on global financial trading.

In an Oct. 17 blog post, the magazine called for a demonstration espousing a "Robin Hood" tax:

On October 29, on the eve of the G20 Leaders Summit in France, let's the people of the world rise up and demand that our G20 leaders immediately impose a 1% #ROBINHOOD tax on all financial transactions and currency trades. Let's send them a clear message: We want you to slow down some of that $1.3-trillion easy money that's sloshing around the global casino each day -- enough cash to fund every social program and environmental initiative in the world.

Take this idea to your local general assembly and join your comrades in the streets on October 29.

The tax, also known as the "Tobin tax," would take a tiny cut of financial transactions, like stock sales and currency trades. The goal of the tax is twofold: First, to raise money from rich financial markets, and give it to poorer communities; and second, to reduce the volatility of financial markets by attaching a cost to each transaction. Proponents say that the tax will reduce the endless "churn" in financial markets, and that it would land hardest on speculators and Wall Street insiders engaged in computer-driven "fast-trading." Such trading capitalizes on very short-term fluctuations in price, creating potentially massive instability without providing much benefit for the larger economy.

The tax is not a new, or even radical, idea. It has been backed by more than 1,000 economists worldwide, including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Jeffrey Sachs, who have urged the tax be adopted by the G-20. In a letter to the leaders of the world's leading economies, the economists wrote:

The financial crisis has shown us the dangers of unregulated finance, and the link between the financial sector and society has been broken. It is time to fix this link and for the financial sector to give something back to society.Even at very low rates of 0.05% or less, this tax could raise hundreds of billions of dollars annually and calm excessive speculation.

But as you might expect, there's been plenty of opposition to the tax proposal -- largely from the financial sector and its advocates. While countries in the European Union have supported the idea, it has been blocked by a coalition of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Critics contend that financial institutions would simply pass the cost along to customers, and argue that it would make development more difficult in poorer nations, because it would increase the cost of raising money.

Another objection is that such a tax scheme would have to be adopted universally -- in every country -- or else financial institutions would simply begin channeling their financial operations through, say, Asia. The very thing that makes this tax desireable -- the ease with which capital can transcend national borders -- would make it difficult to pass. 

It's not clear yet whether Occupy Pittsburgh or similar movements in other cities will be taking part in the Oct. 29th protest: Decisions about protest goals and tactics are made by the "general assembly" of each city's Occupiers. It's worth noting, though, that Occupy Pittsburgh will be demonstrating outside BNY Mellon at 11:30 this morning. And guess what financial misdeed BNY Mellon has been accused of? Reaping too much money from foreign currency trading.  

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Pittsburgh and other activists come calling at Toomey's office

Posted By on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 4:49 PM

Participants in the Occupy Pittsburgh movement ventured out from their Mellon Green encampment and to protest outside Sen. Pat Toomey's office today, demanding he "[s]top working for Wall Street and start working for us."

The Occupy campers joined One Pittsburgh and its offshoot action, the People's Lobby, in front of Toomey's Station Square office building at noon today. There, they denounced the Republican Senator's vote against the American Jobs Act. The action was among those that Occupy participants consented to supporting this week. They also plan to picket BNY Mellon -- which owns the Mellon Green site they are camping on -- this Wednesday.

The roughly three dozen activists on hand were joined by county councilor Amanda Green. "A lot of people think of me as an elected official, but that's just a part-time job," she said into the bullhorn. "I've got a full-time job. I've got bills to pay. I've got student loans. I understand what it's like to not be able to make ends meet."

Green made an impassioned speech from below Toomey's office window. "You need to be able to explain how, at almost 9 percent unemployment rate in this county, you vote 'no' on the [American Jobs Act]," she said. "It's unacceptable and ridiculous to me."

Toomey, protesters say, hasn't offered much of a response to their concerns. "At every meeting, his staff leads us nowhere," says Corey Buckner, a 24-year-old Garfield resident and member of One Pittsburgh.

Toomey has issued this statement on the ACA vote:

President Obama's latest stimulus bill contains hundreds of billions of dollars in increased spending and more tax hikes, which won't create jobs any more than his last stimulus bill did. With the unemployment rate at 9.1 percent, we do not have time to waste on political games and big tax increases that will only make our economy weaker for all Americans

Instead, I support a real jobs plan, which will reduce burdensome regulations that are preventing businesses from hiring; ratify three pending free trade agreements that will increase Pennsylvania's exports; simplify and reduce business and individual tax rates to encourage job-creating business expansions; and get our federal deficits under control, among other pro-growth measures. This plan will actually create jobs.

The protesters, meanwhile, called for Toomey's impeachment for his allegiance to corporations and big banks. And while One Pittsburgh and the People's Lobby aren't directly part of the Occupy Pittsburgh movement, or vice versa, activists like Buckner say the movements go hand-in-hand. "We're all here for the same thing," he said. "We want what Americans have been promised people forever: freedom and the ability to work."

After protesting for about 45 minutes, the group headed back across the Smithfield Bridge and into Downtown, shouting rants against Toomey and singing: "Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are," one lyric went. "So we tell them: We are the 99!"

Onlookers seemed mostly amused or inquisitive. One man yelled, as he flicked his cigarette in the trash, "This is what you get for voting against Arlen Specter, you dumbasses!" Another man, walking behind the protest, asked, "Are they shouting against Toomey?"

Told they were, he smiled. "I can agree with that."

Meanwhile, Downtown workers have been scoping out the Mellon Green encampment that has suddenly appeared amidst the city's skyscrapers. Some workers milled around the encampment during the morning rush and lunch hour, reading signs posted on the fence around the parklet's fountain.

"Keep up the good work!" one woman in a business suit yelled as she passed by on Grant. Another man sidled up to protestor Steve Cooper and said, "Ok, what do I need to know?"

Not everyone was receptive to the message: Occupiers have been keeping a tally of how many times a passerby instructs them to "get a job!" -- and that number is now in the dozens.

But as camper Doug Placais, 27, of the city's Allentown neighborhood puts it: "For every one person who walks by and yells 'get a job' there's been a positive honk or someone yelling in support."

Whose eats? OUR eats! Keeping Occupy Pittsburgh fed

Posted By on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 8:03 AM

This weekend, Occupy Pittsburgh's annexation of Mellon Green drew the attention of local media and curious residents alike. But while all eyes were focused Downtown, a critical part of the occupation was taking place more than two-and-a-half miles away -- in Josh Stitzer's Lawrenceville kitchen.

The kitchen itself is nothing special to look at. Except for the scooter parked along the wall, there are few furnishings to obstruct foot traffic from fridge to oven, or from oven to the door. But that's important, because this is where Occupy Pittsburgh's "food working group" -- the cadre of volunteers who keep the Mellon Green occupiers fed -- warms up the meals. Later, the food will be brought Downtown, where it will provide the calories occupiers need to keep warm in the mid-October urban night. 

On the menu for Sunday night: a rice medley, seasoned potatoes, and hummus -- whose spicy "kick" has so far proven "the hit of the entire camp," says Stitzer.

Stitzer is one of more than a half-dozen volunteers who make up the food working group. Participants range from as young as 19 to as old as 68, though most are in their 20s or earlier 30s. Their work is neither easy nor glamorous. The food currently warming in Stitzer's oven -- a half-dozen "half-tins" filled to the brim -- took 14 hours to prepare. (The cooking is done in a larger kitchen located a few blocks away, and stored in Stitzer's fridge until needed.) The day before the occupation, working-group members say, they toiled from noon to 2 a.m. in order to have food ready once the camp was established.

Why do they do it? 

"I've been an advocate for workers' rights for a long time," says Dan Lichten, a 34-year-old former chef. And thanks to the momentum created by the original Wall Street occupation, "it seems like people are actually listening and waking up."

"Student loans -- that's what opened my eyes," says Andrew Koltsoon, a Point Park University student from New Jersey who first heard of the protest from a professor. "I just wanted to get involved in any way I could. I'm away from home, in a new city, and I want to do some things outside the comfort zone." 

Right now, that involves spending a lot of time in the kitchen, and ferrying food from Lawrenceville to Oakland. The fare is mostly vegan -- partly because such food keeps well, and partly because, as Lichten puts it, "you have to know your audience." As you might expect, many of the Mellon Green occupiers eschew meat.

The food is being donated from a variety of sources: a local soup kitchen, from Occupy participants themselves, and from sympathetic Pittsburghers.

"We had an elderly woman who couldn't get out of her car because she used a cane, but she brought a carload of stuff," says Stitzer. "A guy in a wheelchair wheeled up with a donation." 

Assuming you don't have a large-capacity food processor to spare, what the working group could use most is "things we cook in bulk," says Lichten:

  • economy-size bags of pasta
  • rice 
  • potatoes
  • onions
  • oatmeal
  • chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice (for the aforementioned hummus)
  • liquid eggs

Currently, donations can be dropped off at the base of operations for Food Not Bombs, at 258 39th Street in Lawrenceville. (But partly to prevent FNB from being overwhelmed with drop-offs, the working group asks that you keep an eye for alternate locations at the Occupy Pittsburgh website. The site will also feature an updated list of needed items.)

Relying on donated food presents a distinct culinary challenge: trying to prepare meals with little advance notice of what ingredients you'll have. While the cooks haven't quite figured out a plan for some donated items -- like a box of chocolate truffle mix -- Lichten assures that "whatever they give me, I can do something with it."

Despite the logistical challenges, there are no leaders. The work seems almost self-organizing, with people stepping up to fill the need. Which is a good thing: Those "get a job, hippie!" jeers notwithstanding, many of the Pittsburgh Occupiers do work. Lichten himself is headed back to his job working with the mentally challenged this week.

Does he worry about who will fill in for him?

He shrugs. "Everything will gel," he says, "just for the simple fact of necessity." 

In fact, says Stitzer, "I've been to rallies and protests before, but this is the first one I've seen in a long time that has been so well organized. And the first one that bridges age groups and cultural rifts. I'm pretty stoked about that."

And as Stitzer keeps the food warming, the other volunteers pile into a car being driven -- with an "Occupied Vehicle" placard in the windshield -- by Tim Connor, a Slippery Rock University student in town for the weekend. Together, they head Downtown to ready their serving tent on Mellon Green. 

When the food is ready, it too will be brought Downtown, and served warm from chafing dishes. It will be just like any other outdoor catered affair -- or as Koltsoon puts it, "like a continuous wedding reception." 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy Pittsburgh: Day 2

Posted By on Sun, Oct 16, 2011 at 5:15 PM

Protesters at the Occupy Pittsburgh camp site awoke this morning somewhat weary from a rough night's sleep, but in good spirits about the success of their first overnight occupation -- and the generosity of the movement's supporters.

Despite chilly temperatures and howling winds -- "The ground was a little hard, and it was a little cold," said Jon Smuck, 56, of Steubenville, OH -- occupiers said the discomfort was tolerable. But some had it worse than others.

"I woke up in the middle of the night when I felt paws on my forehead," said Jeff Cech, 28, of Greenfield, who slept tent-less on a tarp. "A rat was on my face."

Apparently, the rat was lured by a sticky bun Cech's friend had dropped off last night. But despite the rude awakening, Cech said, the occupation has been "definitely worth it."

Of the roughly 100 protesters milling around Mellon Green this morning, most sounded excited, if a bit groggy, about how the occupation has gone so far. Some gathered in small groups to discuss social and economic issues over coffee; others sat quietly, reading on sleeping bags. A few roamed the park to clean up trash. (Though the lawn was muddy, the area was already very clean.)

"Last night was wonderful," said Kelsi Randall, a 22-year-old art student at Slippery Rock University. She was particularly happy about the dialogue she and other protesters had with people walking past Mellon Green. "We had constructive conversations."

Even more positive news: There were reports -- which we have yet to independently confirm -- that the AFL-CIO will be helping to set up port-o-lets at the site. Campers have previously been using the facilities at Downtown businesses, or have been given access to the offices of unions and other sympathizers.

What about the police?

"They were honking and giving us thumbs up," she said. "It was pretty awesome. They were really nice." (Protesters said they didn't notice any police stay overnight. And none could be seen at the park this morning.)

"Everyone's super-positive right now," Cech said. "We have free food coming in all the time. It's becoming a close-knit community. A lot of people are stopping by and offering support."

Sipping on a cup of coffee and eating a hard-boiled egg at 10 a.m., occupier Silas Russell said he heard about a supporter last night who pulled up in his car, got out and literally gave a protester the coat off his back. "He said he supported what we were doing," said Russell, 27, of Mount Washington.

Since the occupation began at 4 p.m. yesterday, protesters said they've been overwhelmed by the support they've received from passers-by, not to mention from supporters following the occupation through social media. A designated food tent this morning included treats such as bagels, cookies, coffee and plenty of water.

"They've done a really good job of keeping people fed," Russell said.

David Meieran, a member of the media group, said they are constantly updating a list of needs on Occupy Pittsburgh's Facebook page. Chief among them, he said, is electricity. He said activists are struggling to run their media center and they could use a generator.

At noon, roughly 75 occupiers gathered at the center of Mellon Green for a General Assembly, the decision-making body of the occupy movement.

Occupiers take a vote at today's General Assembly at noon. - PHOTO BY CHRIS YOUNG

Among the issues/actions discussed at the hour-long meeting:

  • "Don't do drugs in camp, and don't have drugs in camp." While occupiers agreed to this principle yesterday, apparently someone at the camp became drunk and belligerent, prompting other occupiers to confront the person about their behavior.
  • Members of the education working group announced that they are creating fliers for a demonstration at BNY Mellon on Wednesday.
  • Occupiers reached consensus on developing fliers that protesters can hand out at the ATMs of the city's large banks. "We want to advise them to move their money from large corporate banks to local banks and credit unions," Russell announced.
  • The action group also agreed to further develop plans to picket outside the Pittsburgh offices of Verizon, Merrill Lynch Bank of America and the for-profit Education Management Corporation.
  • Protesters agreed to hold two General Assemblies every day: one at 7 p.m. to discuss movement issues, and the other at 10 p.m. to discuss camp issues. (The timing of the meeting schedule is modeled after Occupy movements in other cities.) The assemblies will be held at the center of Mellon Green.
  • Occupiers also agreed to create a hospitality working group, which would be in charge of persuading people to join the Occupation movement.

As the meeting ended, there were signs of an impromptu partnership between occupiers and Bank of New York Mellon, which owns the parklet. Mellon workers arrived at the park with stacks of straw to help reduce the damage done to the grass by the heavy foot traffic.

Occupy Pittsburgh campers help put down straw to protect Mellon Green. - PHOTO BY CHRIS YOUNG

"The hay is here!" shouted Calvin Skinner, one of the meeting facilitators.

With that, dozens of occupiers began grabbing piles of hay and spreading it around the lawn.

Occupy Pittsburgh's vigil begins

Posted By on Sun, Oct 16, 2011 at 9:38 AM

Mel Barrett took off his muddy boots, lit a cigarette and plopped onto his blue tarp. At the corner of his home for the night in Mellon Green was a white posterboard with black lettering: American Dream My Ass.

The poster, Barrett says, is pretty representative of his life experience so far. He grew up "macaroni-and-cheese poor" and now, at 23, has moved back at home with his mother whose recently been disabled. They live off of food stamps. He's looking for work, but can't find any. "I'm afraid to go school. I don't know if I can accrue that kind of debt. I've already got a lot of medical bills," he says.

The scene at Mellon Green last night - PHOTO BY LAUREN DALEY

Barrett wants to improve his skill set: he used to work as a dishwasher at Olive Garden for around $9 hour with no health benefits at nearly 60 hours a week. "Yeah, there are jobs. But the fact that you have to have a job to survive and the [employers] know that and they hold it against you," by overworking employees, he says.

Barrett's dream job is to work in human services, and to help prevent some of the disparities that Occupy Pittsburgh, along with similar movements across the country, is trying to fight against by occupying public places like Mellon Green.

As Barrett puffs on his cigarette, his counterpart for the evening, Kaden Sylvers, sits beside him. The two met up just today, and are sharing a tarp. Another camper walks up and informs them someone just donated a sleeping bag and pile of gloves and hats. "Does anyone need a sleeping bag?" Sylvers raises a hand, and gets the bag.

"See? Autonomy just happens," Barrett says. "I was worried about a bunch of different people with a bunch of different ideas. But I don't know any of these people but they are taking care of each other."

That was the message after the earlier General Assembly, when the 200-some protestors came to consensus on their action plan for the next few days. As they departed, there were two clear messages: Take care of each other, and take care of the space.

The message at the campsite - PHOTO BY LAUREN DALEY

Throughout the Mellon Bank-owned property, a path made out of cardboard boxes and duct tape has been laid over what was once soggy mud. Every few feet are bottles and jugs of water for anyone who needs them. Tonight, the working group for food provided hot lasagna, sausage, hummus and bread. As campers milled about in their tents -- about 40 tents/tarps/encampment sites had sprung up by 11 p.m. -- a steady crowd remained on the corner of Grant Street and Sixth. They chanted everything from "Occupy!" to "I love you!" to passing Penguins fans.

As the Penguins fans dispersed through the crowds, one man boo'ed continuously for a few minutes. Another woman yelled "go get a job" as her male counterpart put his hand over her mouth and moved her through the crowd.

"You should consider yourself lucky you get to go to a hockey game on a Saturday night," Barrett says when asked about such banter. "It's a catchphrase, isn't it? Every time someone protests, it's 'Go get a job you bum.' I do want a job. I'd love to work."

But it was a small number of Pens fans that hassled the group. Others yelled in support, and countless vehicles -- still going strong at 11:30 p.m. -- honked in support.

While a crowd of 30 maintained a constant vigil on the street corner, other pockets formed within the green. Some played the guitar and fiddle. A call went out to play "duck, duck goose."

Even as the chants and rallies wound down for the day, campers didn't forget why they were there under the shadows of the BNY Mellon and UPMC logos on the skyscrapers that towered above them. "For me, I believe less government is better government," says a camper who asked to be identified only as Brian. "Think about how much charity has come out of this" he says as he holds up a foil plate of lasagna and sausage from the food table. "We've robbed America of philanthropy through the economy."

For others, like Barrett, it was a chance to show the public that a lot of people "are only one paycheck away from this." And he says movements like Occupy give him hope for what he considers very simple dreams.

"I'd love to own my own place, go to work, come home and crack open a beer and be left alone, instead of worrying about the end of the month or where the food is going to come from," he says. "I don't mind being poor. It's just tiring."


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