Occupied Territory | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Occupied Territory

It's not easy, being on the Green

Years ago, I covered an anti-war march that lasted so long -- wandering from Downtown to the South Side and back -- that I was relieved when the police began breaking it up. At least one of those officers, though, was sorry to see it end. 

"Aren't you getting arrested?" he jeered as marchers dispersed and headed toward Grant Street. "Don't you care about your values?"

That's the question facing Occupy Pittsburgh, the economic-justice movement whose nearly two-month-long encampment on Mellon Green is facing eviction: How can you prove your cause is serious, in a culture that doesn't take protest seriously?

Early on, Occupiers did so by staging or joining protests almost every day. Then, as the weather turned colder, they proved their determination just by hanging on, sleeping in flimsy tents. Now they are preparing to defy BNY Mellon, which owns Mellon Green, and is seeking a court order to remove them. 

In a Dec. 9 notice posted outside the encampment, the bank maintained that it was motivated partly "by reported incidents of hypothermia and the use of propane heaters [and] gasoline powered generators."  But its motives, you'll be shocked to learn, are not entirely humanitarian. In court papers, the bank cites fears of legal liability arising "as a result of conduct by or injury to" the Occupiers currently on its property.

Such fears aren't totally groundless. There's been a shoving match between Occupiers, and I've heard one report of an Occupier needing an ambulance after a slip-and-fall accident. But over nearly two months of Occupation, in other words, there's been about as much discord as you might find on Mellon Green after a Penguins loss. 

Still, it can be hard to see why the campers want to stay. The camp's novelty has worn off for most Pittsburghers, and many protesters have already evicted themselves: Most of the tents clustered on the site have been empty for weeks. Inside the Occupy movement, tensions surfaced over race, gender and disputes over tactics.

In fact, it almost seemed like a relief when Mellon announced its intention to remove the camp. As the bank's Dec. 11 eviction deadline came and went, Mellon Green became more festive than it had been in weeks. Supporters descended on the Green, disassembling unused tents, sweeping walkways, defiantly erecting a new military-style mess tent. Finally, the Occupiers had someone else to turn against, instead of each other

"BNY kind of shot itself in the foot, because it got people riled up," Jess Kelly, one of the original Occupy organizers, told me. The camp had to remain, she added: "We've gotten people talking, but not to the point where they are getting actively involved."

John McNulty, a trumpet-playing Occupy sympathizer who offered musical accompaniment for the day's festivities, agreed. "If they can stick through the winter," he said, "maybe people will pay attention to the message."

Or not. Americans have a schizoid relationship with their own freedoms. We ridicule protesters for going too far, and for not going far enough … much like a cop heckling antiwar marchers, even as they obey orders to disperse. 

We say we value the right to peacefully assemble, but become outraged if the crowd blocks an intersection. If the protesters own the same clothes and cell phones we do, we mock their hypocrisy for supporting corporations. If they wear nothing but homespun, we deride them as hippies. 

In a society that jaded, protesters have few options for gaining our attention. Yes, defying Mellon's eviction notice will likely mean arrest; cynics will then deride the Occupiers as anarchists. (Even though Pittsburgh's Occupiers have yet to break a single window.) But that's the thing about any act of civil disobedience: You're damned if you do, ignored if you don't. 

Sometimes, it seems like what the Occupy movement is really protesting is … how hard it is to protest, and to make that protest heard. Burned by politicians who cater to economic elites, Occupiers profess allegiance to no party. Disappointed by lesser-of-two-evils compromise, they offer few policy prescriptions. They sometimes scorn the media, which often returns the favor.

That has left them with just one weapon: their own bodies, freezing in the night. And pretty soon, I suspect, the police will be coming for those.