I'm glad they're around to be the stone in everyone's shoe, that essential reminder to care about something.
A few days before Occupy Pittsburgh's Oct. 15 march and rally, one of the women in my office called the staff into the front room, and asked whether we were planning to attend.
I work at a literary magazine; we're a pretty liberal bunch, and hardly anyone on staff is over 40. But most of us merely said something like "I'm thinking about going." The co-worker who'd asked said that, as someone who'd taken part in marches in the 1960s, she'd been wondering what it would take for us to actually demonstrate.
"Doesn't your generation care about anything?" she asked.
That shamed me enough to go to the rally -- though it didn't hurt that it was a sunny day, and I'd spent the morning grading papers.
So I took the bus Downtown, where a friend and I stood for an hour in the sweet blustery chill, holding hands with strangers, admiring people's signs and what I couldn't help but think of as their costumes: Greedy CEO, Anarchist Bandit, Guy Fawkes. Then we went into the Market Square Primanti's to eat fries.
I am that kind of protester: amateur and soft. My friend had at least made a sign.
But in the weeks since, I've occasionally hung around the corners of Occupy Pittsburgh's Mellon Green camp, like that shy girl at the high school dance. I usually show up with food, which is my tactic for making friends: People are nicer when you're holding a plate of food. Sometimes I'm there at night, when Downtown is deserted and the Occupiers hold their evening meeting. They discuss the need to keep unaccompanied minors out of the camp, to establish patrols, to play board games to keep up morale.
At home, while I chop carrots and onions and green peppers for vegan chili to take Downtown, I ask myself why I'm doing this. That question rings louder when I'm at Giant Eagle paying $50 for food that's all going to the camp -- and the cashier asks if I want to donate to the Food Bank, but I've just spent all the week's expendable money.
Why, of all the things I could spend my time and energy and money on, is this the one I've chosen?
Part of the answer is the Occupiers themselves, who are so friendly and grateful when I show up with my pans of food that I feel like I've done more than roast a few potatoes. Part of it is their message. I am sick of corporate greed, I agree that money buys elections, and I wish someone would do something about it.
But if I'm honest, much of my motivation is the desire to support those who are doing something about it, something I'm not willing to do: sleep in a tent, in the cold, so everyone else can remember that these things need to be discussed.
For years I've stood by and watched other people rally for causes I supported, all while telling myself that although their hearts were in the right place, they were going about it all wrong. A march Downtown wasn't going to accomplish anything. Speechifying in the city council wasn't going to accomplish anything. Real activism was something that went on in other places, where people chained themselves to redwoods or threw petrol bombs at government tanks. The activism I saw around me felt childish and naïve, and my life felt too busy to waste time on useless activities.
But this time, the cumulative discomfort of all those years spent naysaying mixed with the Occupiers' constant presence. This was no five-hour affair that I could push to the back of my mind after the parade ended, and that gave me the time I needed to ease past my pessimistic rationality. I didn't have to quit my job and live on Mellon Green. I just had to do something other than idly criticize.
If someone were to tell me that making a pot of chili doesn't accomplish anything, I would find it hard to argue. But when I drop that chili off at the camp and I see people who are still willing to be there, it doesn't feel pointless. It feels like my willingness to forget about what seems like it will work is a tiny part of why they're still there.
Over the weeks, I've seen the Occupiers' hair get stringier and their coats get heavier. What they're doing is not easy, but they bear it with grace.
I'm glad they're around to be the stone in everyone's shoe, that essential reminder to care about something. That's enough to keep me there, in the shadows and the margins, food in hand.