Occupy Pittsburgh takes another step | Slag Heap

Occupy Pittsburgh takes another step

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First things first: The second "General Assembly" to plan the Oct. 15 Occupy Pittsburgh event is taking place Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., in Oakland's Schenley Plaza. Plans for the event itself will be discussed and voted on -- and now's as good a time as any to check your level of commitment. Kickoff for the Steelers/Titans game is at 1 p.m.

On the bright side, it should be a balmy 80 degrees.

If you missed the first "General Assembly" this past Wednesday night, you can find a recording here -- though if I were your physician, I would want to carry out a few routine tests before advising you to watch it. During the first hour especially, the proceedings were characterized by the fractiousness for which progressive gatherings are so justly renowned. There was disagreement, for example, over whether the principles of non-violence should include a reference to God ... and then over whether we should be arguing about the principles of non-violence in the first place. Concerns over racial and gender representation also raised their heads. 

But no need to belabor the point. The worst thing about this meeting was also arguably the best thing about it. Yeah, the facilitators were obviously new to their roles. But if you want an organic, spontaneous movement -- as opposed to the kind of protests we've been seeing for years -- you can't expect everyone to know what the hell they are doing right off. 

After all, Occupy Pittsburgh got its start thanks to a Facebook page posted by Leah Houser, a New Brighton woman who acknowledges "This is the first time I've ever done anything like this -- and I think that's true of most of the other people who are helping to facilitiate."

What prompted Houser to launch the page? For one thing, she's firmly in the camp of the "99 percent" who aren't doing particularly well in today's economy: Despite a degree in graphic design, she's jobless with a daughter and no health benefits.

"A bunch of friends and I had talked about going up to Wall Street," she says. "But some of us had to work, and none of us had a legal car. So I said, 'I'm just gonna start this page then, because it's probably going to come out here.'"

Indeed, another facilitator, Jess Kelly, says she's "never been to a protest in my life. I've seen things that I disagreed with, but I never did anything." The Sarver resident, a mother of four, says about the only protest in her community involves "yelling at squirrels in the front yard." 

But not everyone is a neophyte: Facilitator Cassi Schaffer has been involved, intermittently, in antiwar and other efforts for years. (Full disclosure: In the mid-1990s, Schaffer and I worked together at the now-shuttered In Pittsburgh.) Along with Nathaniel Glosser, who did some of the early media outreach for the effort, "we're the only two in the group who have any experience," Schaffer says. "The rest of them live outside the city and have never done anything like this before. That enthusiasm is so exciting."

In any case, Schaffer says, "We aren't the leaders. This is a leaderless movement."

To be sure, there were plenty of familiar faces in Wednesday nights' crowd (which numbered between 350 and 400 people). There were veteran activists like Vince Eirene and Pete Shell, a couple of old hands from the (now defunct) Pittsburgh Organizing Group, union folks including local AFL-CIO head Jack Shea himself, and so on. These are folks who've led labor protests and anti-war demonstrations for years. On Wednesday night, though, they were part of the crowd, not in front of it. 

And to borrow from that hoary protest slogan ... most often, this is what democracy looks like. Not cadres of marchers barrelling down a street, but a group of people fumbling around for what to do next. 

You can expect a bit more of that this Sunday, although the discussion is much more likely to focus on logistics and event planning. The Wednesday meeting ended with people breaking into "working groups" to focus on various aspects of the protest. Will there be some kind of formal statement? What will it say? When the occupiers begin their overnight vigil, where will they sleep? Who will handle logistical needs? What tactics of nonviolence will be used?

The committees will report back their proposals to the Sunday General Assembly, with attendees voting on them. 

That question of where and how occupiers should camp out might be especially interesting. As we saw during the G-20, the city has been able to prevent people from camping out overnight in city parks ... and the rules at state-run Point State Park are if anything even more restrictive.

One possibility: protesters sleeping on the sidewalk. There is a precedent for such activity. In 2007, antiwar protesters from POG itself began a round-the-clock vigil at an Oakland military-recruitment center. Police allegedly harassed and ticketed the protesters until the ACLU intervened. A court order eventually gave protesters the right to occupy a clearly delienated space; as long as pedestrians could negotiate the rest of the sidewalk, the demonstrators were allowed to set up folding chairs and sleeping bags within the space.  

The circumstances this time may be different: The number of participants may be much larger, and the time commitment more open-ended. But either way, you'll get a chance to voice your feeling on the proposals this Sunday. And with luck, the meeting will be at least well organized enough that someone can keep track of the Steelers/Titans score.

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