Occupy The Rust Belt:
Notes From The Pittsburgh Protest
Occupy Pittsburgh crowd massed at Freedom Square in the Hill District. (Photo © Karen Lillis)
By Karen Lillis
On October 15, I marched with Occupy Pittsburgh, the city’s first action in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. I watched excitedly as the crowd grew throughout the day, building from a modest gathering when my partner and I arrived at Freedom Corner at 10:00 a.m., to a rally in the low thousands by the time the march reached Market Square at 1:00 p.m.
In sharp contrast to national anti-Occupy jeers against the “dirty hippies” and stereotypes of black-clad anarchists, a broad spectrum of the population showed up to march. College students and parents with small children. Union members and nine-to-fivers. Retirees and laid-off workers. Voters and tax-payers. The underclass and the working class and the middle class and self-identified members of the 1%. At one point I found myself between an old man in a motorized wheelchair and a young girl being pulled in a wagon.
I also noticed who didn’t show up to the march. My friends and many acquaintances in Pittsburgh are artists and writers, musicians and freelancers, actors and librarians, small business owners and academics. Most are progressives and free-thinkers who exist well left of the current Democratic party. But I saw less than 20 people I knew in the four hours I spent with the demonstrators. The first two folks I recognized were a barista and a waiter who have both served me food and drink.
“Hurray for service workers!,” I thought, having spent almost two decades of my working years in restaurants or retail.
The crowd was light on “the usual suspects,” to be sure—these were not the same people who took to the streets for the G20 protests in Pittsburgh two years ago. Perhaps that was no accident—two politically-active friends told me the day before the Occupy march that they were steering clear of the whole thing because they didn’t want to tangle with the Pittsburgh police. For that matter, two of the four signs I made for the march were created with police aggression in mind: One quoted a phrase from the First Amendment about the right of the citizens “peaceably to assemble,” and the other was the old you-won’t-get-away-with-this warning, “The Whole World is Watching.”
But the police were different, too. They treated the march like a parade–offering a permit, blocking off streets, and escorting the marchers on their motorcycles. Gone was the riot gear, and the sonic cannon was left at home. The policemen I saw lining the sidewalks looked bored, not menacing. They did not act hostile towards us, nor did the protesters heckle the cops.
I’ll admit I was initially disappointed at the morning’s low numbers: Arriving to a sparse 100 folks milling about and then starting the march with something around 400, give or take. I was hoping for a turnout in the thousands, and I thought they’d all be there at 10:00 a.m., eager to greet the revolution. But just as demonstrators calmly and steadily trickled in, alone or in twos or threes, to swell the crowd between 10:00 and Noon—so too did the march quietly gain followers every step of the way until we were suddenly 1,500 strong by the time we reached the old Allegheny County Courthouse and at least 2,000 by Market Square.
Like a Romero movie with a twist, hundreds of citizens seemed to be waking up out of zombie states and stepping forward to re-inhabit the democracy in which they live.
Karen Lillis is a novelist and freelance writer currently based in Pittsburgh. She blogs about small press publishing and indie bookstores at Karen the Small Press Librarian.