A disparate group of Occupy Pittsburgh protesters in tents and sleeping bags settled into Mellon Green on Saturday night after a day in which about 2,000 protesters peacefully crisscrossed Downtown and far fewer readied to stay put for as long as they could.
The events were one of several regional offshoots of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in New York City and has inspired protests in Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle and other cities. Those involved decry what they describe as a number of social, political and economic ills spawned by corporate greed and governmental corruption.
"When you spend four years in the military and you come back and you see the way things are being run, you get pretty angry about it," said Joshua Heidecker, 28, of Erie, a U.S. Marine who said the majority of veterans he knows are fed up with corporate influences in government. He was with several other young veterans in partial uniform.
In the afternoon, the demonstrators set up camp on Mellon Green, a stretch of grass at Grant Street and Sixth Avenue that's owned by BNY Mellon. The Green turned to mud within a few minutes of their arrival just after 4 p.m. They gathered around a loudspeaker, where a man faced the towering BNY Mellon building and announced, "We are not below you, as we are today. We are above you. We are the 99 percent!"
He looked back at the cheering crowd.
"Thank you for occupying Pittsburgh! Do not give up the fight!"
Some of the protests in other cities have ended in mass arrests, but in Pittsburgh, police reported no major incidents, property damage or arrests by day's end. At one point, police borrowed the protesters' megaphone to tell them that bank executives said they may stay there as long as they are respectful, which one organizer declared "a victory for us and a loss for Mellon." Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant also indicated that, as long as the group remained peaceful, officers would take a hands-off approach.
"Everyone has a right to protest. As long as they protest peacefully and don't damage property or infringe on anyone else's rights, we have no problem," she said. BNY Mellon took the same stance.
"We have introduced a modest safety buffer to facilitate employee access to our buildings and public access to the subway," said spokeswoman Lane M. Cigna. "We support the right of the marchers to be heard."
The day opened early with small streams of protesters who straggled along Centre Avenue in the Hill District, and the group steadily swelled, first to a throng that jammed Freedom Corner and then to a chanting, sign-toting mass of people who stretched two to three blocks by the time they got to Grant Street.
With their written riffs and shouted anti-establishment slogans, protesters assailed all manner of enemies, from the specific -- UPMC, Wall Street and the North American Free Trade Agreement -- to the vague -- "the rich," "greed" and the "1 percent" of the population that some say control the country's wealth. Piled behind a massive banner that read "OccupyPgh.org" with the city's skyline in silhouette, the diverse crowd champed to surge forward.
Organizers claimed there were at least 3,000 marchers, but police used lower estimates and the numbers dwindled as the day wore on. The demonstrations brought together familiar faces in the Pittsburgh activism scene, a smattering of labor union representatives, retirees, anarchists, and college-aged kids emerging into an adulthood of high debt and low job prospects.
Activist David Meieran guided the group, providing hand signals when it came time to turn a corner. People flowed down Centre Avenue as a stiff wind kicked up. Two motorcycle officers using flashing lights rode slowly ahead of the crowd. An undercover police officer snapped pictures.
It took about an hour for the loud crowd to make its way at a steady clip along the permitted 21/2-mile route to Market Square. Along the designated route, uniformed police officers had closed off side streets with barricades, and marchers did not pose any challenges. A riot squad team was on alert as a contingency, and several high-ranking police officials monitored the event. But there was no sign of riot gear on the streets.
Steve Orosz, 70, of Squirrel Hill, a former federal government and NATO employee, dressed in a sport coat and held up a cardboard sign that read: "Government should represent people not corporations."
"So many of my generation have been waiting for this," said Marla Petersen, 59, a therapist from Friendship who stood in the shadow of BNY Mellon. "Large corporations have far too much influence in the government, [which has] stopped being representative of the 99 percent."
The group arrived in Market Square by 1 p.m. and a series of speakers took turns airing a number of grievances over a microphone, though sound-system challenges at times made it hard to hear. The speakers were aided with the help of crowd repetition of nearly everything they said -- called "the human microphone."
An Air Force veteran, now studying at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, said his education bill will reach $60,000.
"I have lived in Europe for three years of my life," where education is free or less expensive, he said. "The government complains about how ignorant we are, but they continue to raise the prices of our education."
A laid-off bus driver said society needs to "spend more money on transit and stop blaming the workforce." Others rapped, told personal stories and made open political calls for action.
Johnstown resident Joe Hensel, 56, strolled around Market Square in a blue suit, toting a briefcase labeled "GOVT. GREED" that was stuffed to overflow with fake dollar bills. "I'm in town doing some legislative shopping," he said. "Congress comes cheap these days."
Just after 3 p.m., the group headed along Forbes Avenue to Mellon Green, obeying traffic laws. Five drummers led the procession, tapping out a vigorous beat as the marchers chanted. Motorists honked in solidarity.
Once at the park, a band of demonstrators began pitching an orange tent, pushing twigs into the soft mud for stakes. Police in idling wagons and squad cars remained close at hand.
Nathaniel Glosser, a spokesman for Occupy Pittsburgh, said either BNY Mellon accepted the group's argument that the green is a public space, "or they decided that it would be too big of a publicity black eye for them if they had the police remove us." Protesters planned to stay indefinitely.
"We view this as victory number one, with more to come," he said.
About 5:30 p.m., the protesters gathered for a "General Assembly" meeting to discuss their goals for the remainder of the movement and to establish rules for their encampment.
More than 100 people gathered in a circle several layers deep, once again using the "human microphone" to speak with one another.
The group has no official leaders and operates as a direct democracy, requiring 75 percent of all members present to approve ideas before adopting them.
They decided to divide into pairs and patrol the camp at night to ensure that everyone stays safe. They repeated their commitment to ban drugs and alcohol at all Occupy Pittsburgh events and discussed creating walkways throughout the small park in hopes of minimizing damage to the grassy green.
Saturday's gathering was more organized than the group's first meeting about a week and a half ago. That change, organizers said, is a sign that the group has evolved and begun to bond.
Patrick Young, a 27-year-old United Steelworkers employee who ran last Sunday's meeting, said the initial meetings were long and sometimes frustrating because the group had not yet defined its mission.
Participating in the meetings, he said, has taught him, "There are a lot of different people in that 99 percent."
"People are very upset and they're coming out of nowhere," he added. "Most of the people who are involved have never been to a protest."
Staff writers Rich Lord, Liz Navratil and Chris Kirk contributed. First Published October 16, 2011 4:00 AM