OccupyPittsburgh plans local protest to expand Wall Street demonstrations

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They don't know precisely how they'll protest or what their exact mission is, but nearly 300 people who gathered in a stuffy Shadyside church Wednesday night agreed to protest Downtown on Oct. 15 against what they view as corporate greed.

The group, a collection of 20-somethings and gray-haired adults, hopes to become the latest branch of a Wall Street protest that began in New York City and has since spread across the nation to Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities.

"Everybody -- no matter what age, what creed, what race -- has come together for a common cause," said Leah Houser, 27, of New Brighton, who created the Facebook group that spawned the local meeting. There might be some variations, she said, but the common goal is to "end all this greed."

Ms. Houser, a freelance artist, said she's tired of watching the wealthier class continue to make money while she and her friends struggle to move up the economic ranks.

"No matter what I do, I can't get ahead," she said, adding that she is disheartened by the fact that her grandparents' generation could often support a family on one person's salary while she has seen families struggle to make ends meet with two people working.

So when Ms. Houser saw the hundreds of activists, collectively called Occupy Wall Street, move into Zuccotti Park in New York City on Sept. 17 claiming to fight against corporate greed and social inequity, she watched intently.

When they remained there for weeks, she got an idea: Ms. Houser started a Facebook group for OccupyPittsburgh. Next came the Twitter and YouTube accounts.

And for the first time Wednesday night, about 300 people assembled to talk about OccupyPittsburgh, what it will mean, what it will stand for and how it will protest.

The discussion was messy. Little progress was made.

At the beginning of a meeting in the First Unitarian Church on Morewood Avenue, moderators tried to describe an elaborate system in which attendees would vote on proposals by agreeing, agreeing with reservations, standing aside, disagreeing or attempting to block an idea entirely.

Each option came with its own signal -- waving two hands in the air, creating an X by crossing one hand over the other -- and everyone would show their symbols at the same time.

After some shouting and a few groans from the crowd, moderators eventually decided instead to count the number of people who raised their hands when asked if they agreed with an idea. The group then had to define a consensus, which they set at 75 percent.

"It's important that everybody is heard," Ms. Houser said. "We don't want anyone to feel ostracized or left out."

Cassi Schaffer, another moderator, said it was hard to stay calm while people shouted on top of each others' comments or tried to present new ideas before the old ones had been voted on. "We're learning how to do it as we go along," the Oakland resident said.

Organizers for the Pittsburgh group advertised the movement as one in which the individual's voice is of utmost importance and "no unilateral decisions will ever be made."

Updates about the protest will be posted where people now often gather to share their opinions -- online. Moderators told attendees to check Facebook and Twitter to get the times and locations for meetings to work on defining the group's goals and its definition of nonviolence and to make sure the tentative time and location of 10 a.m. at Market Square don't change.

"We've seen open-source politics -- the idea that voters could directly participate in the campaigns," said Gordon Mitchell, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who did not attend the meeting. "This seems to be the trend of social movements of the future. It's the open source of protesting."

Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1438


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