Human Relations: From Pittsburgh

On October 15th of 2011, I marched with over 3000 other Pittsburghers onto Mellon Green in downtown Pittsburgh at the intersection of Grant Street and Sixth Ave and helped to set up a crowd of tents that would become the most visible expression of Occupy Pittsburgh. Tents and humans, we were all dwarfed on either side by the tall, dark slab of the Steel Tower and the silvery shaft of BNY Mellon Bank. Still so new to the city, I had no idea of the monolithic history embodied by those two towers, or by all the grand cubist sweep of finance, industry, retail, philanthropy, government, and culture that surrounded us.

I knew very little of the redevelopment Renaissance that had begun to take visible shape in the 1950s, or of the public-private partnership of Mayor David Lawrence and Richard King Mellon, who had rallied the networked elites of the Allegheny Conference to sketch the blueprints of that downtown skyline across a dark canvas of steel mill smog. I knew almost nothing about the long labor of human mind and muscle that had gradually raised those blueprint sketches into steel and glass to shine against far bluer, more breathable skies, to reflect on the surfaces of far more drinkable rivers that had once moved mountains of toxic sludge through the city, as well as the barges that connected us to global economies. I watched Port Authority buses move masses of commuters past our camp down Sixth Avenue to the connective hubs of the Smithfield and Wood St. bus stops, from the multitude of municipalities and ring suburbs that I did not know so disjointedly managed the crucial infrastructures that crossed and connected the Pittsburgh Metro Region.

Along with my fellow Occupy Pittsburghers, I shouted slogans at the walls of the City-County building that all too simply abstracted the causes of the inequities and desperations that so many of us experienced in concrete detail. I shared donated coffee, Indian curries, and never-ending bagels with the homeless that converged on the camp from all directions, not only from the transit T-tunnels beneath our feet but from the foreclosed houses of the formerly middle class. Fellow veterans from deployments to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan broke bread with gay teens evicted from home by religious parents. Heroin addicts too soon discharged from hospital detox units lived in tents next to elderly blue-collar yinzers who had never imagined they would have to go camping in the dead of winter. Most of these Occupiers would never have imagined living and eating together in such a “neighborhood” until forces beyond any democratic check or balance had come knocking to evict them from their former lives.

As a volunteer with the People’s Watch that patrolled that Open Urban Space we had claimed for our protest, and as self-appointed janitor, I was often wakeful, pacing through the dark morning hours to discourage drunks from disturbing our peace, to pick up our never-ending cigarette butts from the gentle slopes we soon trampled into mud, and to debate the meanings of income inequality, social justice, and democratic process with other Occupiers as sleepless as myself. Over the months I lived at the camp, I watched the moon arc through its phases between those two architectural monoliths that framed our skyscape and began to learn the human landscapes and histories that framed our Occupation.

Every category, class, color and creed met and mingled and debated at the Occupy camp and at the General Assemblies where we tried to reach consensus: Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, socialists, anarchists, blacks, whites, Latinos, women, men, GLBT activists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, Buddhists, academics, factory workers, middle managers, labor leaders – and visitors from other Occupations all across the country. Many of these Occupiers could never have imagined the real-life stories they heard directly from categories of men and women that in the past they had all too easily summed up and dismissed as bare caricatures of the flesh and blood, the hearts and minds that they now spoke with face to face. Here we Pittsburghers came out from behind TV screens and computers and online comment sections and neighborhoods divided by rivers, bridges, cultures, classes, colors, and all-too-easy conceptions of each other.

From this chaotic motley, I learned that the urban redevelopment Renaissance had also bulldozed the diverse communities of the Lower Hill District into the depopulated parking lots that sloped down to our camp, that our city government had used eminent domain to displace thousands from their homes and businesses, following global patterns of elite robbery and ruin framed by the monolithic architectures of law, enforced by the officially sanctioned violence of police forces and armies. I began to hear the stories of centuries of struggle for the most basic human rights and biological needs by Pittsburgh communities that had all too often been self-divided – and thus too often conquered by charitable robber barons, corporate CEOs and financiers of elections, themselves all moved by systems that too often defined their successes by the efficiencies of their exploitations.

And I began to learn the stories of laborious attempts at justice and compassion and mutual care in all their difficult, nitty gritty, practical details. I learned my first lessons in the human relations that move the histories of this city, that moved me beyond that first Occupy Pittsburgh open air school and out into the wider streetscapes, communities, and collective choices that we still call a democracy.

Yes, I’m still from out of town and yes, now I’m from Pittsburgh. I’ve committed to this city as my home and to my fellow Pittsburghers as my neighbors. This blog is my attempt to learn more about the human relations of this city, who and what we are, how we got here, where we’re going now, and what choices we might yet make together.

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