Ongoing History: The First Occupy Pittsburgh General Assembly

Shortly after 6:30 p.m. last night, Cassi Schaffer called the first General Assembly of Occupy Pittsburgh to order by making a request for civility. “Please be gentle to each other,” she told the standing room crowd of 400 gathered in the pews and lining the walls of the sanctuary of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh in Shadyside. “Remember, the person sitting next to you tonight may be sleeping next to you in a week or so.”

The group came to learn where and when people would be gathering to “occupy” Pittsburgh, mirroring an ongoing event in New York and similar movements around the country to protest the state of the world. After the reverend gave the group his blessing to “go forth and occupy,” Cassi said the first General Assembly would not address the varying political views in the room. It would stick to logistics: where and when.

The organizers began by explaining the consensus process of group decision making. A woman in a brown corduroy jacket explained that for each proposal brought before the group, everyone in attendance could respond in one of six ways: agree (raise both arms), agree with reservations (raise one arm), stand aside (waving arms like umpire calling safe), disagree (lower arms), block (cross arms over chest), or challenge a point of process (putting hands together into a triangle). Someone asked what blocking meant, and the woman said it meant that a minority felt it wasn’t being heard or that the discussion wasn’t following the agreed upon principles. Someone else asked how the people disagreeing could show their disagreement by lowering their arms if everyone was sitting down, and the woman decided that they would just throw out the whole arm thing.

She explained that consensus isn’t the same as a majority, and that for the purposes of the General Assembly, consensus would be reached if 75 percent of the people in attendance voted for one of the first four options (agree, agree with reservations, stand aside or disagree), but then someone held up a triangle to note that it should only be the first three options (agree, agree with reservations or stand aside). A young bearded man holding a travel mug started explaining how consensus typically involved a two-stage process and someone else yelled out “Why don’t we just do what’s on this paper?” referring to a flow chart the organizers passed around explaining the process. “Okay,” the woman said after around fifteen minutes of debate. “I think what we need to do is…”

“Move on!” someone yelled.

“…move on,” the woman finished, “but it’s important that we don’t silence voices either.”

Another organizer named Jess Kelly said the next step would be adopting the Gandhian Principles of Non-Violence and asked if anyone had any questions. A man in front asked that the word “God’s” be removed from Principle No. 8 — “Beyond personal necessities, I see myself as God’s trustee over my possessions and talents.” — because it “excludes a great many people,” but another man in the back suggested replacing the word “God’s” with the word “life’s” because not having a higher power “excludes the religious among us.” Some suggested using the phrase “the universe’s” instead of “God’s” or “life’s.”

A man stepped up to a microphone set up in the aisle and said the group didn’t need to define non-violence, it just needed to “harness the energy” in the room and pick a time and place for the occupation. A man in the front row began responding, but no one could hear anything he said. A young woman yelled, “You need to be at the microphone!”

“I AM A COMMITTED PACIFIST,” the man yelled instead, “and I will be removing myself from this organization if there are not agreed upon principles of non-violence.”

Jess asked whether the group agreed to adopt the Ghandian Principles of Non-Violence “with the use of God or without it” and hundreds of arms went up in the air in agreement, but then someone challenged Principle No. 6, “Absorbing Suffering,” and after half a dozen comments back and forth from the crowd, they agreed to let a working group hash out the details of the principles of non-violence and bring ideas to the next assembly.

“People in New York didn’t have this meeting,” a guy in a yellow t-shirt, paint-splattered shorts and a black baseball cap yelled from the pews. “They just got together.”

The woman in the corduroy jacket moved on to the next agenda item: the date and time of the occupation. Someone suggested Saturday, October 15 and the group agreed.

“Nobody goes to the city on the weekends!” someone in back yelled, but Jess said the issue wasn’t up for debate because the group already reached consensus on the date.

The organizers moved on to choosing the location. Because many of the people interested in occupying the city would also be at the Building Change conference that same day, someone suggested the occupation take place near the conference at the Heinz History Center. But someone else thought that occupying the City-County building would send a bigger message. And someone else thought that Market Square, newly renovated, would hold a crowd of hundreds more easily than the steps of the City-County building.

One person said getting a permit for Market Square meant dealing with a downtown business association and wouldn’t be as easy as getting a permit for Mellon Square. The person advocating for the City-County building noted that it didn’t require a permit.

Someone by the windows yelled, “People are leaving!” People were leaving the sanctuary.

“You’re out of order,” the city-county building advocate said.

Someone said the location needed to send a message, and proposed Freedom Corner, and someone else worried that Market Square wouldn’t work because “if they decide to close in and do a mass arrest, it would be a piece of cake,” and someone else suggested Liberty Center because “that’s where they have New Years celebrations.” Jess asked the group whether they should leave the location question to the next General Assembly, but a man protested, saying, “The people of Pittsburgh are relying on us to tell them where to go.”

After another half an hour of debating, the organizers finally told everyone to meet on Saturday, October 15, at 10 a.m. at Market Square, “unless you hear otherwise.”

With that issue resolved, the tone of the meeting changed. Around half the crowd left over the next half hour, leaving several hundred people still in the pews to volunteer for working groups over the coming weeks (to educate the public, address legal concerns and craft a mission statement, and the like) and to voice their aspirations for the movement.

A black woman said “women, women of color, queers and transgender” needed to make their presence known. A long time cook called on his colleagues to help feed the occupiers. A man read the entire first amendment. Another said the occupiers shouldn’t forget their place in the history of fighting power. Another said the occupiers shouldn’t worry about getting permits because “the U.S. didn’t seek a permit when they invaded Iraq and Afghanistan” (a comment that generated the loudest applause in a night full of loud applause). Others spoke on behalf of labor, veterans and students. One young woman criticized how media coverage of the movement made it seem like “we don’t know what we’re talking about,” and told everyone to “stay professional, stay positive, stay non-violent.” A man stressed the need for unity: “Don’t just stop paying attention to this movement because your niche issue is not addressed and you’re frustrated.”

“I want to thank everyone for coming out,” Jess said toward the end of the night, as people began congregating in the hallways and on the lawn outside the church to talk more about the cause. “I know this has been chaotic, but we are starting a revolution.”

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