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As winter nears, Occupy protesters say they're not leaving

| Monday, Nov. 14, 2011

After four weeks on Downtown streets, the Occupy Pittsburgh movement can claim more than a dozen organized protests, 100 tents at Mellon Green, four portable toilets and no arrests.

Not surprisingly, supporters and detractors have different views of those numbers.

"If they lived by what they say they represent, I could support them a little more," said Domenico Capolupo, 25, of Jefferson Hills, an employee of BNY Mellon who complained about seeing protesters wearing expensive Diesel jeans and heading to a nearby Starbucks.

"It seems as if they're just camping out," said Bob Kopperman, 54, a self-employed online publisher from Brookline.

Not so, said protester and camper Rebecca Schiavo, 24, of Swissvale.

"We're getting our voices out there," said Schiavo, who said she's jobless. "I feel like we're being heard."

Occupy Pittsburgh — patterned after the Occupy Wall Street effort organized to protest corporate excess and social woes — started Oct. 15 with 2,000 marchers parading Downtown. Soon after, about 100 tents sprang up at Bank of New York Mellon's Mellon Green on Grant Street, and the loosely organized participants had their base of operations.

After a series of protests at banks, the group targeted the Attorney General's Office and other spots. Some events, such as one Oct. 25 at a PNC Bank branch Downtown, attracted only about a dozen sign-bearing protesters; others have drawn 50 to 100. One organizer quit the group early on, and now decisions are made more or less democratically during regular "general assemblies."

It's led to questions about fuzzy goals and mercurial leadership.

"I think a lot of (protesters) are bitter," said Chris Lang, 26, of Pleasant Hills, a temp worker at BNY Mellon.

Campers subsist largely on private donations of gear and food. Propane-powered generators charge laptops and cell phones. Some power comes when a volunteer pedals a stationary bike rigged to a generator.

They seek donations by posting requests on a Facebook page and they share news and information with each other and the community there.

Police say they've seen only a dozen or so sleeping at the encampment at night, but protesters say many of the tents are occupied, more on the weekends.

BNY Mellon says it will allow the group to remain at Mellon Green as long as it respects the property.

Veteran liberal activist Molly Rush said the group faces challenges.

The Occupy group's stance that they don't have leaders, that everyone has a voice, "makes it messy. It makes it difficult, but there's something about that ideal of leadership from the bottom," said Rush, 76, of Dormont.

"Most people can't self-govern," said Lara Brown, a Villanova University political science professor. "What probably happened is that they have a desire to police themselves but they have no real leaders, and they shun the police."

Celeste Taylor, director of the Regional Equity Monitoring Project and a longtime social activist, has spent a couple of nights at the encampment. She said there has been dissent within the group.

"There are a lot of damaged and scared and lonely people" making up the movement, said Taylor, 55, of North Point Breeze. "When you put that on top of a movement wanting change and just the struggles that people deal with every day, this isn't easy, it's hard."

A recent argument and shoving match between two protesters and the turmoil that followed at the encampment led movement member David Meieran, 50, of Point Breeze to post on Facebook, "Something has gone horribly wrong."

But he said those involved remained at the camp and police weren't called. Police said they haven't had any reports of incidents at the camp and haven't made any arrests during protests Downtown.

Other Occupy protests around the world have ended in thousands of arrests.

Group members acknowledge there have been disputes about how to handle donated money and who to target in protests. Several said it's difficult to remain at the camp full time, as many have jobs and families.

"I think it would be naive to expect there wouldn't be problems," Meieran said.

The protesters who remain have plans to continue, including an event on the Greenfield Bridge on Thursday. They will sing carols Downtown the next day as part of the city's annual Light Up Night celebration.

Many protesters said they plan to be in the encampment as winter approaches. They are seeking donations of socks, heavy clothing, zero-degree sleeping bags and other winter items.

Protester Favian Xavier, 32, of Lawrenceville pointed to past movements that took time to take hold.

"It took years before we finally got any substantial change," said Xavier, a contractor. "There are so many problems now, and they all need addressed."

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