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My Evening with Occupy Pittsburgh: Observations from an On-the-Ground Rhetorician

November 2, 2011

Occupy Pittsburgh marched in Oakland (the Pittsburgh neighborhood) Wednesday evening in solidarity with Occupy Oakland (the city in California), which was the target of recent police action. I joined (by which I mean followed and pestered) the marchers as they made their way from Schenley Plaza to the Litchfield Towers, through the Cathedral of Learning and then around the outside of the Cathedral of Learning. A few observations:

1. The march wasn’t leaderless, but it wasn’t exactly “leaderfull” either. Much has been made of the supposedly leaderless nature of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and its regional incarnations. There was a man with a megaphone whom everyone seemed to be following, but the first words through the megaphone were “We’re going to start marching, but we need to know where you want to go. Up Forbes?” And up Forbes was where they went, more or less.

2. The march was diverse in some ways, not in others. The march skewed young and white, but there were people of many races and ages, including children. I spoke with older protesters who told me about their experiences with the women’s movement of the 1960s, anti-war movements and labor organizing, but I also spoke with young marchers engaging in protest for the first time in their lives. I think, on the whole, retired protesters were more willing to speak with me (see #4 below).

3. If this is how Pittsburghers do class politics, it doesn’t sound all that different from identity politics. The idea that Americans have embraced identity politics to the detriment of class politics is something of a truism. I can’t say, on the basis of one march, how the Occupy movement in Pittsburgh fits (or doesn’t fit) with this trend. I can tell you that much of what I heard sounded like identity politics in the sense that it emphasized group identities over material grievances. Chants like “we are the 99%, you are the 99%” and signs like “we are the butterflies that start tornadoes” strike me as more about articulating a shared identity than material grievances. I realize, of course, that group identities and material grievances are not entirely separate things, and that one often leads to the other.

4. Many of the younger protesters didn’t seem to want to talk a journalist, or anyone who resembled one. Pick up any journalism textbook and you’re likely to find a quip about reporters being trusted about as much as used car dealers. I identified myself as a blogger, not a journalist, but I was still holding a notepad and a digital recorder and that tends to make a person look like a reporter whatever they say.

Many of the people I talked to were forthcoming about why they were participating in the march and how they envision a successful Occupy movement. But, just as many treated me with suspicion and gave me the side-eye. My experience as a reporter is limited, but this sort of thing strikes me as normal. I remember getting suspicious looks in even the most mundane settings, from county fairs to township trustee meetings. Nevertheless, the rhetorician in me wanted to ask, “if you don’t want to talk to someone you think is a reporter, whom do you want to talk to?” Let’s be honest, the audience for this march was either the media or no one. I say this because, other than mildly curious University of Pittsburgh students, a small number of police and some reporters, no one else was there. You’re not likely to find too many members of the 1% in Oakland at 6:30pm.

5. Asking people about “what they do” doesn’t make a lot of sense at an Occupy event. LZ Granderson recently argued that the question, “what do you do for a living?” is losing relevance in American society and that during difficult economic times it’s rude to bring up employment so directly. Wednesday night’s experience proved his point. I was trying to figure out what sort of people were marching, so I asked things like “what’s your name?” “is this your first Occupy event?” and “what do you do?” as a way of starting conversation. Enough people balked at the last question that I stopped asking.

If you want to know more:

  • If you’re a numbers person and want to know how many people were there, check somewhere else. I can’t count over a dozen reliably. Numbers have been a major concern for Occupy Pittsburgh, so be on the lookout for estimates.
  • Here’s more coverage of Occupy Pittsburgh from news sources around town, including coverage of Wednesday night’s march.
  • I feel the need to qualify my fourth observation by pointing out that protests don’t always fit the one-way, speaker-to-audience model of rhetoric. These events are sometimes as much about formulating views as expressing them. In other words, one might look at a protest march as an event that calls a public into existence, that offers up an identity for everyday people to inhabit. As Michael Warner points out, sometimes public discourse (like a protest march) doesn’t just call out to audiences, it calls them into being and, in doing so, imagines an identity or set of identities and invites us to inhabit them. A march can take a new identity like the 99% and “[r]un it up the flagpole and see who salutes. Put on a show and see who shows up.” See Publics and Counterpublics, page 114.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2011 1:57 pm

    Is constructing slogans in solidarity with one another, calling a community into being, necessarily the inverse of communicating grievances?

    • Doug Cloud permalink*
      December 7, 2011 4:28 pm

      Not necessarily. If you’re referring to the distinction between identity politics and class politics, the line between the two is blurry at best. I think the key difference would be in the nature of the grievances being articulated. Identity politics sometimes include cultural grievances (i.e. problematic representation, symbolic oppression) whereas class politics are likelier to focus on issues like equal pay and equal opportunity. Group identity claims are not necessary for class politics, but they sometimes help. In any case, calling a community into being is often the first step toward communicating grievances to larger publics.

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