Occupiers celebrate Christmas at the camp

By Gwenn Barney

As children around the world kept watch for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, Occupy Pittsburgh… As children around the world kept watch for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, Occupy Pittsburgh camper Martino Gruelle held a vigil of a different sort. Gruelle served as a guard for the camp during the night, making sure Occupy Pittsburgh remained safe the night before Christmas.

“A lot of people did spend the holiday with their family, but someone has to hold down the camp,” Gruelle said.

On the outside, Mellon Green, the park privately owned by BNY Mellon Bank which Occupiers have settled in and renamed The People’s Park, bore no signs that the holiday season had arrived. No lights or other traditional decorations adorned the more than 40 tents plopped down on the park’s muddy grounds. For the Occupiers, the holiday seemed to mark their community ties more than the celebration of a religious holiday. Rather than spend the holiday with those who share their blood, they chose to spend the day with those who share their ideas.

Christmas marked the near-end of a turbulent month for the Occupy Pittsburgh camp. On Dec. 12, BNY Mellon filed in court to end the encampment. But Occupiers refused to leave the park that day, arguing that Mellon Green was built with taxpayers’ money and belonged to the people.

Ten days later, on Dec. 22, attorneys and representatives for BNY Mellon met the Occupiers and their attorneys in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas for a hearing. At the hearing, Judge Christine Ward set a trial date for Jan. 10 and ruled the Occupiers could remain in the park until at least that date. And in this way, a group of 20 Occupiers found themselves protecting the camp and sharing a meal over Christmas.

Inside the camp’s army-grade meeting tent, Occupy supporter Chris Mason, who stepped into the role of dinner organizer, stood at a table covered with tinfoil-wrapped pans.

That’s the way it works at the camp. When a job needs to be done, someone steps forward and assumes responsibility. Mason said camp supporters donated enough food for a Christmas dinner for 60 people. The Utility Workers Union of America was the biggest contributor, donating enough Chinese food for that number.

Packaged and homemade desserts donated by individual supporters lined the L-shaped dinner table, interspersed with holiday-themed candles. As Mason sorted through the food, she rambled off the menu for the meal: the Chinese food, green bean casserole, carrots with marmalade, corn and the crown jewel of the meal — the roasted ham. But the ham hadn’t arrived yet. Dinner couldn’t begin until the ham arrived.

Camper Brandon McCafferty missed this verbal memo. At 3:30 p.m., he charged out of the army tent wielding a bullhorn.

“Christmas dinner at six o’clock,” he bellowed through his bullhorn to the smattering of Occupiers and supporters congregated outside the meeting tent.

Mason followed right on his heels. “As soon as the ham gets here at 4 we’ll eat. Don’t tell them 6.”

When the ham finally arrived, the diners called on Standing Bear White Wolf, a Native American of the Blackfeet tribe, to bless them, their meal and the entire camp.

“[Standing Bear] does smudging ceremonies on special occasions: Once a week on Sunday and on holidays,” said an Occupier who goes by the moniker T-Bone. “Today’s Sunday and a holiday, so I guess it’s a doubly special occasion.”

In one hand, Standing Bear held a medicinal mix of tobacco, cedar, sage and sweet grass, which he placed in a palm-sized seashell. He lit the concoction on fire to release a sweet-scented smoke that he helped waft around the camp with the aid of the Red-tailed Hawk feather he held in his other hand.

“The medicine allows a spiritual cleansing,” Standing Bear explained. “We’re just giving thanks to the Creator who supports us from inside and through public support.”

He moved the smoke in the direction of the roasted ham, which sat on a table just inside the meeting tent’s front flap. Standing Bear proceeded through the entire tent smudging those who wished for a blessing on the forehead with his concoction. He chanted a blessing while he moved, speaking about the east, south, west and north, each direction corresponding to a different stage of life in Native American lore.

The moment Standing Bear disappeared through the tent’s rear exit, the sound of a trumpet rang clear nearby. About 30 yards from the tent, Occupy supporter John McNulty sat perched on a stone bench, providing musical entertainment for the Occupiers while they ate. The notes of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” echoed through the camp.

“I really admire the guts it takes to camp out here,” McNulty said in between songs. “It takes conviction to stick it out for their beliefs. It’s not easy to camp in the wintertime.”

To the tunes of McNulty’s trumpet and with the security of Standing Bear’s blessing, the Occupiers finally sat down to enjoy their Christmas dinner around 4:30 p.m. The Occupiers each filled a plate with the holiday feast and most took a can of soda, a luxury in the camp.

“We don’t get very much pop down here,” Occupier Tracie Doyle said between hiccups.

They took a seat in their mismatched chairs of varying colors — some beach chairs, others lawn chairs or plastic seats — at the linked plastic tables covered with a white paper tablecloth and spread with the packaged desserts. The affair sounded much like a family gathering as the buzz of conversation filled the tent.

“I’ve had a lot of bad Christmases,” an Occupier shared with the table. “This is one of the better ones.”

But even on a holiday, much of the conversation is geared toward the task at hand. At the far end of the table, Occupiers Ryan Kelley and Aaron Pollard discussed logistics for upcoming Occupy events.

“I don’t think there’s been a conversation here that didn’t involve Occupy since Day 1,” Kelley said.

The only illumination in the tent came from a single overhead light and the candles spaced out along the table, but the Occupiers didn’t seem to mind.

“Who needs light to eat?” Standing Bear asked nobody in particular. “Just shove the food in your mouth.”

As the dinner wound down, discussion turned toward the future and the camp’s impending date with BNY Mellon in court next Tuesday.

“This is just the calm before the storm,” one Occupier acknowledged and those nearby nodded in agreement.