‘Chaotic,’ ‘triggering’: Pitt band, protestors address Cathedral of Learning demonstration


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Pitt students protesting sexual violence on campus disrupt the Pitt Band snake event at the Cathedral of Learning on October 7.

By Alexandra Ross, Senior Staff Writer

Protesting is not meant to be palatable, according to Sharon Bennett. 

“For a protest to be a protest, you can’t do something that makes everyone happy,” Bennett said. “Because then, why would anyone care?”

Bennett, a junior neuroscience major, was one of more than 100 Pitt community members who gathered at the Cathedral of Learning on Oct. 7 to protest a reported sexual assault in the building days earlier. The protest started on the Cathedral lawn, moved inside the building and moved back outside by around 3:45 p.m. As protesters exited the building, they saw the marching band performing on the front steps. 

According to Addie Shukausky — a junior anthropology and English writing major, alto saxophone player in the Pitt Band and member of the traditions and spirit committee of the band council — the band started planning this performance months ago. It was the last stop of The Snake, a band tradition in which the marching band parades through Oakland on the Friday of Homecoming Weekend. According to Shukausky, the band could not move The Snake from its pre-approved path.

Throughout the afternoon, multiple protesters voiced objections to Pitt hosting Homecoming events in the Cathedral and using the building as a Homecoming icon — for example, paying for a Cathedral ice sculpture and distributing T-shirts that read, “Cathy or the Cathedral?” 

Several protesters climbed onto benches and railings among the marching band members and continued to demonstrate. Some stood silently and held up signs, while some yelled or chanted over the performance. Shukausky said they heard chants ranging from “Keep school safe” to “Cathy is a crime scene” to “Fuck Pitt Band.” At least two protesters held their middle fingers up facing the band. 

“You’re distasteful scum right now, this is a crime scene,” one of the protesters, who extended two middle fingers, yelled. “This is all you care about, fucking football, pieces of shit.” 

It was unclear whether the protester directed these words at the band members, the crowd watching the band or the University in general. Bennett said protesters were not angry at the band specifically, but rather at the University. While Bennett said they don’t choose to use harsh language or gestures at a protest, they don’t want to “tone police” other protesters. 

“I wouldn’t have stuck my middle finger up, but who am I to tone police other people… who are rightfully upset about a tragedy that occurred?” Bennett said. 

Aaron Conrad, a senior anthropology major, also protested at the marching band performance. Conrad stood behind the protesters and yelled to the crowd below that Pitt was “doing nothing” about the recent alleged sexual assault. 

“There was a rape in this building this week and Pitt has done nothing,” Conrad yelled as he held up a sign that read “School should be a safe place.” 

Ted Fritz, vice chancellor for public safety and emergency management, said Pitt Police increased security presence at the Cathedral in a campus-wide email on Oct. 7. Pitt Police Chief James Loftus said at Thursday’s Senate Council meeting that the University is “moving towards” more comprehensive security camera surveillance in the Cathedral. 

Shukausky said Pitt Police told the band the protest ended before the band began The Snake at the William Pitt Union Patio at 3:15 p.m. According to Shukausky, it wasn’t until the band started playing the fight songs on the Cathedral steps that they realized protesters were still there.

“Right after [the fight songs] we just go right to attention and we’re quiet, and we can hear the chants and I remember just feeling a pit of dread in my stomach,” Shukausky said. 

Sydney Edwards, a senior at Carlow University and member of the Golden Girls, said it felt uncomfortable to praise Pitt while protesters claimed the University did not protect its students from sexual assault or support survivors. 

“While some people were talking about Title IX and how they weren’t really doing much I guess, and we were talking about, you know, ‘Hail to Pitt,’ Pitt victory song, so I feel like it was definitely slightly awkward,” Edwards said. “A lot more than slightly.”

Shukausky called the overall experience “chaotic” and said it was “triggering” for members of the band. They said a vocal minority of protesters were inconsiderate of the band members’ feelings.

“There may be two [aggressive protesters] for every 100 people that are there to peacefully protest,” Shukausky said. “But the two for the lots of protesters that were there were very vocal, very rude and not very considerate of the band’s feelings and the fact that we are actual people under those uniforms.”

After the band’s performance ended, Shukausky said they immediately went to apologize to the protesters, who were “very nice.” While the marching band did not intend to silence the protest, Shukausky said, they wished the band could have made a show of support for the protest and for sexual assault victims. 

“I wish we could have taken a knee and helped their voices out because in a way we have a big position of attention… and I wish we could have used that to make a statement of something like, ‘we stand in solidarity, we want a safer campus,’” Shukausky said. 

Bennett said they spoke to band members immediately after the event and felt that the two groups came to an understanding. 

“In that moment, in that night, it really felt unified,” Bennett said. “It felt like the band understood why we were there, at least a lot of them. And then I got home and then I opened like, Reddit… and I was really disappointed.”

Following the protest, Pitt students on the Pitt subreddit discussed protesters’ actions at the marching band performance. While most said they supported the protest’s cause, many said protesters should not have disrupted the band. 

Conrad said people who focus on the details of the protest — such as protesters flipping off the band — instead of the reported sexual assault “should really examine their own priorities.”

“If people are so upset over the obscenity of those actions, then why aren’t they upset over the obscenity of a sexual assault happening and then literal alumni parties and banned celebrations feet away from the crime scene?” Conrad said. “It’s kind of a moral discrepancy.”

In the end, Conrad said he doesn’t regret anything he said or did at the protest because he stood up for what he believes in. And while the protest may have been disruptive he said it brought more attention to the issue of sexual assault on campus.

“If all publicity is good publicity, it definitely has people talking about it more than they would if we had dispersed when the cops told us to from the Cathedral alone,” Conrad said.