Pittsburgh Diaries: Day One
March for Jobs in ‘The Hill’
By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue
The ‘G20’ is a big deal in Pittsburgh, with multiple stories in the local press and TV, even though many everyday citizens are wondering what it’s really all about and whether it’s worth all the fuss and expense.
“I know all the big shots from around the world are coming, I see that on the news” my dad told me last week. “But what do they actually do behind all those guards and closed doors?”
It’s a good question. The ‘big shots,’ of course, are all the top political and economic leaders of the world’s nineteen largest economies, with the European Union added to make twenty. And lots of people would love to be a fly on the wall when they start wrangling over who’s really to blame for the latest financial meltdown and how to recover from it.
I told my dad, for starters, that they’re cooking up schemes to have the rest of us pay off the gambling debts of Wall Street speculators while they ship more jobs overseas. That’s why the unions are going to be in streets, along with the environmental people, the antiwar movement, and everyone else. He’s dubious that it will do any good, but I told him I’ll be in the thick of it, and I’d let him know what happens.
So today I headed for one of the first actions, a mass march for jobs, sponsored by the ‘Bail Out the People Movement.’ It’s a coalition pulled together by a number of left and community groups, with an assist from the Western Pennsylvania United Steel Workers and the United Electrical Workers. The organizers have picked Pittsburgh’s low-income African American ‘Hill District’ as the launch site, and it couldn’t be a better one, since this is the heart of the neighborhoods that need jobs the most. The route is a little under a mile, and ends at the edge of downtown, in an open space behind the Civic Arena.
Coming into town on the parkway, the first things that hit you are the giant ‘Pittsburgh Welcomes the World!” banners on the large corporate lawns lining the highway. Next is a higher density of police cars. Finally, there’s a blizzard of orange detour signs re-routing traffic so the sports arenas and casinos can function while the security zones go up around select areas downtown. I maneuvered through it all, and made my way through bleak blocks with boarded-up storefronts to the ‘Tent City’ on the grounds of the Monumental Baptist Church near the top of ‘The Hill.’ I find a tenuous place to park on a rise that gives me an excellent view for photos.
It’s immediately clear this is going to be a spirited and colorful march, but of a militant minority. The weather is good, but on the hot and humid side. Nearly 500 people are there, and perhaps half of these are from out of town. There are a number of preachers around, some ladies from churches in their Sunday finery, a number of people with UE T-shirts and Steelworker ball caps, and dozens of young people putting together picket signs and adjusting sound systems. In brief, all the components of the coalition are there, but this is going to be a relatively small kickoff march rather than a massive outpouring.
I started to survey the crowd and right away run into Scott Marshall from the ‘People’s Weekly World.’ He’s been in town for a week covering the AFL-CIO convention, which just ended.
“Whaddya think?” Scott asked. “Multiply by 100, and it would be terrific,” I answered. I added that I thought the media overkill on the supposed threats of violence and the city’s dragging out the permit process until the least minute had taken a toll. “They’re getting very clever on dealing with us, and we have to find ways to counter it.”
Next I ran into some friends from the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism from New York City and Los Angeles, who traveled from both coasts in vans. The tables of the main sponsoring left groups with the ‘People’s Bailout’ coalition are prominent. From Pittsburgh, there’s a sizable group from the Thomas Merton Center and its Pittsburgh Antiwar Committee, as well as Paul LeBlanc, a local leftist professor and antiwar leader. He reported favorably on the large educational sessions held over the weekend.
A Pickup truck with a decent sound system got positioned in the middle of the line of marchers. It’s playing ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now!’ and as the line moved, the chants begin: “We want a J-O-B, so we can E-A-T! is a popular one, as is ‘We’re fired up, won’t take no more!” Since it’s all downhill, it’s an easy hike. I describe a few historic sites we passed to some out-of-towners, like the Crawford Grill, center of the Pittsburgh jazz scene for decades, as well as the home of the famous Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Negro Baseball Leagues of which it was an important part.
Waiting for us at the rally site at the other end were Pennsylvania State Senator Jim Ferlo and his assistant Mikhail Pappas. Ferlo has long used his Harrisburg Senate position to advocate for labor, civil rights and antiwar causes, and today is no exception.
We’re welcomed to the rally by Rev. Thomas Smith of the Monumental Baptist Church. He started off by answering my dad’s question: “These G20 people are here to make deals that benefit the corporations; they’re not here helping the workers, or the rest of us in the communities.” Our efforts today are only the beginning, he reminds us, there’s much more to come, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
Senator Ferlo was next. “We’re here to speak out to right our countries wrongs, not only here but around the globe. Capitalism is in deep crisis. Some here may say capitalism IS the crisis. In any case, we have to press for a sustainable economy that works for us, the majority of the working people.”
Ferlo then took up a topic that had everyone buzzing all day. The morning’s Post Gazette including an article based on an interview with Obama, where the President said, in relation to the G20 protests: “I was always a big believer in — when I was doing organizing before I went to law school — that focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people’s lives is what really makes a difference; and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally is not really going to make much of a difference.
The Senator was furious with Obama. “This is worse than misguided and a major miscalculation; it’s intellectually dishonest. It was people in the streets that put him there. It was mass protests that built the unions, that got rid of Jim Crow, that won rights for women. This is the problem with the whole top layer of the Democratic Party in dealing with these attacks from the far right. They’re acquiescing to it; they should hang their heads in shame-and I’m telling you this as an active and registered Democrat. We have got to rise up and turn this around.”
“If we had a hundred more elected Democrats like him,” said one protester standing next to me in reference to Ferlo. “It would be a whole different ball game.”
Brenda Stokley followed up. She was with the Katrina and Rita Hurricane Survivors Committee, and delivered a blistering indictment of the government’s ongoing failures to deal with these crises. “There’s no reason for people to be homeless, no reason for people to be without jobs. We need these for survival.”
One speaker stood out in his ability to command the attention of almost everyone. Fred Richmond, a vice president of the United Steelworkers and an African American, started off by asserting that “the issue of poverty is central to labor’s agenda, and not just in this country, but globally.” He went on to describe in some detail exactly what the AFL-CIO would be pressing on the G20-fair trade, green jobs, a ‘Tobin Tax’ worldwide on financial speculation, a ‘second stimulus’ on a global scale to spur job growth and the transition to clean energy and a green economy.
Richmond also put the earlier critique of Obama in a larger perspective. “This president is under a heavy and fierce attack from the far right. What he’s going through is unprecedented, unless you go back to Roosevelt. We have to back him up, but we also have to make sure all of them act in our interests.” Some were dubious on this point, but most of the crowd took him very seriously.
I missed a few of the final speakers, since I was making a point of connecting with some of the Progressive Democrats of America activists there. Western PA’s 4th CD was represented, as well as a group in from Akron, Ohio, who was passing out PDA’s ‘Healthcare, Not Warfare’ placards to use for the rest of the week. We exchanged stories of our dealings with the rightwing ‘Tea Bagger’ rallies in various places, plus the days to come.
Two important events are up soon for the remaining days of the G20. One is a union-sponsored rally in Point Park on Wednesday, Sept. 23. The negotiations for the permit there have been contentious, because the police and Secret Service wanted the same spot as a staging area. On Thursday, Pittsburgh’s anarchist youth will be heard from in one way or another-no one is quite sure what they will do. And Friday, Sept. 25, there will be ‘the big march,’ with the area’s peace and justice movements at the heart of it. Stay tuned!
[Carl Davidson writes for Beaver County Blue, the online voice of the 4th CD Progressive Democrats of America. He is also a national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.]