Photo: PDA’s Randy Shannon with banner, center, next Michael McPhearson of Vets for Peace with Rick Kimbrough, right.
10,000 Marchers Beat Back
The Steel City’s ‘State of Siege’
By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue
Nearly 10,000 protesters marched through the streets of Pittsburgh on the last day of the G20 this Sept. 25 afternoon, delivering a powerful message for global justice that was expressed with a brilliantly colored display of unity, militancy and diversity.
Peace and justice groups demanded an end to wars and occupations and healthcare for all, trade union contingents demanded green jobs and fair trade, women and people of color raised the banners of equality and empowerment, and young people called for a sustainable and liberated future in a new world.
“Will we make any difference?” Rick Kimbrough asked me a few hours earlier as we headed down a parkway heavily secured with police cars at every exit on our way into town. Kimbrough is an old high school friend, an African American steelworker with 37 years in a huge Beaver County mill that’s now shutdown and gone, Jones and Laughlin Steel. When I asked him to join me the day before, he was fired up to go already, until he heard a nephew had taken a bullet as a bystander in a senseless street fight. When he heard his nephew would do OK, he called back, ready to ride in with me and join the United Steel Workers contingent in ‘the People’s March’ at the close of the G20 sessions.
“We’ll make SOME difference, but not nearly enough, and not yet,” was my reply. “These G20 people think they can run the world as they please, but we have to show them they can’t, that there are limits, at least until we can grow stronger, and turn things around completely.” I asked Rick if he had ever been to something like this before. No, he’d been to political, union and civil rights rallies, but this was different.
We turned to discussing the news from the previous day, mainly about the efforts by anarchist youth, a thousand or so of them, to stage actions on a variety of targets, and march on the G20 without permits. They had a number of skirmishes all day and into the night with the highly militarized police, who made use of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. Some 82 protesters were arrested overall, and the day had seen numerous smashed windows and trash cans sent rolling into the streets.
Far worse, the Pittsburgh riot police, on the night of Sept 24, swept the university neighborhood streets, downtown Oakland, clean of students with pepper spray and tear gas canisters. Students were trapped on stairwells by riot police above and below and gassed. Students were gassed in closed passages between dormitories. They had committed no crime, no offense, no discourtesy, no disrespect, but had simply been walking to get a bite to eat, or to visit a friend, or to study, or stand around in the cool night air and talk with friends.
The media accounts had worried Rick’s family about his participation. In fact, a number of other Beaver County workers I had asked to take part flat out said “No!,’ they had no interest in playing tag with heavily armed cops who were largely inexperienced–and my assertion that today’s march would likely be large and peaceful didn’t count for much. In fact, it was entirely peaceful on this last day—no windows broken, and only one arrest.
“What’s the deal with breaking windows? Don’t they realize that’s just a big diversion that waters down the message?” Rick asked about the previous night. I tried to explain that anarchists didn’t necessarily share our message, and could be manipulated by police and provocateurs. But young people had minds of their own, often having to learn things the hard way. He agreed, turning the talk back to his nephew, and venting his anger against the criminal profiteers selling guns to kids in his neighborhood. “I’ve seen too much senseless street violence,” he concluded, “I’ve got no patience for it.”
When we hit Pittsburgh, our attention turned to trying to park downtown near the Steel Workers building, so we would have the car nearby at the end of the march. Nice idea, but no way it was going to happen. Every downtown exit was blocked until Oakland, near the university. We tried twice to double back, and were turned back by police and blockaded streets.
Security was tough and serious. The militarized police, more than 6000 of them brought in from across the country, had shut down normal commerce and movement of people in the city. The city was placed in a real, not a virtual, state of siege.
Finally, Randy Shannon from Beaver County’s Progressive Democrats of America got us on the cell phone. He’s across the river on the South Side, the closest spot he could find. So we picked him up, and made our way to Oakland, and luckily found a parking lot right near the head of the march.
As we neared the top of a steep block and reached the staging area, Rick was amazed at the first thing we saw, a contingent of 200 Tibetans, some with monk robes and beating drums, and all with red and yellow flags and banners. So I gave him a quick crash course in who’s who—the Tibetans are protesting what they see as a raw deal from China threatening their Buddhist culture, the young people dressed in black with masks are mostly the anarchists we were taking about, the people with checkered scarves and green, black red and white flags are pro-Palestinian, the women in shocking pink are Code Pink, a militant peace group, and so on.
“This is wonderful, all kinds of people are here,” was Rick’s conclusion. I suggested we look for union caps and jackets, or people in fatigues with Army veteran’s stuff, and we’ll find the folks we’re looking for. Right away, Carl Redwood Jr. from the battles in the Hill District, a low-income African American neighborhood, comes over to talk. I met him at a teach-in two days before. We fill Rick in on the issues around the new Penguin stadium and gentrification.
As we neared the front ranks, I spotted Michael McPhearson, a national leader of Vets for Peace I knew through United for Peace and Justice. When I introduce Rick, it turns out Mike has folks in Aliquippa, so they are quickly making connections.
There were two groupings up front. Randy had connected with his daughter, a University of Pittsburgh student, and was positioned with the Pittsburgh peace and justice coalition people from the Thomas Merton Center. Rick and I were with the Iraq Vets Against the War group along side them. Aaron Hughes, an IVAW national leader, came up to greet us. He and Rick were soon talking about post traumatic stress and it impact on communities when soldiers return. “I still haven’t spotted the Steel Workers,” I told him, “but let’s just stay here until we do.”
Suddenly the march moved out, and we’re in the front ranks, about four rows back. It’s a long walk, more than a mile, but fortunately, almost all of it is downhill. After we’ve gone twenty blocks or and are on a little rise, I walked backwards and looked for the end. I couldn’t see it; we were still filling the streets. It meant we were somewhere between 5000 and 10,000, and we could declare a victory for the day. Progressive activists had beaten back attempts at intimidation.
Rick picked up on all the rhythmic chanting. “The people, united, will never be defeated!” seemed to suit him best, while “This is what democracy looks like!” was my favorite for the day. As we come in sight of the Hill District, I’m informed that a feeder march of the residents numbering about 500 has merged with us, as have a number of other groupings with feeder marches throughout day.
Eventually we decide to stand to the side and wait for the USW contingent to show up. This meant we got a terrific review of the march’s composition: large banners from the Green party went by, followed by a huge HR 676 Single Payer health care contingent, then several hundred young anarchists in black with black flags, the Gay and Lesbian people, more environmentalists, then Middle East peace militants. Finally we spotted the large blue USW flags, with dozens of people in union T-Shirts, perhaps 50 in all. I waved to Maria Somma, a Steel Worker organizer. Interestingly, the front banner is featuring the rights of immigrant workers. Plenty of ‘Good Jobs, Green Jobs’ placards are also visible. We fell in at the back of the contingent, carrying our own placard with a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a demand for jobs.
The taller downtown buildings provided and excellent echo chamber for our chants and drum beats, so spirits were high as we turned the corner to the rally scheduled at an open plaza near the City-County Building.
“We had this successful people’s march today only because we FOUGHT for it, every step of the way” declared Peter Shell of the Thomas Merton Center’s Antiwar Committee from the platform. He delivered a powerful indictment of the federal and city tactics designed to disorganize the protestors and dampen the turnout. “Look at all these militarized police brought in here from everywhere. They have taught us an important lesson, even if in a small way, about what it’s like to live under an occupation, and why we have to increase our efforts this fall to end the occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza.”
Lisa Jordan of the USW Education Dept spoke for the steelworkers. “The G20 is undemocratic and unrepresentative,” she stated. “They only speak for the CEOs; there is no voice for the workers.” She pledged the solidarity of the USW with all the ongoing fights for global and social justice.
We listened to a few more speeches, but the crowd was breaking up. One contingent would go on to the East Side within a few blocks of the convention center, where the G20 was wrapping up, and thus technically getting within ‘sight and sound’ of the gathering. It was a thin concession to what was really needed.
Rick had a bum leg, injured years back in the J&L tin mill when a sheet of metal sliced a tendon, and it was giving out on him. Given the restrictive logistics, we called it a day. Getting to a bus to get back to our car was hard enough—we had to pass through three barriers of hundreds of police, including a long line of German shepherd police dogs that looked forlorn behind their uncomfortable muzzles. The bus quickly filled, and in twenty minutes, we were back at the car and headed home.
Since the G20 bigwigs were also headed toward the airport, which is located near the border of Beaver County, security was even more intense on the highway on the way back. “It’s all overkill,” said Rick. “They just want to use us for practice. We’re just a training exercise for them, and it’ll be turned against us even more somewhere down the line.”
As I dropped him off at home, I reminded him to check the news. “The cameras all loved your picket sign; you may get your fifteen minutes of fame, and can brag to your grandkids.” When I got home and turned on the news, however, reality sunk in. There were a few brief snippets about our huge march today, followed by great detail about how many windows and storefronts had been smashed the night before, complete with charts and maps of targeted areas, and lots of footage of broken glass, with kids in black masks, while cops do their best to round them up or disperse them.
Randy Shannon called to check in, making sure we made it back OK. “In that state of siege,” he summed up, “the march today was a shining example of the courage and determination of those who understand the need to fight for and defend the First Amendment.”
But on the wider messages, if we’re ever to get beyond preaching to the choir of the militant minority, and instead break through to the progressive majority, we’re going to have to find the ways and the forces to do things differently.