Observations from Pittsburgh

In recent years, nationally publicized racial murders (e.g., Trayvon Martin) sparked small protests in Pittsburgh, usually located in the Downtown area or in black neighborhoods like East Liberty or the Hill District. Local injustices, like the brutal beating of high schooler Jordan Miles, also garnered similar small protest movements.

In Pittsburgh, we’ve now witnessed a larger scale and broader social composition to protests against racist police violence.

On Wednesday, December 3, a small demonstration took place at the University of Pittsburgh. This looked very much like the usual small-scale (50–60 people) demonstration that might take place on Pitt’s main campus.

However, a Friday, December 5 protest in Oakland, a central Pittsburgh neighborhood and the site of Pitt’s main campus, easily exceeded 500 people. The protest started at 5 pm with people overflowing Schenley Plaza (a typical meeting place for student protests). At 6, the protesters broke off from intermittently standing in the road with signs and giving speeches and went into a full march. One comrade contends that this was planned, but it certainly wasn’t cleared with city officials. The crowd simply took to the streets and forced the police to react. The cops redirected traffic, and didn’t seem to take any action against the march. The march shut down traffic in Oakland, which is a main artery. What’s more, the march went down onto the freeway (376), blocking incoming traffic to downtown Pittsburgh. The same chants you’ve heard at other demos around the country on the Brown/Garner killings could be heard echoing through the air.

Friday, December 12: March beginning in East Liberty at 6 pm. Marches through mainly African American neighborhoods to Zone 5 Police Station, and demonstrates in front of station to protest for dismissal of a Police Officer (Dervish) who shot and paralyzed a young, unarmed black teenager (Leon Ford) in 2012. Leon Ford was at the demonstration, but was under a gag order and not permitted to speak.

These protests have been composed of university students (many black and white students), some intelligentsia types (lawyers, professors), and a heavily involved Black middle class (including a few black, Democratic politicians). The white working class has a very small presence. The black working class has a slightly larger presence (particularly during the march through East Liberty). Black working-class support for the marches is extremely high—in the march through East Liberty people were out on porches cheering marchers on, drivers were honking and screaming their support (even when the marchers were blocking them from getting to where they needed to go).

Some organizations whose involvement we must note:

  • Alliance for Police Accountability: A small group of mainly African American activists that originally organized around the Leon Ford case, which had much less clout and notoriety before the Ferguson protests.
  • Students for Police Accountability: A student wing of the Alliance for Police Accountability; far more moderate, less angry, seemingly less immediately affected by the issues at hand.
  • Fight Back Pittsburgh: Remnants of the Occupy Movement in Pittsburgh. Mix of liberals, anarchists, and ISO cronies.
  • Party for Socialism and Liberation: Seems to have gained a few members in Pittsburg; has been very active in organizing meetings and marches (the other Marxist-Leninist vanguardists—IMT and ISO—are far less active); trying to make the protests into larger demonstrations against “imperialist racism” at home and abroad; the Stalinist PSL was very active in Ferguson as well, much like their Maoist rivals, the RCP.

Conclusion: Overall, one important positive outcome is that people from different parts of the Pittsburgh community (which is geographically, economically, and culturally very segregated) have started to engage in dialogue, and at least are in proximity to each other, protesting together. Potential outcomes are highly uncertain. Some of the key organizers want to keep momentum going at least up until Martin Luther King Day. Yet it could easily lose steam, and the types of dialogues that have started may disintegrate. It mostly depends on how events outside of Pittsburgh (particularly in Ferguson and NYC) play out.

A big question to ponder here is why events in Ferguson and NYC (unlike the Zimmerman acquittal) generated so much outrage and active public support in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. I think each member of our group could offer different valid answers to that question.

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