Six days of G-20 actions in Pittsburgh highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the left, but also the raging hypocrisy of those who rule.
Though the G-20 was rejected by other cities, the City and County officials of this Western Pennsylvania metropolis leaped at the chance to welcome 19 national leaders for the public spectacle of determining the destiny of the world in the period ahead. Long the target of democratic forces, the G-meetings expose the elitism and arrogance of the most powerful nations in a way that cries out for protest. Flaunting the credible though flawed, more democratic mechanism – The United Nations – G-meetings send the clear and shameless message that the wealthier countries and their ruling classes are in full control of the world’s affairs. While little more than wining, dining, signing off on previously determined policies and vague statements is accomplished, its all done with feudal-like ceremony and conspicuous pomp.
The Pittsburgh elites saw this circus as an opportunity to show case the “new” Pittsburgh – a glitzy Potemkin village hiding the devastated, neglected neighborhoods and towns of this once industrial giant. Today’s Pittsburgh – out-of-sight of the world’s leaders – is a depopulated, low income, aging city weighted down by decades of debt accumulated from ill-conceived, but highly profitably development schemes. The tax base has been scooped out to retain extortionate corporate giants and to lure new businesses that seldom come. The formerly well-paying manufacturing and mining jobs have disappeared only to be replaced with low-paying, benefit-lacking, service sector employment. Decades of political leadership rigidly wedded to corporate obeisance have left the region with a broken infrastructure, decrepit public services, and crippling poverty. If anything, Pittsburgh is a lesson in the destructiveness of unfettered corporate governance. The loss of good-paying industrial jobs has been most devastating to the African-American community: the city is one of the most segregated in the US with African-American poverty, infant mortality, crime, and abject poverty rivaling any city in America.
The city spared no expense in polishing the downtown buildings, streets, and public spaces where world leaders or the media might cast a critical eye. But, more than anything, Pittsburgh committed to an unprecedented show of force to confront anyone bent on crashing the party: nearly twenty-million dollars and 6,500 police (most imported) and National Guard. Despite the natural security advantages of the so-called “Golden Triangle” – a confined area at the convergence of two rivers – the heavy-handed security arrangements insured that downtown Pittsburgh was essentially a ghost town for two and a half days. The fears generated by the hysterical media (demonstrators will hurl bags of excrement, wield weapons, assault by-standers, etc. etc.) along with the barriers, choke points, and security check points virtually guaranteed that no visitor would cast an eye upon the peasants dependent upon downtown employment. Pittsburghers got a harsh taste of what life must be like in Baghdad or Kabul.
The week’s events kicked off with a jobs rally and march from Monumental Baptist Church in the city’s predominantly African-American Hill District neighborhood to the storied Freedom Corner, a landmark of civil rights activism. Around five hundred marchers echoed probably the week’s most militant and focused demands for social and racial justice with a strong anti-capitalism voice. Like this rally, other events held at the Church reflected the widest diversity of all of the many held during the week. The rally enjoyed endorsements from both the Steelworker’s union (USW) and the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), representatives of which spoke at the concluding rally along with other union leaders and the indomitable Pennsylvania State Senator, Jim Ferlo, who castigated President Obama for his disdainful dismissal of the anti-G-20 movement.
The police presence at the rally was only a foretaste of the Storm trooper tactics to be displayed later in the week after the “guests” arrived. Police made a provocative and thorough photographic record of the participants and leaders, a practice that accompanied all of the mass events to follow. Pittsburghers can be assured that these photos and other reports and records will be retained and researched. If the city didn’t have a “Red Squad” before, it has one now.
Led by the Secret Service, the local security apparatus exacerbated tensions by denying permits to assemble and march until the very last minute and only with ACLU legal prodding. Clearly they hoped to dampen participation and thwart planning. The huge police presence received training modeled after counter-insurgency tactics with units organized in platoon-sized groups fitted with full body armor and armed with assault rifles and shotguns. They maintained a steady helicopter presence above the skies of this city under siege. Before the actual meetings, police conducted raids on city gathering places as innocuous as urban gardens. We visited one such garden placed under constant surveillance by a well-placed camera fitted just for the G-20 meeting.
Their security plans became apparent as the week proceeded: they located any gathering, surrounded the participants, and ordered dispersal with the slightest provocation. This tactic guaranteed confusion and confrontation. Repeatedly, participants reported that they were unable to exit when dispersal orders were issued.
The authorities engaged a new weapon in Pittsburgh: a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) that sends a loud, 150 decibel sound into crowds, leaving victims confused and disoriented. This weapon, used by the US in Iraq, is ironically the same device recently employed against the Brazilian Embassy sanctuary to dislodge the elected president, Zelaya, who was deposed by a military coup. Agents of repression think alike.
The Ghost of Alexander Berkman
Like their Yippie and Weatherman predecessors, the anarchists were the specter that haunted respectable Pittsburgh. For months, the media, especially the local talk radio, made every effort to conflate anarchists with terrorists, portraying them as feces-throwing, window breaking nihilists hiding in abandoned buildings, patiently waiting for the right moment to strike. Veterans of the left have encountered the black-garbed, bandana-wearing youth at demonstrations for many years. To my admittedly jaded mind, many, if not most, are the sons and daughters of the upper reaches of the middle-class playing at revolution. Like their predecessors, they refuse to accept the discipline of Marxist or labor-led struggle. And like their predecessors, some will mature politically and some will move on –disappointed with the backwardness of the masses – to take their places in the capitalist hierarchy. Nonetheless, they cut a rakishly revolutionary figure and have an understandable appeal with some angry youth.
In Pittsburgh, they planned an un-permitted march to disrupt the G-20 on Thursday. Gathering at a Pittsburgh park, several hundred anarchists and sympathizers drew an even greater force of police for the moment of which the media had prepared everyone. Preempting the march, the police declared the gathering illegal and demanded that the crowd disperse. In short order, the LRAD weapon was employed (some say, for the first time in the US), sending the crowd to re-organize a few blocks away, only to be gassed and sent scattering. The police, supported by helicopter surveillance, attempted to corral any remaining groups by surrounding them with massive forces. Police tactics moved mobile units in a chess game to block both the advance and withdrawal of any groups, tactics that virtually guaranteed confrontation and an excuse to make arrests. Rocks were thrown, some windows broken, and dumpster barricades were constructed, but resistance was no match for gas and rubber bullets. The TV-ready confrontation exhausted both sides by nightfall with little more damage and casualties than the aftermath of a Pittsburgh Steeler victory rally. Nonetheless, the residence of several Pittsburgh neighborhoods got a taste of what the authorities have in store for any vigorous resistance movement.
The action plan of the security forces was calculated and provocative and the sight of massive, storm trooper-like maneuvers left many by-standers alarmed. What they saw as kids-at-play was met with enormous, repressive force. The reckless use of gas in the narrow streets and alleyways of Pittsburgh neighborhoods troubled many. Was this the face of Pittsburgh’s future? It is the height of foolishness to think that the tactical police will simply go back to business as usual after this repressive exercise. The toothpaste is out of the tube.
The Battle for the University
The G-20 planners organized few glitzy events outside of the high-security “Green Zone” constructed downtown. One was a reception near the University of Pittsburgh. Essentially an Oscar-like fashion show for the G-20 celebrities and the media, organizers had no intention of allowing ordinary folks that are normally drawn to such extravaganzas. University students – idled for two days by the G-20 – quite naturally gathered to get a glimpse of the People Magazine-worthy dignitaries. But the police – battle-hardened by the afternoon skirmish with the anarchists – would have none of it, pressing the students away from the event and demanding that they disperse. The heavy-handedness of the police was met by some resistance, but resulted largely in panic, fear, and some arrests.
Undoubtedly many students – seeing the face of police thuggery for the first time - were moved to join the Friday march in solidarity with those abused and arrested Thursday evening.
After the close of the G-20, students gathered again near the site of Thursday’s action and were again attacked by the police. For the most part, the 400 students gathered Friday night were more social than political. Nonetheless they were subjected to the LRAD weapon, batons, and rubber bullets. The violent police assault resulted in 110 arrests, including members of the media. The police could not resist one more strike against civility and Constitutional guarantees.
Sensationalism drew the media like a moth to a light. The local media bought the official public relations effort in its entirety, bombarding people with a catalogue of benefits that would surely befall the city with the hosting of the G-20. Pittsburgh media has always ignored the critical reports of the city’s decline, showcasing the profit-driven promises of developers and consultants who have driven the region into unprecedented debt. Neighborhood needs, public services, minority set-asides, and good paying jobs have always been overshadowed by the grandiose urban revivals imposed by the city’s wealthy and their political minions. The old legacy of a few dominant families, like the Mellons and Scaifes, telling people how to think has never been completely shed.
Pittsburgh media dwelled incessantly on the security needs for the world’s leaders, demonizing the arrival of anarchists and the potential for terrorism. During the week of political action, they trivialized the resistance events, singling out the most obscure and off-beat of demands in a crude attempt to render all participants marginal and frivolous. In gatherings, they showed a particular interest and fascination with the masked activists, hoping to paint the thousands committed to peacefully advocating a host of serious issues as bent upon some nefarious act of vandalism or outrage.
In one rare instance, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke through the wall of hypocrisy, describing fairly, fully, and with some outrage the police assault on the University of Pittsburgh students on Friday night. No doubt this was because the rioting police assaulted and arrested one of their own: a young reporter. That made all the difference.
Leo Gerard, the President of the Steelworkers (USW) union, seemed to be everywhere, speaking on many occasions and with passion about the sins of the G-20. The union’s endorsement of events, including the opening and closing marches was significant and commendable. A few other unions made notable contributions; most were not involved. Yet there was little mass participation by labor in the week’s events. In a city and region famous for its concentration of organized labor, rank-and-file labor participation would have made a truly qualitative difference in the impact of the G-20 protests. With thousands of members and retirees in the area, it is hard to believe that any great effort was made to mobilize members in support of these events.
The wide gap between official endorsement and member participation points to the long period of labor’s dependency on electoral strategy and faithfulness to the Democratic Party. The machinery of mass action has grown rusty from disuse and desperately in need of repair. The bodies and voices of the rank-and-file were sorely missed at the G-20. Without some official distance between the labor movement and the Democratic Party, members are understandably reluctant to protest an event hosted by President Obama. Needless to say, with few exceptions, Democratic Party leaders were nowhere to be found amongst the anti-G-20 folks.
The Big Finale
Friday’s concluding march brought thousands to the streets of Pittsburgh in a show of resistance unseen in this city since the highpoint of anti-Vietnam War activities. Eight, perhaps nine, thousand marchers trekked to the heart of Pittsburgh to hear speakers positioned at the City-County Building, before marching on to the city’s Northside. This final, permitted march brought together all the causes advocated over the six days of protest in a peaceful, joyful celebration of dissent from the G-20 agenda.
Thanks to the energy and determination of the event’s sponsor – The Thomas Merton Center, a long-time catalyst for social justice – and its indefatigable organizer - Pete Shell - the Friday march was a success on ever level. Despite further intimidating police presence, there were no clashes (rumors abounded that the police planned to stage a provocation, a suspicion reinforced by the staging of mounted police and a mass of riot police near the City-County Building).
For the final march and throughout the week, Shell made a conscious effort to center the events around issues of peace, equality and economic justice, a task made difficult by the diverse, and sometimes conflicting, agendas of the many participants. The lack of focus has plagued all G-protests and, though no threat to unity, has blunted the critique of the undemocratic, corporate-friendly essence of the G-20.
The clarion call of the marchers – “This is what democracy looks like” – stands in sharp relief to the call to arms of the G-20 organizers. Those participating in opposition might point to the huge gathering of the tools of repression and say with equal vigor: “This is what fascism looks like”.
The best laid plans of the security agencies failed to frighten thousands from participating in G-20 activities. Yet far more can be mustered if we could find a way to bring rank-and-file labor into the streets. Far more would join us if we could better integrate African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minority peoples and their issues into the struggle.
Traditionally, it has been the role of the left – especially the Marxist left – to make these connections, to bring clarity and focus to the issues. But for some time, the left has been split into narrow sectarians and timid apologists for a broken, backward political and economic regime.