Tuesday, September 29, 2009

No matter what your purpose

Nature’s wisdom at times is unquestionable, like with the milder temperatures we’re having in Pittsburgh. The unseasonable weather seems a cooler-heads-prevail time, following an angry and angst-filled period during which Pittsburgh hosted the G-20 summit. The weather cooperated for the event, meaning it was hot part of last week, with the Pittsburgh humidity thicker than the bullshit in city government.
During the protests on Thursday it was humid and uncomfortable as Pittsburgh summers can be, but hot weather makes tempers flare. Running with those protesters, I literally soaked the top half of my shirt with sweat. I looked terrible, when about two minutes after the cops shot the gas around 32nd Street I was retreating with the crowd and ran into former Pulp newspaper editor Geoff Kelly. I gave him a big hug and he was half seat-soaked himself.
But the thing that has me thinking is the vague, not-quite-formed thought that ran through my head a couple times on Thursday as I was following the Black Clad Rapscallions.
How can I cover this if you’re going to arrest me? I wondered.
I tried my best to cover the protests on Thursday, but I was hampered by the fact that I was trying to duck the cops, who at times were running after us. At one point closer to the end of the hours-long march on Thursday afternoon, the police chased a group of protestors I was with through the parking lot of Khalil’s restaurant in Bloomfield.
“They’re charging us! They’re charging!” people yelled, and everyone began to run in panic. I looked over my shoulder and the military or whoever these stormtrooper-looking guys were indeed were close on our heels. I ran faster, to the front of the crowd, as someone said “Don’t run!”
As I sprinted to the front of the group, I passed Khalil. He was shaking his head at the protestors.
“No, don’t come through here, it’s not OK,” he said.
A lot of reporters covering the somewhat violent protests, which were nothing compared to an impromptu, student-led Steelers or Panthers victory celebration in the streets of Oakland, also had mixed feelings about their situation. They didn’t want to go to jail, either.
Running up Denny Way I think it was, after the cops appeared out of their armored vehicle in front of me, I saw a Wall Street Journal reporter I’d met, hiding behind a front yard chain-link fence, standing close to two residents who owned the place. He was about six feet three inches tall and not slight.
“We’re protecting him,” the couple said.
How can a reporter do his job when the government says doing so will get him thrown in the clink? But it’s not even that simple, or so benign.
We’re talking about a government that blasts high-pitched, deafening whistles meant to disperse crowds while ordering over a loudspeaker in a computer-generated creepy Robo Cop-sounding voice:
By order of City of Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper
You are in a restricted area
You are hereby ordered to disperse
No matter what your purpose, you must disperse
Failure to disperse could make you subject to arrest or other police action
That could result in injury
We have a free press, but reporters who are covering a protest will be arrested or roughed-up if they do their jobs? Sadie Gurman of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and five other journalists were arrested during the melee in Oakland on Friday night. Two of the journalists are from Minneapolis-based Twin Cities Indymedia, including Nigel Parry, who said at a press conference yesterday at Thomas Merton Center that the police tactics follow a pattern of unconstitutional methods used by police to harass protestors in the days leading up to and during the G-20 summit.
“Police responded to the demonstrations with riot control equipment including batons, tear gas, pepper spray, percussion grenades, and Long Range Acoustic Device used by the New York City Police Department during the 2004 Republican National Convention,” said a press release put out by Twin Cities Indymedia, Thomas Merton Center, and Glassbead Collective NYC.
The acoustic device was used by the military to disperse crowds in Iraq, according to the press release.
“Pre-recorded dispersal orders including the phrase ‘no matter what your purpose’ were blasted from police loudspeakers in crowded public spaces, making it clear that anyone who stayed in the areas following the warnings would be in danger of riot control weapons and arrest—including journalists,” the release said.
Melissa Hill, a reporter for Twin Cities Indymedia, had her camera broken and footage confiscated while being arrested Friday night by Pittsburgh Police. She hasn’t gotten her tape back.
Among the others arrested were Dominic Dimauro, a freelance journalist who had his camera confiscated and was charged with Obstruction of Justice and Failure to Disperse. Freelance cameraman Tom Larkin had his camera damaged by an impact round, and while he was he filming, he was punched in the face by a policeman. Keith DeVries, a member of Pittsburgh Filmmakers and a University of Pittsburgh student, had his camera destroyed as police tried to confiscate his tape following his arrest. He was charged with Failure to Disperse, and was part of a mass arrest on the lawn of the Cathedral of Learning.
The Thomas Merton Center, ACLU and some of the individuals who were arrested (100 were arrested Friday night) intend to sue the City of Pittsburgh and others, including the University of Pittsburgh.
The thought of more costs to Pittsburgh reminded me of some of the comments of protestors during marches last week: “This city is bankrupt, and it’s putting on a $20 million party,” some said.
Pete Shell, a member of the Thomas Merton Center, said the police actions on Friday night were a stark contrast to the G-20 protest march earlier. “We had a peaceful and legal march of 8,000, and hours later it was the police who acted violently and unlawfully,” he said.
Twin Cities Indymedia and Glassbead Collective were the core part of the team that made the documentary “Terrorizing Dissent,” about the 2008 Republican National Convention. According to Twin Cities Indymedia, during the Republican convention, which TCI said was the last major political gathering to get a “National Special Security Event” designation, a similar pattern of police and security overkill happened before, during and after the event as happened here in Pittsburgh.
“We are left with many questions about the state of freedom in America, about the casual and indiscriminate use of police violence and authority in non-riot situations as standard practice, and about a society that accepts the militarization of its cities in the name of ‘security,’” the press release finished.
I’m wondering about it, too.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Unofficial G20 March

In Lawrenceville around 34th Street on Thursday when the riot police were chasing us from one end of the alley we’d just run up and more of them appeared in front of us at the other end of the alley, I thought I could be arrested right then, since cops were piling out of armored vehicles in front of me. They passed me, chasing after the real protestors, as some of the neighborhood people on their porches and in their yards yelled encouragement to the militarized police.
It was like they were cheering the home team. I rooted for another home team that day—the protesters—because I can’t imagine any other course but to object to the status quo now, given the economic situation and the disparities the majority is being forced to fund.
So I wore an all-black polo-style shirt on Thursday for the Unofficial G20 March, in a smartass sort of way but also because I wanted the home team to win, and they wear black, no gold. I don’t agree with all the Pittsburgh G-20 Resistance, P.O.G. or Thomas Merton Center or whoever the main group of protesters were stand for, but I am appreciative of their efforts to confront those they say are oppressing others.
Two days later, I can still hear the Black Garbed Mob chant:
“Anti. Anti. Anti-Capitalista!” they said over and over again.
The group, most of which aren’t football-player-sized and many of whom are women, got up practically in the grills of the cops. While I know it isn’t right or fair to destroy windows of businesses because you hate them, I don’t think those actions represent the bulk of the group’s behavior, which while being confrontational, seemed lawful enough so that many people joined them out of curiosity, swelling their ranks.
Let’s be straight up about it: Multi-national corporations, “Free Trade,” and other organizations and policies are hurting Americans and other people throughout the world, and you don’t have to be a Commie to say it. Example: Alcoa closes aluminum smelters in North America, while simultaneously building a smelter on the edge of a pristine glacier in Iceland—a setup that also will include a hydroelectric plant to service the smelter and many residents, so a lot of folks there are all for it. Global conglomerate A.B.B. seeks to cap its asbestos-related liability, successfully cutting future claimants out of the payment pie for asbestos-related deaths and health problems. PNC Bank wins, and many other banks lose, because PNC was picked as the winner. Steel industry executives sell out themselves and the entire industry for a few more short-term profits, buying steel from foreign competitors and neglecting capital improvements, killing the once-dominant Golden Goose-like U.S. steel industry. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are gone almost overnight, and a standard of living and a part of the middle class vanishes along with the jobs, depressing wages for generations.
“They’re just college students,” said the bald, middle-aged looking guy wearing a white polo shirt and khakis. He shook his head. We were watching the growing crowd of protestors in front of Carlow University on Friday afternoon, checking the human tapestry of the folks there. But I got his meaning: They’re kids and they don’t know shit.
“College students don’t have opinions?” I asked. He didn’t respond.
“Were you a college student?”
“Didn’t you have opinions when you were in college?”
“Yeah, but…”
I’m thinking of that exchange because so many people want to marginalize the actions, beliefs and issues associated with Thursday and Friday’s protests, and say it was just a bunch of college kids, or rich boys from Mt. Lebo, St. Clair or Shaker Heights, so what they hell do they know anyway?
Of course Friday’s Big G-20 March was a stew of beefs, causes and convictions, with a healthy smattering of crazies. It went off well, except that the cops looked like military. Most everyone played their part in this human drama practically scripted from earlier confrontations. Still, it was fascinating to see.
But back to the guy by Carlow University. His perspective reminded me of comments of many Pittsburghers regarding the marchers, like the near-altercation that happened in Bloomfield between a hard-looking, heavy-set middle-aged gal and a group of black-clad protesters right after nearby businesses had some windows smashed.
“Get a job!” the gruff-voiced gal shouted at them.
Clearly there’s an age and sometimes a class difference that is perceived by other Pittsburghers when they see these protesters in action. That could be one of the divides that must be bridged before these protesters can be embraced by more of the working class and middle class. But some people will never be convinced that such protests are anything but a nuisance.
“They were like a bunch of little ants, scattering when the police came up,” said Smarty Huffing, a local reporter who has the neo-con bully pulpit of Pittsburgh’s best news radio station. At a different point during his show, he said: “They’re just kids. You want to give them a hug and tell them to go home and take a bath.”
The conversation that opened my eyes was a talk I had with a middle-aged white guy wearing a black Steelers shirt, which is practically an all-occasions-acceptable uniform in Steelers Country. He and some black-clad friends and others had followed Saturday’s march, and I was walking back through Bloomfield with them for a bit.
“I was worried for a second that I might get it from the cops, because I’m wearing a black shirt,” I confessed to the guy.
“They wouldn’t if it said ‘Steelers’ on it,” he said, tugging on his shirt.
“I’m kind of more on the side of the protesters than the cops, in this case,” I said.
“You are?” he said, looking surprised. “I’m not.”
“Why not? Aren’t you from Pittsburgh?” I asked. He said he was from here.
I judged him to be a few or so years older than me. “For short-term gain, they killed the steel industry,” I said.
“I know.”
“Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs and a whole class of people was gone.”
“Yeah, but what are you gonna do?”
I felt like saying, “Just continue to take whatever they dish out.” But I said nothing.

Militia Controlled Corridor

Standing high in the landscaped median in front of the Allegheny County Courthouse, we laughed with the crazy anarchist-peaceful-hippie-whatever protestors on the street in front of the Oliver Building side of Grant, dancing their heels off around a core of three garishly painted gals, flailing their limbs in joy. Their effusiveness was one extreme of the crowd, and juxtaposed to the angry, in-your-face brazenness of the Nameless Black Bandana Mob, it seemed to balance things some.
Counterpoints in the same crowd, the two groups were just planets flying in a galaxy of people representing causes, beliefs, grievances and interests of the 10,000 gathered on Grant Street, the heart of downtown Pittsburgh’s legal/governmental section. Lots of journalists in town for G-20, plus an equal number of attention-seekers in the crowd, such as an Abe Lincoln impersonator and a guy dressed in a Batman suit, added color and flair to the group.
At the starting point of the march in front of Carlow University, a reporter held a microphone to Faux Batman’s face, and asked: “What do you think of Christian Bale?”
It was a melting pot of malcontents and others, simmering and bubbling but never boiling. Wall-to-wall riot police along Grant Street and elsewhere along the parade route effectively cordoned activity into a militia-controlled corridor. The force included National Guardsmen and Pittsburgh Police, Port Authority of Allegheny County officers and Allegheny County Police, officers with the ATF, CIA and Pennsylvania State Police and cops from other parts of the nation. It seemed like a hell of a waste of a bunch of money spent on an occupying army in a free country.
The overwhelming force was offensive, but not as seemingly malevolent as police appeared the day before, when a much smaller group of protestors clashed with the armed forces, bashing a street barrier with a dumpster and being gassed in return. I wasn’t at the front of the crowd when that happened, because I was texting like a teenage girl. My boss wanted me to text him with info every half-hour, and more frequently if anything happened. As I was trying to do that, I’d fall behind as the Leaderless Mob ran up and down side streets in Bloomfield, Lawrenceville and the Strip District.
Back to grooving with the kids while they danced—in that lovely elevated stone-edged planter, looking at the dancers and hopping to the drum beat, I laughed with a guy standing next to me who also was enjoying the scene.
“Why’d you come here? Did you come out of curiosity or to protest?” I asked.
“Both,” contractor Mike Kelly said. “I’m a contractor…I work for rich people. And my wife can’t get health insurance…”
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the rest of Mike’s story, and I am sorry about that, because I know it is a powerful one and I missed the boat. But the point is that he is just one of many folks who went to the Big G20 March on Pittsburgh to have their say for a moment. That’s what made it so beautiful.
I’m trying to tell Anne about how it felt to see the police occupying our city, to hear their Apocalyptic-sounding Robo Cop loudspeaker demanding that everyone disperse, upon penalty of arrest or worse.
It’s one thing to talk about jackbooted militarized police, about Guardsmen and cops from Alabama deputized to kick ass and not take names of locals and non-locals alike, and it’s an entirely different thing to be there to see, hear, and smell the scene—and to feel the bad vibes of it all.
“If you remain in this immediate vicinity, you are in violation of Pennsylvania Police criminal code,” the loudspeaker from the armored behemoth warned during the protest in Bloomfield on Thursday. The vehicle was about as big as a combine, and that’s why the cops nicknamed it the Hippie Harvester.
Taking in this scene, with riot-ready cops chasing people around and gassing them, it’s hard to not feel pissed as an American—that the police can treat people like this because they disagree with their beliefs. You start to feel very resentful about that police pressure.
“Why do they have to be so intimidating?” said a well-dressed lady in her sixties whom I met when she and a collared pastor from Greensburg allowed me to share a cab ride home with them afae Friday's march. The lady could’ve been one of the pastor’s parishioners, but she actually lives just blocks from me.
Seeing the police act like that can radicalize people, making freedom-loving Americans angry—like the contingent of folks who thronged to join the marchers as they traveled through Uptown and the Hill District.
Being Americans, most all of us feel in our hearts from birth (or from when we adopted this country) that being American isn’t about being Black, White or Latino, or about being rich or poor—or at least it shouldn’t be about these factors that for many are dependent upon the circumstances of their birth. Being truly American, we know in our hearts, is about doing the right thing by treating people fairly.
When some people can’t make a living because they are denied a living wage, that’s not fair and it aint American. When nations are oppressed ostensibly for liberty but truly for greed, that’s un-American. And when Americans are denied the right of free assembly, that is a sin.
You have to be there to feel it—to hear the heavy click-clack sound of leg protectors slapping boots stomping pavement, and the whack-whack of hundreds of Billy clubs against body armor. The message: Don’t even try to mess with us.
But who was this roving band of police protecting? They clearly were guarding the important stores, businesses and landmarks along the marcher's route. This was especially apparent in Uptown, where the troops formed protective barriers around particular buildings, and left the old beat-up and empty or nondescript storefronts and buildings unguarded.
Ted Haretos, a building owner in that section of town, watched the marchers bemusedly as he stood in front of his building along Fifth Avenue. “They have the right to protest,” he said.
Taylor Smith of Philadelphia, a member of the Peoples Caravan—a group of about two dozen demonstrators who traveled from Philly for the protest—said the Caravan is meant to connect grass roots organizations. “I think it’s undemocratic for the G-20 leaders to be meeting here,” he said.
Prague, Czech Republic native Jana Ridvanova held a sign that read: “Organize, occupy, fight for the right to work.” She was unabashed in her Socialism.
“I’m here to protest capitalism not only because it’s not working, but because capitalism is enslavement, through slave wages, and also murder, in Third World countries," Ridvanova said.
Members of the Green Party, Socialists, Communists, Palestinian activists, single-payer health care proponents, Free Tibet people, peace activists, Libertarians, and proselytizing Christians mixed together in the crowd, along with many others.
Dressed entirely in black, wearing a “Free Mumia” patch on her shirt, Denver-resident Renee Sandefer said she came to the Big G20 March because the people who caused the current economic crisis are here.
“Obama needs to be speaking to those who are suffering,” Sandefer said. “I want to be here in the streets because I’ll go home tonight and sleep easy because I tried. I support the people, not the bigwigs who caused the crisis.”
Perennial Pittsburgh activist Vincent Eirene said he came to the march to spread awareness of what G-20 is, and the effect it’s having. “It’s cutting labor laws, cutting environmental laws, and controlling people through loans,” he said.
Some protestors carried signs that read: "End Corporate Rule,” and “People Before Profit.”
Bail Out The People activist Larry Holmes led part of the crowd in chanting as they marched.
“When I say bailout you say people. Bailout!”
“Bailout the people!”
“Not the banks!”
Pittsburgh resident and peace activist Jessica Benner directed the marchers at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Grant Street, waving them onto Grant. “We’re hoping for a people’s march combining many voices as one to protest G-20 policies,” she said.
Through it all the Black Garbed Mob carried their black standards and banners, chanting “Anti Capitalista!” At a few places they confronted police, forcing their black banner up to within feet of the occupying force while chanting their slogans. The cops were unmoved.
Within feet of the Black Garbed Mob was Ithaca, N.Y. native/CMU grad student Gwendolyn Barr. She was happy to share her views, which she said are based in her Evangelical Christian beliefs.
“Clearly the G-20 [attendees] won’t pay attention. But the world media will pay attention to the issues we care about and are raising here," Barr said. "The G-20 makes decisions that are good for their countries, and are devastating to third world countries.”

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Up The G-20

We were somewhere in the bottom of Lawrenceville when I heard the boom of police shotguns blasting tear-gas on the crowd. It took a minute or two before the gas wafted up the street, scratching my throat and burning my eyes. I think I get why P.O.G. wears those bandanas—not just to piss off Pittsburghers like me, I remember thinking.

It wasn’t quite midpoint through what was a several hour cat-and-mouse game protestors were playing with the police when I had the realization. Starting around 2:25 p.m. at Arsenal Park in Lawrenceville, a crowd ranging from about 600 to a few hundred marched their way around the city, passing through parts of Lawrenceville and the Strip District and Bloomfield, until an overwhelming force of police with German shepherds and batons, accompanied by National Guardsmen, ATF officers and others, bullied protestors from one location to another, finally fragmenting them and thinning the ranks of the leaderless mob.

I spent several hours running after the group, moving from one locale to another while I frantically texted notes to my editor Downtown.

“You must leave the immediate vicinity regardless of your purpose,” police told protestors through bullhorns.

While the tactics of the police, who were in full riot gear and outfitted with shiny wooden batons, could be construed as heavy-handed, some might call it restraint that nobody was beaten to a pulp.

This is a huge advance for Pittsburgh police, after all. I remember when several years back (I am dating myself—it could’ve been 20 years back), Pittsburgh cops were laughing on camera as they punched gangly Deadheads while tossing them into the Paddy-wagon. To think that they could have disgusted looks on their faces (and some did) and that no doubt some wanted to do some beating, but there was little evidence of the beatings, seems in retrospect a victory for all. At one point, towards the end of the march, near Baum Boulevard on a side street, the cops did begin to charge after the leaderless mob; though I think they were just funnin.’

That was, of course, after some in the mob had smashed out a window in the BMW dealership along Baum, and after they’d smashed windows in a nearby KFC and a Boston Market and a Fidelity Bank around the corner. That was after they’d thrown rocks and bottles at cops earlier in the march, which was sponsored by the Pittsburgh G-20 Resistance Project.

I wore a black polo-style shirt because it matched with the brown pants I was wearing, but also because I actually wanted to show a bit of solidarity with the protestors—not because I believe in all they do, but because I think more people should take up banners and protest, and precious few are doing so.

The world’s economies were ruined by Greedheads and not one of them went to jail for it. In fact, many were given bonuses to top off the booty they’d already plundered by making financial deals with a wink and a nod.

When it comes to discussing the G-20, we are talking about a system that has rewarded some of the most evil and corrupt people in the world. The current economic crisis is the direct result of the avarice and short-sightedness of some of the most privileged and powerful people in the world, and they all made more money off of the worldwide economic collapse. We let the foxes guard the henhouse, and after they ate all the hens and even the eggs, we gave them more hens.

But of course, I guess it depends upon your perspective—or on what side of the terlet you pee from, or the sign you were born under, perhaps.

Some of the residents living along the streets the protestors traveled today wore bemused looks, but others were disgusted and angry at the demonstrators.

“Fuck the G-20? That’s classy, and how does that help?” one angry middle-aged woman living along Friendship Avenue said as I walked past.

“So you disagree with the protestors, and what they’re marching for,” I said, fishing for quotes.

“What are they marching for?” she said indignantly.

“They’re marching because they believe the same people who caused the economic collapse are meeting here in Pittsburgh.”

“What economic collapse? Show me the economic collapse,” she said, waving her hands in the air as if the collapse would materialize if she mentioned it.

On The March

Walking up to the “tent city” camping and protesting site along Wylie Avenue in the Hill District on Sunday afternoon, the first dissenter I ran into was a dreadlocked brother from Jersey City, New Jersey, who wore a charmed, if somewhat pissed smile. A postal service worker and a member of the Peoples Organization for Progress and Social Justice, Larry Adams was sitting on a side lot across from the main encampment, appearing ready for action prior to the March For Jobs.
“I came here to confront the organizers of the economic collapse. We’re not going to accept a jobless recovery. We’re here to say we need a new WPA [Works Projects Administration],” Adams said. “The crisis is dragging the standard of living of everyone down. The workers have nothing to lose.”
Adams said he was trying to help build the people’s ability to fight back against overwhelming forces.
“They brought the G-20 to Pittsburgh to piss in the eyes of the people of Pittsburgh—to propagate the lie of a model recovery,” Adams said. “This is the capital of the Rust Belt.”
He quoted Frederick Douglas, who said “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.’”
Adams noted that in the world he was fighting for, poor kids wouldn’t have to take out loans for college, and that housing, health care, and full employment also would be a reality.
I kept that thought in mind as I approached other strangers for quotes.
Detroit resident Antonio Cassone, an unemployed janitor who said he was fired for engaging in union activity, looked depressed. He had been employed by Detroit Metro Airport, and was waiting for his case to be heard, but in the meantime, he looked chagrinned. The member of SEIU Local 1 sat in the tent city, seeming a bit stunned by the hubbub around him.
“I’m fighting to get union representation to people and to get more jobs available to people,” Cassone said.
Joe Mosyjowski, of the Akron, Ohio-based American Friends Service Committee, held a placard saying: “No more money for war.”
He said violence in all its forms is hurting America and the world.
“People on people violence is the biggest problem that faces the world. Economic violence is just as bad—we need to see that money go to feed the hungry, and for jobs, green energy, and health care—not warfare and megabanks,” Mosyjowski said.
Pete Shell, who some might remember from the Justice For Johnny campaign, also is a member of the pacifist Thomas Merton Center, and was at the march with a few friends from the Center.
“We’re here to stand with the protest for jobs,” Shell said. “G-20 policies of globalization caused the economic crisis.”
Looking over the crowd of a few hundred people, some of whom came from California and farther, Monumental Baptist Church pastor Rev. Thomas Smith wore his formal purple vestment shirt, and a pleased smile. “We got a good turnout—it’s a good start,” he said.
From the back of a pickup truck serving as a stage, Bail Out The People organizer Larry Holmes led the crowd in chants:
“What are we gonna do?”
“Are these bankers and leaders going to hear you?”
“A jobless recovery is like a dead patient after a successful operation,” Holmes said, and then launched back into the chant. “We got the right!”
“We got the right to a job!” the crowd chanted.
The chants continued as the group moved peacefully down Wylie, along with a hefty and quiet police escort. Some of the protestors talked about hassles being faced by other dissenters who’ve come from across the country and could find no place to sleep. Some had tried to camp in Schenley Park, but had been forced out by Pittsburgh Police. Local churches are being tapped to provide places for protesters to sleep, one said.
Walter Jacobs, a “South Hills resident” and member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, made it clear that his group, which was carrying a banner and taking up the tail end of the march, intends to change the system.
“We want to build a movement to build working class power. We think the means of production should be controlled by the workers,” Jacobs said.
Though he was quite boyish-looking and clearly didn’t want to be identified as a resident of Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair or Bethel Park (we won’t say from which he hailed), Jacobs was saying some powerful things. The culture of short-sightedness and greed is ingrained in Americans, but not inevitable, he said.
“We need to work on organizing people and fighting back. Our real enemy is not each other…We need to fight the capitalists,” Jacobs said.
Veterans For Peace member Mike Hastie, in town from Portland, Oregon for the G-20 Summit, clicked away with his camera, chronicling the event. “The corporate rich are taking our jobs and exporting them overseas,” he said.
Paul Wohlfarth, a retired auto worker from Toledo, carried a sign that read “Short term fix, long term debt.” He said he and many others see where the country is heading.
“It’s heading for bankruptcy,” Wohlfarth said. “We’ve been listening to the 1 percent, and they lead us astray. That system doesn’t work.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

At Joe Mamas

In my trade, you can work for someone for several years and never meet him in person. Until yesterday that was the case with a particular Irishman editor of mine, who I’ll call Seamus to keep him anonymous, and also as a nod to my young nephew Seamus, whose father has a great sense of humor.
I met Seamus and a fellow reporter I’ll call Nancy in Oakland on Sunday, prior to the March For Jobs kickoff of G-20 Week in Pittsburgh. Upon meeting Seamus and Nancy, I was struck by the fact that he looked more Irish than I had expected. I had made an incorrect mental picture of him based on his editor voice over the phone. He was fairer-skinned than I thought, more typically Irish looking, and he seemed younger and less banker-looking than I’d imagined. Though we met at noon, I resisted the smartass urge to wish him “Top of the morning!”
So an Irishman, an Australian and an American meet in a Pittsburgh restaurant. What happens next? Not a whole lot, except that I ran my mouth a bit much out of nervousness, and I got a better sense of how much they would need my help this week.
The two travelers ate, and the Australian gal mentioned the funny taste of the water.
“I notice it too, and I live here.”
"Where do they get the water from?”
“The aquifer. I think they treat the water with chlorine.”
Mostly they commented kindly on the city, and Seamus said he’d stopped into Heinz Chapel, thinking he’d “say a little prayer, but there were no kneelers… What’s up with that?” he asked.
“The Heinz family built the place, and they were Protestant. Lutheran, I think,” I said.
“Protestants don’t kneel.”
“Protestants don’t kneel?”
“Well, maybe Episcopalians. But Heinz Chapel is a nondenominational church.”
Seamus mentioned that he went to Schenley Park and there was a group of Muslims finishing their worship service in the open on that calm late-summer morning.
“Do they do that all the time?”
“I don’t know, I’m more of a Frick Park guy,” I said.
“Today was the last day of Ramadan,” Nancy offered.
I imagined the worship service: a group of well-dressed folks kneeling and praying in the green fields of Schenley Park, taking in the morning sunshine and witnessing to their faith in front of all. I decided I had to see it myself some time.
I spoke with my friend Ali, from Braddock Avenue Express, and he told me he was at the worship service, and that the service usually happens every year on Flagstaff Hill, weather permitting. Good to know. And it's nice too know that at least one visitor to Pittsburgh witnessed such a neat cultural scene on Flagstaff the other day.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

At the other G-20 Press Conference

I recently attended a Hill District press conference in advance of a Bail Out The People march held today in the Hill. (The march proceeded today from upper Wylie Avenue to the famed Freedom Corner in the lower Hill, and included a quiet police presence, all going without incident.)
The press conference was kind of an un-press conference, and was sort of sedate, in that things were looking pretty casual when I strolled into the basement of Monumental Baptist Church. A group of middle-aged and older folks and a younger person or two, more or less silently stapled together placards for the march, the ca-chunk of staplers fixing placards together resounding on the church’s basement walls.
“So I was asked to give this speech about how unemployment can lead people to be depressed,” said BOTP organizer Larry Holmes, a Harlem native, to a fellow organizer, while not missing a step in the staple -together-affix-to-handle process of creating the placards. “And I gave the speech, and it was to a room full of men dressed in suits, none of them unemployed.”
He didn’t laugh, but I had a feeling the comment was the beginning of a lot of understated jokes to come during the protests before and during the G-20 Summit.
There are many misperceptions about what caused the current financial crisis, but the one thing everyone in the crowd of about a dozen BOTP volunteers agreed on was that things need to change, and that more attention must be paid to helping the unemployed and underemployed to get work.
After a while, a few of the folks gathered in the church basement joined hands and stood together, holding a poster calling for a revival of Martin Luther King’s People March for the Poor. Their comments were succinct and without much floweriness, but still pointed. Particularly with the backdrop of the depressed Hill District, nurturing place of August Wilson, George Benson and many other greats, and the horizon of Emerald City of Pittsburgh, home of the Revitalized America, to those who know Pittsburgh's (and Detroit, and Baltimore, etc.'s) true history, it was not difficult to see why the chose the Hill.
"The Hill District?" a hipster barrista at a coffeehouse I frequent said, when I told her they would be having a tent city in the Hill. She seemed confused and more than a little wary. It reminded me of something Holmes had said: "People don't come to the Hill," he said, meaning of course that most middle-class folks don't frequent the neighbohood because they are afraid to visit.
I attended the press briefing on behalf of Reuters news service, and I was not required to do a proper story on the event. But I still wrote a little ditty about the gathering, to give the bosses what I thought might be a better sense of the event than if I’d just given them the bare facts. Here it is:
G-20 Summit to be met by New “March for Jobs”

By Jonathan Barnes

PITTSBURGH-Grass roots organizers volunteering with the Bail Out The People movement held a press briefing Thursday night at a church in Pittsburgh’s traditionally African-American Hill District neighborhood, announcing a Sunday afternoon March For Jobs to begin at 2 p.m. at the church and going several blocks into the neighborhood to the famed “Freedom Corner,” gathering place of protestors during the Civil Rights Movement.
With the silhouettes of the U.S. Steel Tower and One Mellon Center in nearby downtown framing the poorer neighborhood in an afterglow of corporate prosperity, the struggling neighborhood was a pointed location for the organizers. The church and a lot near it that is owned by the congregation will be centers of activity for some protestors in advance of and during the G-20 Summit, to be held next week in Pittsburgh. The grassy lot near the church will be the location of a tent city, to be filled with protestors from throughout the region and the nation who will be involved with presentations, teach-ins and other gatherings focused on jobs for the unemployed and other issues.
About a dozen volunteers with Bail Out The People demonstrated their commitment during the briefing by assembling placards to be used during the march. The placards advertised the March, to start at Wylie Avenue and Soho Street, in front of Monumental Baptist Church. The protestors will be demanding a jobs program for all, a moratorium on layoffs, foreclosures and evictions, and no cuts in social services.
“Launching the march from a place like this is a message in itself,” said BOTP organizer Larry Holmes, a New York City native in Pittsburgh for the group’s events, which are scheduled from Sept. 20 -25. “This is an African-American neighborhood. This is the Harlem of the Midwest.”
Volunteers will begin to assemble a stage for presentations and erect other parts of the tent city, on Sept.19.
“We don’t want to send a message that this is just about African-Americans—it’s about whites and Latinos, too,” Holmes said. “We’ll be assembling in large numbers outside this church. We’ll have a rally and then march to Freedom Corner. The main message is the need for jobs. We’re inviting everyone to come here.”
The tent city will be the setting of discussions and teach-ins on Martin Luther King’s legacy, the death penalty in Pennsylvania and other issues, Holmes added. “It’ll be an exciting, eventful week up on the Hill. And it’s open to everyone,” he said.
Rev. Thomas Smith, pastor of the church, said the black community in the U.S. has been disproportionately hurt by unemployment, with some neighborhoods having unemployment rates or 30 percent or more. The G-20 represents corporations working to advance their interests, not those of workers, he said.
“We need a G-20 for workers throughout the world,” Rev. Smith said. “It’s time for us to change some of the old [social] structures. We’re all human beings, and we need to realize that we need to work together as human beings… The eyes of the world are on Pittsburgh—it’s time for us to come together in Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign.”
The organizers said they’d been hearing reports of people coming to the march from throughout the nation, including a caravan of vans filled with protestors coming from California.
Organizer Sharon Black, from Baltimore, MD, said she is excited that many people, including many young people, would be involved in the march. She also commented on the disparities of Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
“This town is supposed to be revitalized, and you go downtown and it’s beautiful, because a lot of money has been spent there. But if you come to the Hill District, many of the buildings are boarded up,” Black said.
Those interested in taking part in the tent city, where campers will be sleeping during the nearly week-long event, can register to do so by going to the www.bailoutpeople.org web site and registering online. They also can email the group at march4jobs@gmail.com.
If more people want to camp than can be accommodated on the empty grassy lot, overflow campers may be heading the historic West Park, in the lower part of Pittsburgh’s North Side. Organizers haven’t gotten local government permission to camp in West Park, and have been denied permission to camp in Schenley Park, located near the Oakland and Squirrel Hill neighborhoods.
Martha Conley, a retired corporate attorney from Pittsburgh, will be helping with a 7 p.m. teach-in on Tuesday, Sept. 21, at the Tent City, which will focus on innocent people on death row. In Pennsylvania, there are 34 innocent people on death row now, Conley said. “I’m just trying to spread the word about some of the injustices in society,” she said.

Coming Up: At The March

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Last Call at Cammarata’s Cafe

Pittsburgh bartender Angelo Cammarata served his first beer a few seconds after Prohibition was lifted in 1933, and last Saturday, he served his last.
The 95-year-old, who is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's longest-serving bartender, only had one break in his career -- to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
When Prohibition ended he was working in his family's shop in Pittsburgh's North Side, selling 10-cent bottles of Fort Pitt Beer just past the stroke of midnight. He was 19, liquor laws were few, and patrons stood on the sidewalk, beers in hands.
"We had about 20 men standing outside waiting for us to open," Cammarata said. "That was the beginning of something."
The business sold 12 cases of beer in its first two hours.
Cammarata’s sons Frank and John owned the bar, but sold the place and were still running the place while awaiting state approval of transfer of its liquor license, which was one of the first bought in Pittsburgh prior to Prohibition's repeal. Cammarata’s immigrant father, Catino, had been selling some of the ingredients for beer and saw the opportunity in being able to sell beer.
Angelo “Camm” Cammarata and the cafe, which was started as Cammarata's Grocery by Catino and relocated to West View borough in 1954, were local institutions. One local union actually held its meetings in the basement of the two-story, stone-fronted bar building, which is inconspicuously located in the midst of a West View residential neighborhood and has an apartment atop it that the Cammaratas and their four kids once occupied.
Despite his age, until just days ago, Mr. Camm worked three to four-hour shifts daily at the small neighborhood bar.
Recently he proudly pointed to a wall of the homey, wood-paneled bar, which held various certificates honoring the barkeeper, from accolades from the Busch family and Iron City Beer, to a framed letter from former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. All of those mementos, including the photo of a very young Mr. Camm looking dapper in a white shirt and tie back when he was twenty-something, have been packed up to allow the new owners to take possession of the place.
Without pretending or trying to be philosophical, Mr. Camm betrayed the wisdom that only some bartenders gain after a lifetime serving drinks.
"Tending bar is an education. You have to follow what's going on. You have to be crisp," he said.
A Catholic, Cammarata attends church regularly and cares for his wife of 71 years, Marietta. They have four children and 21 grandchildren.
For the last call party held last Saturday at Cammarata’s Cafe, Mr. Camm thanked his wife and gave her a priceless smooch in front of the crowd of family, friends and patrons. As he did so, she gave him a look that belied her advanced years and the much more conservative era from which she came, as if to say: How dare you kiss me in front of all these people!
Though he never read Plato, Camm’s advice to others is, Know thyself.
"You have to take care of yourself, and you have to respect yourself. Your image is important ... I love myself first of all. If I'm not honest with myself, I'm not honest with others," Cammarata said, slapping a hand on the bar to make a point.
One change he has witnessed is women being welcome in bars. "Now, there are more women tending bar than there are men," Cammarata said.
He still enjoys a regular Jim Beam bourbon and Coke.
"I have a drink at my own bar. It's like being at home and having a glass of water. But it's not every day."
Camm told me a little story recounted years back by ace Post-Gazette feature writer Bob Batz, about a particular patron he once had. It’s short and sweet:
A guy walked into Cammarata’s Cafe on Ash Wednesday, and stopped Angelo the barkeep from pouring his usual beer. For Lent, the drinking man had quit his habit of having a few after work.
“Gimme a Coke,” he said.
“Said O.K., and I got him a Coke,” Angelo Cammarata says, telling the story again.
“Thursday, he ordered a Coke. Friday, same thing.”
“He came in Saturday and I started to get him a Coke and he stopped me. ‘No, I’ll take a beer,’” Cammarata says. “‘What happened?’ I asked him... He was a very good Catholic.”
“Guess what my wife gave up?” the guy said, giving the bartender the look of a husband deprived of his wife’s intimacy.
“I said ‘No,’” Cammarata says. “He looked at me, and said, ‘Yeah.’”
Going silent for a moment, he smiled at the thought of all the good times.
“Was that guy in the story Irish?” a visitor at the bar asked Cammarata.
After a long pause, the wise old bartender responded with a practiced charm: “I have the Irish to thank for everything,” he said. “You’re Irish, right?”
As a sort of postscript, I have to say I’ve enjoyed working recently with photographer John Altdorfer, who helped me with coverage on the Sodini mass murders for the New York Daily News and who came to the rescue by taking some great photos of Angelo Cammarata (with his son, John, in the background in one shot) so that my story could make it to press, so to speak.
John was nice enough to talk about it and mention me on his flickr photo web site:
When writer Jonathan Barnes called me a few days ago to work with him on an assignment taking photos of the World's Oldest Bartender, it seemed like an easy way to make a few buck. After all, the guy's bar is about 5 minutes from my home. So while I thought there were some good shots, I never imagined that this photo would end up in newspapers and web sites around the world, including China and Malaysia. But best of all, this photo showed up yesterday in the Wall Street Journal Photos of the Day Blog.
John, I also must say that if you work with the pros, the exposure follows. You are welcome, and thank you again.
But Camm wasn't the oldest bartender, but rather, the longest serving bartender. Cheers to Mr. Camm and all the Cammaratas.