Randall, my father, a couple of friends and I went to Pittsburgh to experience the Occupy Pittsburgh rally and march for “Human Rights, Not Corporate Rights” on December 10th. We entered the Kingsley House at 1pm and searched for a place to sit in the gymnasium and we sat in folding chairs at midcourt. The gym was a loud din of chatter. The Kingsley house was founded in 1893 as a place where hardworking immigrant industrial workers could have community programs for their families. Everyone had gathered on December 10, the International Day of Human Rights. I looked around and what I saw was a broad cross-section of people: bald white men with grey beards and spectacles, sitting next to a dark-skinned woman with dreadlocks pulled back into a Mohawk and a hunched over, diminutive, white woman who looked like she might be in her eighties, dragging along behind a walker and looking for a seat. There were tables set-up with people handing out materials on healthcare, socialism, hydrorfracking, sub-poverty wages, etc.
A guitarist with spikey red hair named Dylan (pictured above) played a spirited version of “Redemption Song” to open the event. I remembered that it was at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburg that Bob Marley played his final live show and left us with perhaps his most beautiful and haunting rendition of his “Redemption Song.”
There was a program with a handful of speakers who spoke about local issues, which pertained to the greater issue of exploitation by the wealthy elite. A white, middle-aged, trumpet player opened the speeches with the familiar “Call to Post,” which any horseracing fan can easily identify. There were free copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and some of the speakers spoke about the connection between basic human rights such as education, good jobs and health care, which were being denied to the community and the subsidies that were given to corporations that did little to benefit the community. Poignant comments from the speakers were emphasized with short riffs by the trumpet player.
The final speaker was John Lacny of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) who spoke about the specifics of how corporate business interests had removed jobs from the local community to fill their own pockets. Bakery Square was a site which was given a subsidy to transform the area into a lively commercial center that would create 750 new jobs. However, the reality was that the jobs were, “mostly low-wage retail and hotel jobs,” and according to literature from Occupy Pittsburgh the wealthy developers from Walnut Capital such as Todd Reidbord, “use campaign cash to influence politics and get tax breaks and subsidies for themselves. In return, the rest of us end up with low-wage jobs, and public services like education and transportation get cut because of all these tax breaks for the rich.” An excerpt of John Lacny’s speech can be heard here…
After getting fired up for the march we departed the Kingsley House and walked down to Bakery Square. Some members of Occupy Pittsburgh wore yellow bands that certified them as traffic controllers and police liaisons. We marched to the jubilant rhythm of a talented six-piece percussion band. More than 300 people marched carrying placards that read , “Human Rights, Not Corporate Rights!” and chanting slogans like, “Mayor Luke( Ravenstahl) where are the jobs!?” and “banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” As we walked along the sidewalk many cars honked in approval and the lone sign dissention that our group noticed was a teenager who gave us the finger from the backseat of his parents’ SUV. We clambered to Bakery Square where we posted ourselves in the middle of the square and belted out passages from the Declaration of Human Rights.
Then in an exciting turn of events, some members of occupy Pittsburgh, whose voices were amplified by megaphones, informed us that we would be marching into the Target in Bakery Square. This seemed to be an impromptu maneuver that was not part of the program, but the megaphone wielding members assured us that Target was guilty of eating up subsidies and giving the community little in return. The members of the Occupy seemed upset. Upon doing a little research I can understand why.
Although Target has been lauded for some of their business practices and has even made some lists of ethical corporations, it certainly has some questionable practices especially in the realm of labor. Like its competitor, Wal-Mart, Target has acquired a reputation for having large numbers of employees on relief, thus draining taxpayer dollars on one end while receiving taxpayer dollars on the other via subsidies.
Moreover, the protest was led by several eloquent and proud African-Americans who know that Target has had a long history of discriminating against their ethnic group as noted in a survey of major employers by the NAACP. Target received an F rating by the NAACP in 2003 and 2005 and a D- in 2004, and in 2006 the company refused to take the survey. Furthermore, the corporation had to settle a lawsuit for $775,000 in the state of Pennsylvania in 2007 for discrimination against African-American workers.
When the group of protesters made the turn into Target, it was pandemonium, and bewildered customers watched as the group poured into the store while the staff smiled nervously. The protesters made their presence felt and shared some opinions, which reverberated through the building forcing everyone to take notice. Then, within ten minutes, all of the protesters vacated the premises.
Although Pittsburgh police officers blanketed the protest, no arrests were made. As a matter of fact, I saw one burly black police officer hugging some of the protesters and other officers were shaking hands with some of the demonstrators inside Target. The police presence was the opposite of New York, there was little tension between the police and the protesters and from what I could see the police conducted themselves in a professional and courteous manner and no arrests were made. After the occupation of Target a small group chanted “police deserve a raise!”