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Will There be Free Speech in Pittsburgh?


On September 24 and 25, 2009, the Group of 20 (G-20) will meet in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  This meeting, billed as the Pittsburgh Summit, will feature some heads of state, finance ministers and central bank presidents from twenty-two of the world’s largest economies.  One of the highlights of the event will be the presence of Barack Obama and his wife Michelle.  The city of Pittsburgh has been working with the Secret Service and other law enforcement officials for several months around security issues.  On the other side of the equation, a multitude of organizations have been organizing protest camps, a People’s Summit, direct actions and a protest march in opposition to the G-20 and many (if not all) of its plans to save the capitalist world.

According to its website, the Group of 20 was created in the late 1990s as a response to the financial crisis that hit the capitalist world during that period.  It was convened under the notion that so-called emerging economies should be provided a greater say in the control of the capitalist world that was then dominated by the Group of 7 (G-7,which in turn is dominated by Washington and London.)  In other words, the primary purpose of the G-20 is to coordinate plans among capitalist nations that will ensure the continued existence of capitalism and, more precisely, the continued domination of that system by Western economies, especially Washington.  In the current economic climate, the G-20 sees its role as one that requires “send(ing) a strong signal that it is prepared to take whatever further actions are necessary to stabilise the financial system and to provide further macroeconomic support. At the same time, the G-20 must commit to maintaining open trade and investment, to avoid a retreat to protectionism, and direct necessary additional support to emerging markets and developing countries.”  In short, the G-20 must do whatever it takes to keep the current system of free trade and financial speculation going, no matter what the cost to the working and poor people on the planet.

It is quite fitting that this summit is taking place in Pittsburgh.  If there is one US city that epitomizes the failure of late-twentieth century capitalism to provide for its working people, then Pittsburgh certainly fits the bill.  If there is one US city that demonstrates capitalism’s need to pursue cheap labor in order to maximize profits, Pittsburgh certainly fits the bill.  If there is one US city that forecasts the future of regular people under the domain of capitalism’s latest stage–a stage that has taken decent-paying unionized jobs away and replaced them with lower paying service positions for those lucky enough to have another job, Pittsburgh fits the bill.  Like Richard Fox, a resident and shop owner in Pittsburgh who supports the intention of many of the protests, wrote to me in an email:  “When the steel industry died, easily 1/2 of the city’s population as well as huge numbers of citizens of small mill towns (remember “the deer hunter” settings?) simply picked up and left. South or southwest. In some ways, the city has never recovered from the loss. When I was growing up here, the mills stretched, literally, for miles on both sides of the Monongahela river. employing tens of thousands. Three shifts all day everyday. It was quite a sight. Chicago the city of the big shoulders, had nothing on us…. How do you re-build a local economy and infrastructure after that sort of disaster?  It is appropriate to mention something about the development of Pittsburgh as an important center for  medical arts and  the computer/hi-tech industry, but that fact in no way refutes or undermines the argument that the city was devastated by the loss of tens of thousands of industrial jobs. The balance between blue collar and professional jobs has swung in favor of the latter with predictable results. ”  Those predictable results Fox refers to include not only a disparity in income but also in education and other social factors.

As any astute working person can tell you, the fate of Pittsburgh is slowly becoming the fate of hundreds, if not thousands, of other towns and cities around the world.  The total domination of the capitalist giants of Wall Street in collusion with the sycophantic politicians in Washington and other capitols has drained the financial life from municipalities and their citizens at an astonishingly rapid rate.  Behind the statistics showing rising unemployment and mortgage foreclosures lies the breakup of families in the western nations, while in the developing nations, the most recent crisis of the capitalist system means an even further deepening of the health and other human crises already in existence.  In another metaphor for the greater economic havoc wreaked upon the world’s working and poor, those good-paying union jobs at the steel mils also impacted the African-American community in Pittsburgh.  Such jobs were held by black men and women, too.  Not only did this create stability and hope in that community, it also ensured a cultural vibrancy.  Since the removal of those jobs from Pittsburgh, it has arguably been the communities of color that have been hurt the most.

This reality is repeated on a considerably larger scale throughout the world in the wake of the globalization of modern capital. Yet, the leaders of the capitalist world, as represented by the G-20 and other such organizations, prescribe more of the same.  If it wasn’t clear before it should be now–these organizations are not interested in the welfare of those they consider their subjects.  They exist only to ensure the continued existence of their profit making machine.  Furthermore, they will do whatever it takes to ensure that that machine continues to run.

This is why it is necessary to protest the Pittsburgh Summit.  The protests will begin several days before the summit itself.  Much of the legal and organizing work for the week of protests is being coordinated by Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center.  According to a press release from the Center dated  August 16, 2009, there will be a mass march on September 25, 2009 that is endorsed by all of the organizations planning to protest in Pittsburgh that week.  As Jessica Banner of the Center’s Antiwar Committee eloquently stated: “Anyone who has lost a job, a home, a loved one to war, lost value to a retirement plan, gotten sick from environmental pollution, or lived without adequate healthcare, water, or food has been directly affected by policies set by the G20 and should join us on Sept. 25th.”

Several tent cities are being planned, among them a Music Camp beginning September 18th that will be situated at the South Side Riverfront Park near 18th Street and another encampment that will begin September 20th with a National March for Jobs on September 20th.  This march and tent city is being facilitated by the Bail Out the People Movement (BOTM) and is but one part of the organization’s plans for the week.  According to a spokesperson for the Pittsburgh branch of the BOTM, there is a struggle brewing over the permits which are being denied for sites in the downtown area.  This is but one of the actions awaiting permits.  According to the city of Pittsburgh, no permits have been issued yet because the city is waiting for the Secret Service to determine the so-called security perimeter it considers its right to impose whenever officials under Secret Service protection are present.  Protest organizers have told the press that they hope they will get the necessary permits and continue to insure the public that there are no plans for violence among any of the protest groups.

There is also a women’s tent city being planned, a People’s Summit featuring speakers and debate regarding the nature of the G-20 and popular alternatives to these types of organizations, a direct action on the afternoon of the summit, a religious procession calling for social justice and a concert .  Although the city continues to debate whether or not to grant these exercises in democracy permits, they have notified the public that there will be 4000 extra police on hand during the G-20 meeting.  It seems that, once again, the state wants to portray ordinary citizens who are planning to peacefully assemble as potential criminals.  We must not allow that to happen.  If you can be in Pittsburgh while the capitalists are gathering hoping to determine the future according to their needs (which are not usually the same as ours), please be there.  If you are a citizen who believes in the First Amendment, heed the suggestion of Anne Peterman of the Global Justice Ecology Project and call the White House to encourage Barack Obama to “tell the Secret Service to obey the Constitution and respect the First Amendment-protected rights of protesters.” (White House phone number is 202-456-1111).  If you live or work in Pittsburgh, encourage the city council and other officials to grant the permits being requested.  Most importantly, if you support the purpose of the protests let the organizers know, especially if you live in the Pittsburgh region.  If you can afford the time, please attend.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at:








Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at:

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