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Convergence in Pittsburgh

by JEB SPRAGUE

As media and government delegates prepare for the G20 Summit to be held Sep. 24-25 in Pittsburgh, local business and activist groups are promoting clashing visions of days to come.

Hit hard over the last quarter of the twentieth century with a collapsing steel industry, recession and falling population, Pittsburgh is still a decent place to live – often highly rated because of low housing costs.

On one side, Pittsburgh government and business leaders say they have reshaped the city to connect with globalisation as a hi-tech, financial and medical industry hub.

On the other side, labour, community, youth and environmental groups are fighting for green jobs and clean energy, while calling into question how government and corporate leaders have dealt with the global financial crisis and urban renewal.

The host of the summit is the Pittsburgh G20 Partnership, run out of the Allegheny County Conference on Community Development, which according to its executive vice president is “a sort of holding company” for the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and other regional business groups.

The group includes many of the largest business interests active in the area. Public affairs coordinator, Philip Cynar, explains, “Our group is made up of corporations involved in advanced manufacturing, financial services, healthcare, information technology, and energy”.

Bill Flanagan, executive vice president of corporate relations for the group, says that Pittsburgh’s business leaders have learned to operate in a globalised world, and the G20 summit provides a prime opportunity for further insertion into the global market.

“We’ve learned capital tends to flow freely” so “we are trying to put Pittsburgh on the map and attract global investors,” he told IPS.

Large business interests have been at the centre of coordinating the summit. “We communicate on a daily basis with the White House, the State Department and the Secret Service, all in preparation for communication operations and planning receptions at the 14 hotels where journalists and delegates will be staying, the trappings for welcoming the world to the region,” Flanagan added.

Not far from the Regional Enterprise Tower, where business groups promoting the summit operate, a peace and justice coalition based out of Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Centre is organising for a people’s march against the G20, sending a very different message.

The umbrella coalition, including organised labour, anti-war activists, and numerous environmentalist, socialist, and grassroots organisations, levels steep criticism at the G20 leaders and global capitalism, most pointedly the effects on low-income and working-class people by state policies meant to benefit transnational corporations.

Melissa Minnich, communications director of the Thomas Merton Centre, says, “The financial bailouts of the G20 governments are meant to benefit the largest corporations. The people that end up paying are the average citizens.”

Dozens of other organisations are taking part, such as the G-6 Billion with an inter-faith march, a march for jobs in Pittsburgh’s poor Hill district, and a people’s summit to call for economic and environmental justice.

Carl Davidson, a labour writer and organiser with the local Beaver County Peace Links, observes that, “Pittsburgh in particular has suffered from policies advocated by the G20, hit hard by the job loss and deindustrialisation in globalisation. People see these world leaders and the global corporations they work with as responsible.”

David Hoskins, an organiser with Bail Out the People, told IPS “We will have a march for jobs, calling for a federal job programme like the New Deal era, on Pittsburgh’s Hill”.

Pittsburgh business and government leaders, with a successful downtown, have recast the city as a modern centre for green-technology innovation.

But problems remain. Pennsylvania is the only state in the U.S. without a budget. Unable to pay some of its pensioners, the city of Pittsburgh has sold off parking lots to raise money.

With ghost towns at the city’s outskirts and many communities suffering from environmental degradation, local activists say development has been an undemocratic process geared toward the beautiful downtown.

Melissa Minnich says poor communities have lost out. She lives near “one green space that was slated to be worked on”. However, she explains, “We were told by the contractors that city funds were rerouted to downtown so construction could not begin.”

With rich coal deposits in the south of Pittsburgh, dirty mining techniques remain. Longwall mining, cutting deep horizontal shafts, has caused sinkholes, draining one lake on the outskirts of the city, as well as forming huge coal piles that sit idle leaking mercury into the Monogahela River.

There are dozens of large coal-fired electric power generators, and one nuclear power plant, all along the Ohio River stretching down to West Virginia, supplying electricity to much of the east coast.

David Meieran, an organiser with the Three Rivers Climate Convergence, a Pittsburgh-based environmental group, says “It is absurd that Pittsburgh’s chamber of commerce and corporations like the PNC-bank are saying they are green companies now just because they are constructing these environmentally-friendly buildings.”

He adds, “They still maintain sizable holdings in coal companies that do mountaintop removal and longwall mining, profiting off deaths and environmental devastation.”

In 2008, according to the American Lung Association, Pittsburgh ranked above all other U.S. cities in short-term levels of particle pollution, “a deadly cocktail of ash, soot, diesel exhaust, chemicals, metals and aerosols that can spike dangerously for hours to weeks on end”.

The defence industry has a presence in Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon University has a robotics institute working closely with the U.S. Department of Defence. Local universities are involved in healthcare research and development tied to the private sector.

To defend the summit, Pittsburgh’s mayor and city council have amassed a force of four thousand police, including many auxiliaries from the rural countryside. Two thousand National Guard and an untold number of secret service agents with hi-tech surveillance will be present.

Diane Richard, public information officer for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, explains “There are facilities in place to afford us leeway in how many arrests we have to make”. She acknowledged other agencies would have horseback units present.

Much of the discussion within Pittsburgh’s advertiser-radio and newspapers has focused on financial costs of hosting the summit and the inconvenience to downtown dwellers.

One downtown resident told IPS that a big part of the population in the city “is as old and conservative as Miami, Florida, and they don’t want to see any spray paint or flag burning”. He expects that the Pittsburgh police will use harsh tactics against protesters.

It is believed tens of thousands of protesters from Pittsburgh and around the country will gather. A mass march will start on Sep. 25, at 12:00 P.M., on the corner of 5th and Craft near Pittsburgh’s college.

Reverend Thomas E. Smith, of the local Monumental Church, has offered his lawn and parking lots to protestors.

He explains, “We are hosting a tent city that is symbolic of the need for a fair and living wage, and for a national and international workers’ movement similar to the poor peoples’ campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King was in the process of organising prior to being assassinated.”

The G20 protesters face hurdles in getting their message out to a wider audience. With official politics in the United States channeled through a corporate media and a powerful two-party monopoly, peace and justice organisers say, the biggest challenge is just for their message to be heard.

JEB SPRAGUE is a graduate student in Sociology at UCSB and a freelancer for the Inter Press Service (IPS)

 

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