Pittsburgh protesters aren’t looking for another Seattle

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In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last Friday about this week’s G-20 Summit, President Barack Obama indicated that he wasn’t a fan of the raucous sort of mass protests seen at previous world gatherings. The G-20 arrives with a reputation of drawing demonstrations of both the peaceful and not-so-peaceful kind, as remembered from the “battle in Seattle” protests, which spawned not only social justice advocacy, but also a melee between protesters and police. President Obama has said that such protests are ineffective.

”[H]aving protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism… generally is not going to make much of a difference,” Obama said in the interview.

But global capitalism is not seen as just an abstraction to many of the organizations assembling in Pittsburgh this week. For many, capitalism is the problem.

People’s Voices, a broad alliance of organizations coalesced to highlight community struggles, states on their website: “The G-20 promotes policies that ‘put profits first’ through deregulation, privatization, and ‘free trade.’ Their agenda has harmed working-class communities in the U.S. and around the world.”

Some demonstrations have already started. A “March for Jobs” took place Sunday, where a huge assembly of various organizations, local and non-local, gathered at Freedom’s Corner, the historic block where many 1950s and 60s civil rights marches started in the predominantly African-American Hill District neighborhood. It was a peaceful march where people waved posters with messages no more radical than “A Job Is A Right” and “Bailout the People.”

There have been concerns that more militant outfits are seeking the kind of carnage witnessed in Seattle, and the city government has acted cautiously, denying many applications from organizations planning rallies near G-20 meetings. Many local community organizers say the kind of protests Obama disfavors aren’t their main focus anyway.

“We’re doing a series of events drawing the links between what goes on in our communities and what’s happening in the developing world,” said Rachel Canning of People’s Voices. “We’re doing teach-ins and some of our coalition partners are doing green jobs rallies,” but as for those looking to march through the streets, “I think it’s mostly people coming in from out-of-town for the spectacle of the G-20.”

Jasiri X, a local Nation of Islam minister and founding member of the anti-violence community organization ONE HOOD mostly agrees. “People contacted us to participate in some of these street marches and my perspective was that some are just coming in because of G-20 and they want to make something known and then go home when it’s over. That’s not something I’m interested in, unless it’s followed by concrete steps that will make real changes in our communities.” However, “People have the right to peaceful protest,” he said.

Not all demonstrations surrounding the G-20 will be protests. A week-long public arts project is underway, done as a collaboration between Allegheny County (of which Pittsburgh is the seat), The ONE Project, which is an international anti-poverty organization, and Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project, a local arts organization that employs kids from disadvantaged communities. The mural they are creating for the G-20 leaders will take up an entire block in downtown Pittsburgh and will have close to 100 artists, including 60 youth workers, armed with paintbrushes.

“There’s a lot of talent here,” says Kyle Holbrook, the lead artist. “We want to show the world that people can work together, and the art becomes an example of how kids can become productive leaders and not just followers of the crowds.”

Allegheny County chief executive Dan Onorato (who’s also running for governor of Pennsylvania) said that projects like this “will ultimately offset the negative attention” of potentially unruly protests. Said Onorato, “We’re getting kids involved who would have been otherwise left out of the G-20 event altogether,” said Onorato. “We will host the leaders of the world, but we’ll also host the protesters, and we’ll make sure peaceful protesters have a safe place to speak.”

Obama’s remarks likely were not aimed against people’s right to protest. His community organizing training under the Saul Alinsky model focused less on street marching and more on direct engagement with policy-makers – and a pragmatic engagement at that.

“The point that Obama made has been raised by other people as well, that in protesting globalism you’re attacking an idea, not a specific action or policy,” said William Jelani Cobb, a history professor at Spelman College who just finished a book on Obama’s place in history with respect to civil rights legacy. “It’s like the Luddites who were not fighting against labor exploitation or brutal working conditions, but against the Industrial Revolution itself. That’s a very different kind of battle. Smashing a Starbucks is akin to tearing up a math test as opposed to solving the equations on the page.”