Militant Journalism

Struggle against cops & prisons shake up Pittsburgh politics

In Pittsburgh, the movement for Black lives has continued to upend the local political establishment. Bill Peduto, who had appeared to be coasting to a third term as Mayor of Pittsburgh, had struggled to respond to the movement, according to activists and members of the community. In a surprise victory for progressive challenger Ed Gainey, Peduto was defeated in the May 18 primary.

When asked in a recent VICE News interview about his response to the summer of 2020 uprising and the movement for Black lives, Mayor Peduto rebuked the activists who organized and worked throughout the summer to call for justice:

“In both my campaigns in 2013 and 2017, I had Black men running against me. The Black community has been one of my strongest bases. There are new, so-called activists that have never walked foot in a Black neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh. They’re college students or young adults who have decided that they are the ambassador between me and the Black community who I have worked for and with, for thirty years of my life.”

The repeated bashing of young activists was a central theme in Peduto’s response to the summer of protests. Organizers had even directed their ire towards the mayor in a series of demonstrations in front of his personal residence. The city’s police had instigated several violent clampdowns on demonstrators throughout the summer, at one point snatching activists off the street in an unmarked vehicle and in plain clothes. The police-instigated violence had marred an otherwise peaceful movement, that has called for an end to racist police killings after the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of police.

In response to a series of lawsuits against the city, Mayor Peduto had offered this rebuttal from the same VICE interview:

“I have yet to hear what the response should have been. What I do hear is that it was peaceful and there wasn’t a need for the police to do anything … when that’s not true. The vast majority, almost all of them, were, but within there, there were those who were there to cause violence. So, when the police responded people were shocked that actions have consequences. And you cannot have anarchy and violence in cities.”

Mayor Peduto then must have been shocked when on May 18 2021, the people of Pittsburgh rejected his candidacy and supported referenda which seek to change the dysfunctional and racist U.S. prison system.

State Representative Ed Gainey defeated the two-term incumbent Peduto. Gainey, who will almost certainly go on to win the general election, will become the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s Black population is under siege and being pushed out by gentrification — nearly 10% of Black Pittsburghers have left the city over the past decade. Gainey’s victory is viewed as a consequence of Peduto’s failure to respond appropriately to the movement for Black lives.

The racism and inequality that the Black community in Pittsburgh have faced has been going on for much longer than the past year. For example, a recently released report found that infant mortality rates for Black children in Pittsburgh were six times higher than for whites. Gainey has said that he is willing to challenge healthcare monopoly UPMC’s non-profit tax-exempt status, as well as promoting so-called inclusionary zoning and low-income housing. This is in stark contrast to the Peduto administration, which had dropped a lawsuit against UPMC and continually sang the praises of Big Tech and finance-backed developers coming to the city. Another recent study found that Pittsburgh has become the 8th most intensely gentrified city in the United States. The prospect of a candidate that might put people ahead of developers and monopolistic institutions is refreshing, but of course whether Gainey is able to live up to his promises remains an open question.

The victory of Gainey over Peduto was also only one of the many signals the people of Pittsburgh gave that they demand fundamental change to the system. Two ballot measures, both of which were added after an intensive signature drive, passed resoundingly. These efforts were launched by the Alliance for Police Accountability, and included massive signature gathering efforts by a broad collation of organizers and community members throughout the city and county.

One measure is Breonna’s Law, which would forbid the issuing of no-knock warrants in the city. This was passed with 81% of voters in support. The other measure was intended to put an end to the practice of solitary confinement in the Allegheny County Jail, a practice that the United Nations declared torture in 2011. The Allegheny County Jail is involved in several lawsuits for its degrading practices, disproportionate use of force, and lack of medical and behavioral health care to its population, 80% of which not been convicted of a crime. 69% of voters approved the measure to end solitary confinement in the ACJ.

Both measures were initiated as referenda due to ineffectual local politicians, too cowardly to embrace the change that the people demand. Despite complete control over city and county government institutions, the Democratic Party has failed to solve the problems working people face. Only the struggle of the people can force them to act.

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