No Peace, No Coffee at Zeke’s

I love my neighborhood. I have lived and worked in East Liberty for 15 years. When I bought my home,  Home Depot had already moved in. There were plans for the Whole Foods. I knew that some amount of gentrification would follow (you can argue that I contributed to it by moving in) but I had no idea just how much.

I was happy to move into a diverse neighborhood. Happier still when my neighborhood association lobbied to sell three properties on my street to Sojourner House as permanent housing for women in recovery with children.  Then I watched as things began to change. I watched as some of the businesses I loved began to close — Abay, then Shadow Lounge for example — to make way for more upscale (whiter) venues that were willing and able to pay the increasing rents.

Having worked in the business district for years, I love walking down Penn Ave — I know all the regulars on the street. It’s the small town feeling that I have grown to love so much about Pittsburgh over the years. I had to confront my own privilege recently when I realized that there was a sign posted outside my beloved local coffee shop.

I am embarrassed to admit that it had been there for about a month before I took notice, so I was obviously not the intended recipient of its message.

I started frequenting the coffee shop when it was in its original location on the other side of Penn Avenue than where it is now. When they were forced out of their location due to the property being acquired for more development, I empathized with their plight.

I donated as part of their fundraising efforts to stay alive and move to their current location across the street. I wanted to support a local business and not the Starbucks in the whitewashed “Eastside.”  I noticed the movie theater style barriers go up after they decided to put tables out on the sidewalks (for customers only). But it took me a while to see the sign:

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But when I did, I could not ignore it. Now? In this climate? When the police shooting and killing of black people is in the news regularly? When corporations and white-owned establishments are encroaching on a traditionally vibrant and proud black community? To sell coffee to white people in peace lest they be disturbed by the “local color?”

The coffee shop has been here. They knew what the neighborhood was. I cannot even begin to imagine what their expectations could have been to have resorted to this type of action.

The level of insensitivity to the issues of race and gentrification currently facing this neighborhood astounded me. I can’t help but believe that there is a better way. Hostility and aggression only beget the same in return, in my opinion. Rather than attempting an amicable and peaceful co-existence, this type of public display contributed to alienation and divisiveness. In trying to gain customers, they lost me.

I think that I reacted as strongly as I did because they were who they were: the underdogs, struggling to stay afloat in a progressively more expensive neighborhood.

After I let them know how I felt about the issue, one of the owners contacted me. He wanted to meet and talk. So we met. It was me, him and the manager of the cafe. He thanked me for coming in to talk. We sat outside at the tables for customers only. I asked what led to the placement of the sign. They described episodes of intoxicated people intimidating the female staff people, who said they were in favor of the sign.

Then I asked if it helped. They said “immensely.”

But that did not end the conversation. We kept talking. I explained my position. We brainstormed together and, as we sat out on the sidewalk on a busy Friday evening, I watched them interact with all the regulars, just like I do. In preparation for First Friday the atmosphere was festive and interactions were friendly and fun.

I asked if they would try a different kind of sign. One that conveys their intent, that they want their customers to have seating available without being hostile and threatening. In the end they agreed that they will try. They plan to now change the sign and see how that goes. I went in and bought a pound of coffee before I left.

And now?

I trusted that they had heard me and I believed them when they said that they would make a change. That was more than two weeks ago. I know that they are busy, as we all are, but I am hopeful that they have not simply forgotten or pushed it aside.

My optimism and faith in humanity drive both my belief that a new, less provocative and potentially dangerous sign would still yield the desired results and that the coffee shop owner and management will be true to their word.

I will not give up. If the sign remains I will continue to pursue the issue. I hope that others will notice as well and join me. But in the end, my hope is that I will be able to follow up with a photo of a new, improved sign and a report of positive effects.

Kim Kir

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UPMC, the Justice Department, and “Justice”

Nothing shows that the private, “non”-profit health care system is an abysmal failure like the recent whistleblower, false-claims suit brought against University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in Federal Court. While the wimpish Justice Department agreed to a settlement of only $2.5 million and failed to secure any admission of guilt, the exposure of appalling practices brought some credence to the fears and suspicions that swirl around UPMC patient care.

The public is indebted to the two doctors and a surgical technician, former employees of UPMC, for fearlessly standing up to the area’s largest employer and notorious bully. Drs. William Bookwalter and Robert Sciabassi and technician Anna Mitina have a commitment to patient health and well-being, a commitment uncommon in this era of health-care profiteering. I would gladly trust my health to them; others, I’m not so sure.

And kudos to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for giving the story more than a perfunctory news announcement. In follow-ups by writer Kris Mamula, many of the allegations that served as a basis for the suit were aired. Examples of overbilling, double-billing, unnecessary surgery, billing for unperformed surgery, and botched surgery were drawn from testimony. Patterns of incentivizing medical care through cost-cutting, short-cutting, and bill inflation were alleged. Others have documented that these practices are deeply embedded in the entire profit-driven private insurance and medical industry.

Given the enormous amount of advertising revenue (extracted ultimately from consumers) that UPMC passes through the media, the Post-Gazette assumed some risk in shedding light on UPMC sins.

Even more kudos to Tribune-Review columnist Kevin Heyl who scoffed at the paltry settlement concluded by the Justice Department:

UMPC suffered a barely perceptible bruise after being slapped on the wrist by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh. To settle some claims in the lawsuit alleging the hospital network overbilled Medicare, Medicaid and Tricare, UPMC agreed to pay the federal government $2.5 million. (August 1, 2016)

Effectively employing satire, Heyl wrote:

“To come up with $2.5 million, they might have to search for the change underneath every cushion in (UPMC CEO) Jeff Romoff’s executive office couch,” the [fictional] observer said. “That could take seconds, perhaps even as long as a minute.”

Heyl went on to speculate that “the financial settlement likely distracted people from mediocre evaluations several UPMC hospitals received Wednesday in the latest federal government quality ratings. UPMC Mercy received two out of a possible four stars, as did UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Shadyside, which were combined into one entity in the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services ratings.”

Reminding us that overbilling is not a new charge against UPMC, Heyl recalled that the health care/insurance behemoth “rebounded quickly from a similar injury suffered in 1998, when it paid the government $17 million after auditors uncovered another overbilling scheme.”

The “Justice” Department

Of course, no one should be surprised that the spineless Justice Department has shown such little enthusiasm in pressing UPMC. It was the Justice Department, after all, that could find no serious criminality in Wall Street moguls bringing the US economy to the edge of collapse.

And our local US Attorney, David L. Hickton, showed a similar timidity in choosing not to pursue a criminal case against the police who mugged a high school student, Jordan Miles. Instead, he told the Post-Gazette (November 9, 2013) that he’d prefer to address other issues: “‘Can we assemble 20, 30, 50 people who will look at the future?’ he asked, rather than dwell on past slights. ‘Are we going to develop a community intolerance for illegal guns? Are we going to develop a recognition that violence against police officers is as endemic as community violence?’” Hickton continues to “look at the future” well beyond police violence against African-Americans.

As for addressing the police violence that now draws widespread attention in the media, don’t expect much help from Attorney Hickton: “‘I’m trying to help,’ he cautioned, ‘but the communities are really going to be masters of their own fates.’” (P-G, 11-9-13)

Hickton reminds us again in a recent op-ed piece in the P-G (7-24-16) that his concept of civil rights is a little one-sided. He subjects the reader to a long diatribe on how police-community relations begin with respect for the police “who risk their lives every day to protect and serve the public and ensure the rule of law.” In a season of mass awareness of police violence against Black people, surely this focus  is a little misplaced, especially since cops commit one out of twelve of all killings in the US and the homicide rate for police (killings per 100,000 officers) is approximately the same as it is for the rest of the population.

It should not be surprising– since Hickton and the Justice Department have so little enthusiasm for making the police color between the lines–that they would be equally deferential to a powerful mega-corporation like UPMC.

Hopefully, there will be more legal actions addressing the grievances exposed by the settled whistle-blower lawsuit. However, it is difficult to have much confidence in the hesitant Justice Department. Some may experience even less confidence when they learn that the Justice Department’s representative in Western Pennsylvania is scheduled to speak on “Law Enforcement Meets Public Health” as part of a panel on opioid abuse at the UPMC’s fall conclave in late September at the luxurious Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. While a bit more law enforcement might be a welcome presence among UPMC’s top executives, some may wish for a less cozy relationship. No doubt Hickton will use the opportunity to deliver a searing rebuke of UPMC’s practices.

Well, maybe not.

Greg Godels

The Matter of Black Lives

The Black Lives Matter network (or Movement for Black Lives) stunned its critics and observers by coming up with a platform and list of six policy demands.  After a year of organizing and intense deliberations, BLM waited until the end of the Democratic National Convention in Philly to make its announcement.

Criticized as nothing more than a bunch of young rabble-rousers who like to take to the street but don’t have any vision, one might think this was a big step forward for BLM, right?  Not to the media.

According to various major media critics, this movement of young black people’s weaknesses include not having an identifiable leader; not speaking the “language” of white America; failing to court the African-American church; coming up with demands that don’t “poll well;” and failing to address black-on-black violence.

Let’s see what they said.  “We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.” And who are these oppressed people?  Who oppresses them?

“While this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation.”

No tired, John Lewis preacher-style pandering to liberals nostalgic for the 1950s and early 1960s here. No more mild rhetoric from people who used to breathe fire but are now thoroughly owned by neo-liberal Democratic Party money.

Over the past two years, they’ve rebuffed attempts to take over their movement by the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Cornell West.  These young people know their history, know how to organize in the 21st century, and know that their interests do not lie in selling out for praise from their enemies.  For now, at least, there are no “super star” leaders to be coopted.  Just a growing, increasingly sophisticated collective of people who know that black — and all oppressed — lives matter.

Pittsburgh-area young people have been on the move too, as the large July demonstrations downtown demonstrate.  Opportunists are always lurking, however, just as honest disputes will arise.  Go to this website for official information on BLM: http://blacklivesmatter.com/.

And throw away the key?

Critics accuse African-Americans who are opposed to police killings of our people of ignoring black-on-black violence. We need not listen to them; their intentions are suspect.  We don’t expect the average white person to be privy to conversations in our homes and communities, but can’t they see the “Stop Shooting/We Love You” signs in windows and lawns where African-Americans live?  Are they unaware of the long-running New Pittsburgh Courier front-page campaign to embarrass and mobilize the black community by running a weekly tally of black homicide victims?

Yes, the poor and oppressed victimize their fellow poor and oppressed people.  Take the case of young Eric Taylor, of Duquesne.  Earlier this month, the 17-year-old was sentenced to 22 1/2 to 45 years in prison for a crime he allegedly committed when he was just 15.  The story goes something like this:

In 2014, young Taylor is said to have shot a pregnant 15-year-old girl (motive unclear), whose baby died.  LeRoy Powell — again, just 15 years old — testified at Taylor’s preliminary hearing.  District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s office made Powell’s testimony public — his name was all over the news — and he was shot down in broad daylight just days later.  The DA’s office later admitted that it “might not have” fully explained the risks to young Powell and his family or offered protection.  No one has ever been charged with Powell’s murder.

In sentencing Eric Taylor so harshly, Judge David Cashman said he took into consideration the fact that Taylor had committed two armed robberies at age 13.  Two armed robberies at 13 and a deadly gun crime at 15?!  Did Cashman consider what could have happened in the life of a child to cause him to behave so?  Does he, or any of those people who self-righteously condemn people like Eric Taylor, know or care?

The City of Duquesne is a glaring example of the results of deindustrialization, disinvestment and just plain abandonment by those politicians and capitalists who concoct what passes for social policy in the United States today.

In 2010, the average household income in Duquesne was just half the state average.  Its school district is so underfunded that it closed its high school, which had produced state champions in football and basketball, in 2009.  In 2012, it closed its middle school.  At its one remaining elementary school, 100 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a fourth receive special education services, and less than one percent are designated gifted.  What the hell kind of place is that in which to grow up?

Is 17-year-old Eric Taylor related to — perhaps even the son of — another Eric Taylor of Duquesne, an alleged heroin kingpin, who was murdered in 2000?  Or perhaps he knew Terron Taylor, who was sentenced to prison for involvement in the same heroin ring, which also claimed as a member former Duquesne High School and Duquesne University basketball star Kevin Price?

What other life did young Taylor know?  What did Duquesne, the Mon Valley, Pittsburgh or US society have to offer him?  Or the older Eric Taylor, Terron Taylor, or even Kevin Price once his basketball days were over?  Is locking up a 17-year-old kid for the next two to four decades the answer?

The Black Lives Matter network doesn’t think so.  Among other things, they call for economic justice and demand “investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people.”

So should we.  Eric Taylor, LeRoy Powell, and the young lady who was shot and lost her baby all deserve a better life.

— James Collins