What’s Good for the Goose . . .

What’s good for the goose is not good for the gander in the Woodland Hills school district.

Back in April school staff were caught on video cameras manhandling students just days apart. Joseph Golden III, a behavior specialist at the Rankin Promise School, was reported immediately by the school district to Pennsylvania’s child protective services.  Golden was suspended the day of his incident and the district immediately began taking steps to fire him.  Superintendent Alan Johnson was “very saddened and sickened” by Golden’s behavior (TribLive, May 9).

Furthermore, when Allegheny County police and the district attorney’s office became aware of the incident, Golden was arrested and charged with assault and child endangerment. The incident occurred on April 12th but the video didn’t make the news for several weeks.  It shows Golden lifting a 13-year-old boy by the neck and dragging him down a hallway.  Not an approved “behavioral intervention” by any means.

On April 3rd, high school “resource officer” Steve Shaulis was famously caught truly assaulting a 14-year-old student at the high school: he put the young man in a headlock, dragged and body slammed him, and, in the ensuing scuffle, knocked out a tooth.  The student was charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest.  The DA’s office is “investigating” that incident to see if perhaps Shaulis should get some charges!  Neither that assault, nor an incident from last November when a student recorded high school principal Kevin Murray threatening to knock a kid’s tooth out, drew outraged reaction from Superintendent Johnson.

Those incidents were just the “worst possible coincidences” that Johnson knew “in my heart” don’t “reflect what Woodland Hills is about.” He and some collective “we” were “trying not to let it overshadow all the good we’ve done” (Post-Gazette, April 24).

The ‘R’ word

This is what Woodland Hills is “about”: all of the student victims are African American. So is Golden, but Shaulis and Murray are white. To district administration, Golden’s behavior is “unacceptable” and so he’s got to go immediately.  Murray and Shaulis – also caught on video in 2015 beating up and Tasing a black student – are just misunderstood, unfortunate – and white.

Murray is not only still the principal of the high school, but newly named head coach of the prestigious football program. Golden is facing jail time, but no one – certainly not the DA’s office – is talking about similar punishment for either Murray or Shaulis.  And while the DA’s office takes its time and “investigates” naked brutality by white adults, it wastes no time in charging the black student victims.

Golden’s behavior was out of line and hard to defend. But Shaulis and Murray are caught red-handed running the principal’s office like an interrogation room at Guantanamo Bay.

Needless to say, parents of black students are livid at the school district. They’ve been packing school board meetings but their more-than-reasonable demands that Shaulis and Murray be fired are continually met with the equivalent of a hearty middle finger.  In a school district that was born in the fires of racial fear and resentment, the district’s administration, led by Alan Johnson, continues to take an offensive and demeaning stance toward black students and parents.

The Woodland Hills school board meets throughout the summer and when it does, the parents and supporters of black students will continue to make their displeasure known. The district is over 60 percent African American; with unity and organization, it’s possible for the community to make its power felt.  This disgraceful, racist situation cannot be allowed to continue.  Racist principals, “resource officers” and superintendents have to go.

But all residents of Allegheny County should save some outrage for DA Stephen Zappala, who knows a crime when it’s committed by a black underling or a kid, but not when the head man and his overseer do the acting out. He’s not up for reelection until 2019 – plenty of time for a principled opposition to come together and put him out to pasture.

— James Collins

 

Woe Unto Us

Budget woes

The Republicans in the General Assembly responded to Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal with their own bill that they passed last month without a single Democratic vote.  Nevertheless, with just a few party dissenters, the GOP majority was able to pass the legislation by thirty votes and send it on to the Senate where the Republicans have the votes to pass the bill and override a Wolf veto.

This bill is heartless to the extreme, prompting Allegheny County Democrat Joe Markosek to say that the GOP budget “cuts to the bone that which many of us agree was already bare.”  The Republicans were savvy enough to finally realize that cutting Wolf’s increases to education would be unpopular.  So this time, they want to take the axe to human services instead.

If the GOP has its way, Wolf’s proposal for child care assistance for low-income families would be cut by $62.9 million, leaving thousands of working families with few or no options for quality care; the waiting list statewide would expand to 19,000 children.  Six million dollars in cuts to home and community-based services for the aged would end supportive services for hundreds of senior citizens, effectively forcing them into nursing homes.

Pennsylvania faces a crisis of opioid addiction but the Republicans would cut $9 million from Wolf’s mental health and substance abuse budget.  Another $4.8 million reduction in aid to counties would also affect those suffering from mental illness and addiction, as well as the aged and those suffering from intellectual disabilities. This cut also hits hard at traditional GOP villains like the homeless.

Oh, the joys of a GOP budget!  Balancing the ledgers comes before satisfying the imperative to serve the needy that is at the core of their professed Christian religion! I could go on and on: the House Republicans might as well say, “Let them eat cake” – if the price of cake weren’t out of reach for so many people.

Politically, they are keeping us, the people of Pennsylvania, on the defensive; we’re constantly fending off cuts to essential services and eagerly embracing whatever small consideration to human need that politicians show.

We’ve got to change the tone and terms of the dialogue.  Human needs should trump all other considerations — no pun intended.

Officer Friendly in Woodland Hills

Woe unto the long-suffering parents of African-American students in the Woodland Hills school district.  White opposition has been a Woodland Hills hallmark since the creation of the multi-racial district in the early 1980s.  Black students have been valued for excellence in athletics — all of Wikipedia’s “notable graduates” are football players, most of them black — but are wanted for little else.

The latest chapter in the school district’s inability to come to grips with integration has made national headlines.  But despite being caught on video roughing up students as if he were in a Law and Order holding tank, Woodland Hills “resource officer” Steve Shaulis has yet to face the assault charges he so richly deserves.  Nor has his able accomplice, high school principal Kevin “Biff” Murray, been punished for being recorded helping Shaulis Tase a student.  In fact, he was rewarded: Murray was given the prestigious job of head high school football coach.  The school board’s support for Murray, who was caught last year threatening a student in an audio recording, sends a clear message to black students and their parents: fuck you!

The student victims of these assaults face various charges ranging from resisting arrest to aggravated assault.  It’s a literal school-to-prison pipeline.  And it’s been going on for years; the recorded incidents go back to 2015.  Woodland Hills parents and former students say it’s been going for a lot longer than that.

The mushmouthed pronouncements of the district (the recorded incidents do not “represent” the district’s “culture”), its actions (promoting Murray to head football coach), its inaction (how could this principal not be fired?), and the refusal of the appropriate authorities — say the county district attorney’s office — to do anything have fueled parent anger and necessitated the involvement of attorney Todd Hollis, who made the surveillance videos public, and the Alliance for Police Accountability.

We should support the parents and students of Woodland Hills in their efforts to rid their school of thugs posing as principals, coaches and “resource” officers.  And we cannot let the school board and superintendent get away with the underlying message behind these incidents: that blackness is something to be feared and contained by any means necessary.

— James Collins

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

 

 

 

Born A Man

I need nothing to be a man

Because I was born a man

And I deserve the right to live

Like any other man.

— Big Youth, “My Time”

In case you haven’t heard, Pittsburgh is “one of the most segregated metropolitan communities in the country.”  That statement comes from the Urban Institute’s Margaret Simms, one of the authors of a report on Pittsburgh published last fall.  That study, “Barriers & Bridges,” and a steady stream of others by think tanks, universities and foundations, have all demonstrated what our eyes, ears, out-of-town visitors and life experiences have long told us: Greater Pittsburgh is an extremely racist region.

Some of our white friends will object, but before they do let’s look at the cradle-to-grave numbers in black and white — and the Pittsburgh area basically is black and white, with relatively few people of Asian and Hispanic descent.

We can start with Allegheny County’s black infant mortality rate, which is twice the national average and about the same as Sri Lanka’s.  While growing up in our region, African-American youth are arrested at six times the rate of white youth — it’s “only” two-to-one nationally.  If one successfully avoids jail or prison, then one needs a job.  But the black unemployment rate is consistently double the white rate (you’ll notice a “two-to-one” pattern with many of these statistics).  And even that figure understates the problem for males, since only about half of black men, 18 to 64, are even in the workforce.

The over and under

Okay, so let’s say a black person gets a job.  Care to guess how much this person might earn, compared to a white counterpart?  Yes!  It’s about half as much, with blacks leading 2-to-1 in the $25,000 and under category, and whites leading 2-to-1 in the over $50,000 category.  Not surprisingly, the black poverty rate is a staggering 33 percent, more than double the considerable white rate of 15 percent.

How do people get to work?  Well, nearly a third of blacks rely on public transportation, while only 4 percent of workers “of other races” do so.  A slightly larger number of the “others” — 8 percent — use mass transit for any reason at least once a week.  One may surmise that many of them are taking advantage of services dedicated to getting people to and from the North Side stadiums.

Where do people live?  You shouldn’t be surprised to find that the percentage of whites who own their homes is double the black rate; after all, blacks are denied loans at twice the rate as whites.

We can play this game ad nauseam — looking at education level, educational achievement, health, crime (where blacks are more likely to both be arrested for, and victims of, violent crime), but you get the picture.  The real point is this: what does this picture tell us about our region, and what can be done about it?

Now many people will say that these statistics point to some deficiency in black people — their “culture of poverty,” which doesn’t exactly blame the individual so much as it does the entire class of people from which he or she springs.  Those people need to learn to follow the norms and rules of our society; you have to be tough to teach them independence and self-sufficiency.

This type of thinking leads to a crime-fighting policy that locks up black people for doing the same kinds of things free whites do all the time.  It leads to black people being killed for minor transgressions that white people survive — like a traffic stop or quietly drinking in public.  It allows Bill Clinton, and too many older black people, to continue to pretend that most of those black and brown bodies crowding the prisons are crack dealers who cynically got innocent kids “hopped up” on drugs.  (Hey!  I thought it was the government that did that!)

But all of those arguments are old, stale even.  The problem is racism, pure and simple.  It’s not about civilizing uncultured black people; it’s about addressing centuries of virulent racism, in Pittsburgh and nationally.  It’s about providing opportunity and support to people have been denied opportunity for generations.

Even the polite folks at Heinz Endowments and the Urban Institute, which “does not take positions on issues,” pretty much name the problem as structural racism.  However, their tentatively suggested remedies are weak, relying on good will from the public and leadership from corporations and large institutions.  Perhaps we should rely instead on the force of law, for here is a fact: to the international community, such racism is illegal, a violation of human rights.

Twentieth-century African-American leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, William Patterson and Malcolm X understood this.  Their strategy (at one point or another in their respective careers) was to expose US racism to the world and let our leaders justify themselves before world, whose hearts and minds our leaders so fervently wished to win.  Today, we should expose backwards, paternalistic Pittsburgh — whose political and business leaders have long sought to sell our region as some underappreciated diamond-in-the rough to the nation and world.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The United States, as a founder of United Nations, also signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is recognized “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”  Everyone is entitled to the rights set forth in the Declaration, regardless not only of such distinctions as “race, colour, sex, language [and] religion,” but also regardless of “property” (or lack thereof) and “birth or other status.”

In other words, people can’t be deprived of the rights inscribed in the Declaration just because they happen to be born black and/or poor.  Article 5, for example, prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”  Common examples of this would include police tactics that target only blacks: stop-and-frisk, anti-loitering patrols and the like. Article 9 also prohibits “arbitrary arrest [and] detention.”

Articles 22, 23 and 25 address “social security” and work — basically “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of a person or family.  Some of the things the signers of the Declaration — and therefore, the United States government — believe guarantee this standard of living include housing, medical care, and adequate income during periods of unemployment and old age.

In all, the Declaration is a neat, tidy document that suits our modern age far more than the hallowed U.S. Constitution that gets so much lip-service.  The U.S. signed the Declaration and purports to be the world’s leader in everything, including human (although political leaders much prefer to say “democratic”) rights.  Well, Pittsburgh and its surrounding counties and municipalities are part of the U.S. and therefore subject to all relevant international treaties and agreements.  Just as activists in North Carolina and Georgia are loudly alerting the world to the doings of the homophobic idiots who are in power in those states, we Pittsburghers have to alert the world to the naked inequality that scars our region.

Pittsburgh’s African-American population doesn’t need to be “civilized” in order to enjoy a slice of the pie.  We were born into the human family and, according to the United Nations, that is more than enough. We need opportunity.  Perhaps the word that those fixated on our culture are looking for is “assimilate.” That has been the goal of most African Americans since slavery days, but we can only do so if we are let in.   Black people are plenty civilized and have contributed mightily to this nation, in spite of all the obstacles.  Give us the chance to do more.

(Sources include the aforementioned “Bridges and Barriers,” funded by The Heinz Endowments; “Pittsburgh’s Racial Demographics 2015: Differences and Disparities,” published by the University of Pittsburgh Center on Race and Social Problems; and “The Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey,which can found at the PittsburghTODAY website.  The various sources defined Greater Pittsburgh variously, from just the city and Allegheny County, to a metro area comprising Allegheny and seven other counties, to the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which includes 25 counties in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Ohio that surround Pittsburgh.)

 

— James Collins

 


 

 

Invisible People

It would be convenient to place the blame for the widening gap between the two Pittsburghs—one affluent and filled with possibilities, the other economically distressed and neglected– at Mayor Peduto’s doorstep. Certainly, he and other civic leaders have shown little, but belated interest in addressing the issue.

But to be fair, Pittsburgh’s growing class and race divide is characteristic of cities across the US. And the indifference by elites traces back many generations.

Prior to World War II, living patterns were dictated in cities like Pittsburgh by the needs of local industry. The hills, valleys, and rivers of Pittsburgh shaped neighborhoods which took on ethnic and class character as workers migrated to the area for jobs in mines, mills, and shops. Typical of most cities, the process of urbanization was anarchic, chaotic, and unplanned. In this regard, Pittsburgh followed the path of industrial cities throughout the world since the dawn of the industrial age.

But the unique topology of Pittsburgh—suited perfectly for the metals industry—coupled with the patchwork, unstructured evolution of working class and poor neighborhoods fostered the impression that Pittsburgh was a depressed, dirty city—an impression that local leaders were anxious to remediate.

The post-war wave of so-called “urban renewal” projects fit perfectly with the desire of Pittsburgh’s industrial magnates to sweep the image of poverty, neglect, and racism under the rug of urban engineering. It was no wonder that Pittsburgh’s leading lights were among the first to embrace the urban renewal strategy in the early 1950s, reshaping the downtown and lower Hill districts by forcibly removing the pockets of poverty and working class life from the city’s center.

Like the national urban renewal policy, the local version hid the ugliness of the policy behind high-sounding slogans: “clearing slums” and “removing blight.” But “slums” was simply a nineteenth century code-word for low-income, impoverished neighborhoods.

In Pittsburgh, as in many other cities, “slum clearance” or eliminating “blight” was eye wash for dealing with the neglected human by-products of industrial capitalism; like industrial slag, the unemployed, dark-skinned, and low income workers were to be hidden from sight. The consequences of mass displacement were met with civic indifference, proving that renewal was little more than urban cosmetics.

A New Round of Urban Surgery

When the industrial corporations abruptly decided to pull up stakes in the early eighties, Pittsburgh was faced with another human crisis: tens of thousands of families that had– only over the last few decades– enjoyed a reasonably high standard of living from the steel and related industries were left without employment.

Faced with this tragedy, and no doubt speaking for the local elites, then-Mayor Caliguiri offered the succinct advice: leave! We memorialize his role with a statue at the entrance to the City-County building.

Accordingly, the population shrunk, creating under-utilization of costly city services and under-occupancy of existing housing stocks. At the same time, local authorities embarked on an expensive, further aggrandizement of the downtown skyline—a tribute to the “vision” of elites, an insult to the neglected neighborhoods.

Where Renaissance I funneled public funds to private contractors for public projects, the newer mini-Renaissance adopted a fresh strategy: Public funds funneled to private developers for private projects. Like earlier word games, the self-important term “Public Private Partnerships” or, charmingly, “P3” was invented to mask the bleeding of the public for projects that the market place had determined to be too risky for private investment.

This strategy came to a zenith in the Murphy administration with expenditures of as much as four billion dollars on hare-brained schemes in pursuit of an ever-changing vision for the region. The target changed impulsively: attract suburbanites to shop downtown (retail), lure suburbanites to reside downtown (condos and apartments), support the meds/eds industry (infrastructure/amenities), and attract the “creative class” (bike trails, restaurants…), etc. What all of the Murphy goals had in common was an unspoken desire to serve a new community rather than meet the needs of the existing population and its neighborhoods.

Ironically, Murphy campaigned on a pledge to serve the neighborhoods. In fact, his first official act was to take his staff on a road show to every neighborhood in the city. But very quickly his head was turned by a host of consultants and “experts” (like Richard Florida and the Urban Land Institute).

To a great extent, the Peduto administration has only continued the Murphy legacy. Having landed a big corporate fish in Google, Peduto and his minions have simply thrown resources at the private sector parasites who seek to attach to the big fish. With no foresight or control over the ensuing feeding frenzy, East Liberty has been purged of its existing community and transformed into a Google playground.

Speaking with Forked Tongue

Characteristic of the entire urban engineering project is a willful, crafty distortion of goals and realities by adopting arcane, innocuous or euphemistic words or phrases to mask or confuse. “Urban Renewal,” “Urban Redevelopment,” and “Public-Private Partnerships” are examples of terms that are cover for far more unfriendly and destructive ideas than the words suggest. They disguise urban strategies that not only put private interests ahead of the public, but serve to evade any serious solution to urgent urban issues.

The embarrassing reality hidden behind the curtain of technocratic jargon is the harsh face of poverty, a façade unwelcome in the “new” Pittsburgh. Since the dawn of commercial and industrial cities, poor people have been produced and reproduced by the chaos of commerce and industry. A workforce necessarily crammed into areas contiguous to large-scale industry and subjected to the ever-changing whims of the market place necessarily generates unstable employment, uncertainty, and, of course, poverty. At least in earlier times, officialdom tried to find crude solutions: the poor laws, outdoor relief, even workhouses. But today’s public officials replace solutions with neglect—force the poor out of sight. ‘Disappear’ them.

It is this outrage that makes the interminable debates over the unfortunate term “affordable housing” so disgusting. By couching the gentrification issue in terms of the weasel-word “affordable,” the powers-that-be escape the responsibility for providing housing for low-income and poor people. Arguments over the appropriate percentage of median income within an arbitrary area as the determinate of “affordability” is sheer casuistry, arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They only delay a discussion of how public policy can be crafted to include everyone, including the poor and the ever-growing low-income population.

Waves of poverty still wash over a neglected population devastated by de-industrialization and the loss of decent paying jobs.

The hypocrisy of the “affordable housing” shell game was recently brought home when Peduto’s administration structured a $20 million deal to keep McCormack Baron from throwing 143 existing units of Crawford Square “affordable housing” onto the open market. McCormack Baron is the designated developer for the affordable housing promised for the lower Hill site vacated by the Civic Arena. Maybe the next mayor can keep them in the affordable housing game with another subsidy.

A recent Post-Gazette article underlines the lengths that the media and elite opinion go to avoid facing the harsh realities of urban poverty. Supplied to the P-G by PublicSource, a news service heavily endowed by local foundations (their most prominent crusade was against excessive overtime by public employees; they haven’t gotten around to the bloated salaries of foundation heads, non-profit officials, or corporate leaders!), the article (City marked with pockets of violence, 1-24-16) highlights the incongruity of affluent neighborhoods abutting “pockets of violence.” While the article concedes that racially segregated neighborhoods are visited by income, employment, and housing disadvantage, it devotes only a few short paragraphs to these factors in a commentary occupying nearly three-quarters of a page of newsprint.

Rather than exposing the cancer of racism and the inequality-breeding dynamics of discrimination, the author casts a shadow of fear and the taint of mindless violence over an entire (racially defined) community. To one unfamiliar with any predominately African-American community, a picture solely of foreboding violence is drawn.

Of course violence is tragic. But when it increases in a community, it is invariably a product of increasing poverty, persistent unemployment, and the resulting hopelessness; it has been so since the industrial revolution in every country and with every ethnic group. With very few exceptions, it is the inevitable consequence of inequality and civic neglect—correctable conditions, should the will to correct be present.

Of course this point is lost when attention is drawn primarily to the violence plaguing a neighborhood, as though wishing it away would be the answer.

But PublicSource, the Post-Gazette, the rest of the commercial media, and their sponsors, advertisers and directors are afraid to face the actual causes of urban street violence. To do so, they would have to acknowledge more than the symptoms of urban problems. They would have to acknowledge the persistent violence of indifference, neglect, and racism.

Until we have that conversation, the gap between the two Pittsburghs will only widen further.

–Greg Godels

Uncomfortable Pet Tales

 

The folks who have their name on the masthead of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette should be ashamed. They should apologize to the readers. The editorial headline below the masthead on February 4 reads “Officer Down: Pittsburgh loses another K-9 in the line of duty.”

The editorial references an imaginary “line-of-duty” owned by the slain police dog. Animals don’t have duties. Dogs don’t have duties. People have duties. Freshman philosophy students know this. Law students know this. But apparently the editors of the P-G are unaware of this simple truth and their duty to respect it.

Dogs don’t have duties not to bark, not to poop, or not to bite when their tails are pulled. But their owners or handlers DO have a duty to restrain their dogs, to clean up after their dogs, to protect their dogs. Those duties come with the privilege of enjoying the loyalty, companionship and protection afforded by animals.

By irresponsibly anthropomorphizing the animal, by willfully portraying the now dead animal as a voluntary employee of the police department, a conscious agent of law and order, the editorial distracts the reader from a host of issues raised by the deadly encounter on Sunday, January 31. By fostering the illusion that an actual police officer—and not a service dog—was killed and that the dog was acting autonomously, the editorial obfuscates both the dimensions of and responsibilities for the events.

And by once again orchestrating an ill-conceived public outrage, the editors promoted the embarrassing funerary spectacle of contrived city-wide mourning for a service animal cruelly and unnecessarily abused by its handlers, a spectacle pathetically modeled after the virtual shut down of Oakland for the sainted police dog, Rocco.

Lost in the unseemly display over the killing of a service animal is the fundamental fact that a man was rousted from his reverie while drinking with his father peacefully and solitarily on Port Authority (public) property. Like any of us who have carelessly or irresponsibly drunk in a public park, a campus, or any other public space, we move on when rousted. We don’t expect to die. Mr. Kelley and his father did move on. But he died anyway.

For what happened subsequently, we only have the police reports and a partial surveillance video.

With no more evidence than this, the P-G editorialist deigns to speak for all of us: “Pittsburgh mourns the loss of another K-9 officer killed in the line of duty…” But for Kelley, Pittsburgh is apparently silent. The writer adds insensitively: “…and Kelley’s survivors wish this had ended differently as well.”

Embarrassing Facts

But with even the scant evidence and questionable testimony, we can draw some relevant conclusions and pose some challenging questions.

Mr. Kelley’s record points to the likelihood of mental illness. His encounters with the law involve alcohol, drugs, and erratic behavior. A pattern of judicial probation points to the fact that his bad behavior places him in the gray area between incarceration and treatment. The lack of treatment facilities in Pennsylvania frequently places the mentally ill on the streets, often placing law enforcement in an untenable situation. The responsibility for the violence that ensues begins with the choking off of treatment funding by elected officials. Of course no one steps up to take this responsibility.

The rush to judgment fanned the flames of indignation towards Mr. Kelley. The early reports cited the brandishing of a terrifying 14-inch knife, a claim repeated by the P-G editorialist and a letter from a wise-cracking local chief of police (remind me to avoid Sharpsburg). But by Friday, February 5, the P-G reported a 4-inch knife and DA Zappala displayed a picture of a far less terrifying device.

We know that Kelley and his father initially tried to walk away. We don’t know why they were not allowed to simply leave. Is there any doubt that if a group of white adults were found drinking in North Park that the police would see disbursal as a happy conclusion?

Whatever transpired next, it is hard to believe that nine fit, trained officers were unable to disarm a 37-year-old man without risking the life of a service animal and a human being. Since there were no independent witnesses, there was no immediate threat to the public and no urgency.

Apparently none of those indignant over the death of the police dog were moved to ask why the police officers unleashed the dog in the first place, putting it in harm’s way. When nine officers surrounding a single man feel threatened by him, why would they risk the life of their supposedly cherished “fellow officer?”

No one distressed by the killing of the police dog sees that it is irresponsible to use a dog trained for explosive detection as an attack dog.

Those angry over the dog’s death do not question why it was not fitted with available protective gear (It is sophistry to say, as the authorities do, that it wouldn’t have helped or that it cannot be worn all of the time: responsible handling would have considered the dog’s training and recognized the lack of protection or provided it at the time).

Asking these questions is to acknowledge the “line of duty” owned by the dog’s handlers—to hold a person responsible for putting the dog in harm’s way. It is convenient, of course, to take the P-G editorial line and simply blame Mr. Kelley, who is dead and has no spokesperson.

Nor do those anxious to forget Mr. Kelley recoil from the harsh fact that two police officers fired 12 rounds at close range at his body, an example of massive overreaction and a hair-trigger escalation from deterrence to homicide.

In the days to come, we will be lectured by authorities on police protocol, judgment, police authority, and hair-splitting legalisms. But the morality of taking Mr. Kelley’s life will be evaded. Mr. Kelley will be, like so many others, a forgotten victim of the curse of race and class.

–Greg Godels

POSTSCRIPT: On Saturday, February 6, the Post-Gazette reported that Mr. Kelley did not knife the initial officers as originally announced. The knife appeared after the initial tussle and the use of pepper spray on the part of the officers. We learn this from the police– no thanks to the P-G editorialists and their obscene rush to judgment.

Sorry Chapters in Urban Arrogance

 

Vulgar urban mythology has it that the “riots” after ML King’s 1968 murder instigated white flight from the Pittsburgh neighborhoods with a sizeable Black population, resulting in the patterns of urban segregation we now witness.

The truth is somewhat different.

Pittsburgh, with a relatively small modern-era African-American population segment compared to similar or larger cities, offered some hope that the apartheid-like patterns of segregation and white suburbanization found in most US cities could be avoided. Indeed, in 1930 only 6 census tracts were 50% or more African-American, a count that expanded to 23 by 1960.

But the last hope for a reasonably integrated city was squashed by the post-War “urban renewal” project, Renaissance I, foisted on the city by a cabal of elites. By displacing 1551 low-income African-American families in the lower Hill District and hundreds of businesses, the moguls realized their vision of an imposing entertainment center, commercial real estate, and hi-rent apartments for 594 families. Thus began a process of dislocation of African-Americans variously dubbed “serial forced displacement,” “ethnic cleansing” or “American Apartheid,” a process that continues today with the nearly instantaneous gentrification of East Liberty.

Renaissance I not only drove African-Americans from the lower Hill, it also set in motion other processes of which the city fathers didn’t anticipate or didn’t care. An influx of residents into the upper Hill District brought social problems to an already overcrowded neighborhood. A vigorous outmigration ensued to Homewood Brushton and East Liberty. In a decade, stable, integrated Homewood Brushton went from 21% Black to 71% Black. The demographics of East Liberty shifted even more dramatically. Social tensions, poverty, instability, and other pressures predictably destabilized once integrated communities.

By 1960, 36% of Pittsburgh’s Blacks lived in the Hill District—the first time in history that fewer than 50% of the city’s African-Americans resided in that neighborhood. Renaissance I disrupted African-American historic housing patterns, raised racial tensions, exacerbated social problems, and sparked white flight.

As Ray Lubove wrote of Renaissance I in 1969, “…for the Negro community it has been a highly visible symbol of old-style renewal, indifferent to the housing needs and preferences of low-income families.”

But Renaissance I was not unique to Pittsburgh; it was one instance of a massive dislocation of one million people— 75% minorities—through 2500 projects in 993 US cities. Nor was it the last of a particularly pernicious set of avoidable or manageable processes that systematically displace African-Americans or destabilize their communities. Academics Mindy Thompson Fullilove and Rodrick Wallace identify nine such processes, many of which struck Pittsburgh’s Blacks disproportionately: segregation, redlining, urban renewal, planned shrinkage/catastrophic disinvestment, deindustrialization, mass criminalization, gentrification, HOPE VI, and the foreclosure crisis.

They, in part, explain the Hill District’s loss of population from 38,100 in 1950 to 9,830 in 1990.

American Apartheid Today

The continuation and intensification of these processes impoverish and erode Pittsburgh’s Black population. And once again, the lower Hill is the epicenter (along with East Liberty) of the struggle for just and equitable policies that benefit all citizens and not just the elites and their political enablers.

It is a bitter irony that the lower Hill—once the location of modest homes and rooming houses for mainly low-income Blacks—has been virtually gifted to moguls who make their money from one of the few remaining strongholds of celebrated white dominance: professional hockey. Today and going forward, the anchor of the area is an oasis for the entertainment of mainly white suburbanites who only favor our city for downtown office jobs, gladiator extravaganzas from the Steelers, and the Penguin celebration of white athleticism. When the cost of their engagement with the city is tallied, they take more than they give.

Similarly, the Penguin owners are takers more than givers. Under threat of the owners moving the financially troubled franchise (2007), politicos bundled the building of a new rink with the awarding of a local casino license in an arcane effort to disguise any appearance of public financing. When that deal collapsed, a new deal was constructed that put the state (and tax payers) on the hook for nearly 40% of the annual debt payments on the Stadium Authority issued bonds. And now that public funds have radically pumped up the value of the once-nearly-broke franchise, the owners—including the sainted hockey puck, Republican Mario Lemieux—hope to cash out by selling the franchise and its publicly funded perks for three-quarters of a billion dollars. A nice return on a once rummage sale franchise.

The Peduto administration, the Stadium Authority, and the URA are scrambling to put lipstick on the piggish owners and the deal that the city’s power brokers constructed to court them. In addition, the development rights to the surrounding area were awarded to the Penguins as a bonus along with $15 million in credits to buy the land and tens of millions in tax breaks! Adding to the embarrassment, the Federal government has refused a $21 million grant to advance the development of the 28 acre site. And an anchor tenant, USX, has reneged on its commitment to move its headquarters to the site.

In an effort to rectify some of the sins of the past inflicted on the lower Hill District, the Hill District Consensus group fought vigorously to insure the inclusion of affordable housing as part of the 28 acre development. But they have been forced to file a complaint with HUD over the Penguin’s failure to live up to the plan accepted in 2011.

With the Hill District Master Plan, the Penguins were to develop 30% of all housing for lower income residents who would, by HUD standards, be able to pay for housing affordable by those making 50% or less of the area’s median income. But that low bar is no longer acceptable to the City or the Penguins who have countered with a plan that would establish a benchmark for affordability at over twice the median level of Pittsburgh’s African-Americans, effectively denying all but a few Blacks an opportunity to live in the new development. The Hill District Consensus Group correctly identified this as a heavy handed ruse to escape any obligation to lower income Blacks and a further step towards the gentrification of the Hill District. Thus, they turned to HUD for relief.

Kudos to the Hill District activists who have challenged the juggernaut—the combined forces of the City administration, the Sports Authority, the URA, and a sports team. They and their counterparts in other neighborhoods hopefully constitute the beginning of a city wide resistance to the destruction of our neighborhoods, the dominance of urban elites, and the rejection of diversity. We sorely need a counterforce to the arrogance of elites.

Greg Godels