Pittsburgh at the Thomas Merton Center

Thomas Merton centre As part of the anarchism in Ireland speaking tour I spoke at the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh April 2008. While in the city I stayed with and met with Pittsburgh anarchists and checked out some of the radical left and union history of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh reminds me strongly of Cork city as its built on a number of hills surrounding a couple of rivers. Also like Cork its got a fair amount of derelict building, in fact like Cork of a decade or more ago there are whole sections which are derelict, I presume because of the general loss of industry from the mid-West.

While in Pittsburgh I interviewed NEFAC members Lady and Bill, the audio is at http://www.indymedia.ie/attachments/apr2008/pittsburgh.mp3 issues covered include the anarchist history of the city, transport cuts, current anarchist and left activity and of course their take on the US elections. 16 people attended the talk at the Thomas Merton Center - which has been around since 1972

The passengers on my flight into Pittsburgh (from Atlanta) included a US soldier in uniform who was returning from Iraq. Towards the end of the flight the stewardess drew attention to his presence and said something about how grateful they all were at his sacrifice etc, etc. Everybody (except me) then clapped which was an odd feeling. I can understand their perspective as if your a US citizen he's not just a member of an imperialist army but also potentially your son (or daughter) but throughout the trip the strongest disconnect I felt was that between my gut reaction to those in military uniform and that of those around me.

It's hard to sum this up clearly, it certainly wasn't a dislike (never mind hatred) for individual soldiers, I talked to a few although of course those tended to be those who had turned against the war. It was more that I was coming from a political culture where popular identification was going to be far more with an abstract insurgent who lay in ambush than the imperialist invader / occupier. I'd felt this quite strongly also while listening to the contributions of the vets during the Winter Soldier hearings in Gainsvile, Florida a few days before.

The place I stayed in Pittsburgh was the second location in the US where I saw European style use of police survellence cameras. In this case a corner near the house had been identified as a hang out for teenagers or drug dealers or whatever and as a result briseled with cameras looking in every direction. Baltimore was the other place I saw heavy use of such cameras but elsewhere in the US activists were shocked by articles they had read about their use in London and seemed unaware that experiments were well underway closer to home.

Pittsburgh is of course an old union town (perhaps the union town) with a long radical history. Perhaps in turn this is due to large scale migration there from Merthyr Tydfil is Wales which saw a working class insurrection led by the local coal miners in 1831, the first time the red flag was flown in Britain. That rising was brutally put down and this was the period in which Pittsburgh was undergoing rapid growth reaching 1000 factories by 1857. In July 1892 Pittsburgh was the site of the Homestead battle when thousands of striking workers defended themselves against 300 attacking Pinkertons. The battle went on all day as more and more armed workers poured into the area, by the evening the Pinkertons were forced to surrender to the workers.

On 16th July 4,000 soldiers were snuck into the town and they attacked the occupied factories and evicted the workers. This allowed Henry Clay Frick to restart the furnaces, the troops drove off and wounder over a dozen workers who tried to prevent this. On the 18th 16 of the strike leaders were charged with conspiracy, riot and murder. These events led the anarchist Alexander Berkman, working with Emma Goldman to attempt to assassinate Frick on the 23rd July. Frick survived and the action seems only to have backfired and helped those who wanted the strike to end.

The city itself continued to grow and steel production boomed, by 1911 Pittsburgh was producing between 1/3 and 1/2 of US steel. But as with the region in general in the 1970's it started to go into decline and the population of the city area had halved since then.

My sight seeing in Pittsburgh was confined to a drive through the big cemetery in town (like Cork it seems to rain a lot), the talk in the Thomas Merton where I saw the scale of the local 'Books to prisoners' program that operates out of the basement, a lunchtime trip to a deserted Ethopian restaurant (the other parallel with Baltimore where we also ate in an Ethopian restaurant) and a visit to a church that had been turned into a micro brewery / pub. This was impressively big and while unfortuanatly at this remove I can't remember anything specific about the beer I did get the chance to try some Pierogies, a local food based on Polish style stuffed dumplings.

I don't remember a huge amount about the meeting itself. There was no digital projector so I remember having to balance a big CRT on top of some sort of plastic box that sagged alarmingly under the weight but held on. Just before the meeting several members of a local church group arrived to go down into the basement to pack books as part of their volunteer work for the books to prisoners program. Before I arrived in Pittsburgh I'd heard of the Pittsburgh Organising Group but while I did talk with one of them I think he was the only POGer to attend the meeting. I think the Pittsburgh meeting was one of those that was recorded for local broadcast - I seem to remember this was for 'Rust Belt Radio' that operated out of the upstairs which is indymedia connected. I've not found that audio online so if anyone can source it email me at andrewnflood at gmail.com

I arrived in town just as the story of the punch up at the Labor Notes conference arising from the SEIU organised protest at some of the invited speakers was going into circulation. I talked about this with Lady and Bill who were putting on the meeting, it was a topic that continued to come up across the next few weeks, with people taking quite different perspectives on the rights and wrongs of what had happened.

The mid-west section of the tour was in some ways the most difficult to get finalised because it was being organised by lots of disconnected groups and individuals and to get to Chicago for the 'Finding our Roots' conference I had to do 5 seperate cities in only a week. The Pittsburgh to Cleveland corridor brought me close to 'home' across the border I Southern Ontario, a mere 6 hours on the bus. I'll confess that as I was heading to the airport in Atlanta I was tempted by the idea of scrapping what was left of the tour and heading east instead of west. The warm welcome I received from my host in Pittsburgh helped to keep me on the road at that point of weakness for which I'm very grateful - I'd have missed a lot otherwise.

Getting out of Pittsburgh was one of my Greyhound near misses. My next stop, Kent State, was not far away in miles but the bus was infrequent and didn't in any case stop there but in a nearby town. For scheduling reasons this meant an early morning departure and the bus station entrance was a little harder to find then expected. This meant I arrived only 30 minutes before the bus was due to depart and where in most of the world this would be plenty of time not so in North America. As I went through the door my heart sunk as it was obvious that the que that had already formed was far bigger than could fit on a bus. I already knew that Greyhound did not automatically put on a second bus in such cases.

Then a couple of minutes before the bus was due to pull out they suddenly announced a changed in departure gate. This resulted in pandemonium as people charged the new gate but I did well out of it finding myself near the top of the new que. After a while it became clear that they had also put on a second bus and were splitting the destinations so everybody calmed down a good deal, it would seem to have been a good bit more sensible to have announced this before announcing the gate change.

It was a cold but sunny morning as I climbed on the bus. The greyhound station is down by one of the rivers so you get a good view across and down it as you board the bus. My big worry leaving the south was that I'd return to freezing and snowy weather in the mid-west, I didin't really have the clothes for this. But I was lucky in that I got a window of warmer, wetter weather in between two cold spells as I covered the 1200 km (as the crow flies) between Pittsburgh and Minneapolis far to the west.

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


This entry was a very brief one which was greatly extended 27/11/08 and slightly updated 7/10/09.  You can find more of my North American speaking tour by looking back through the blog archive



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