Voices against the G20

October 7, 2009

Three activists involved in organizing opposition to the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh--Kipp Dawson, executive board member, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers; Al Hart, editor, UE News, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America; and Paul LeBlanc, National Writers Union (United Auto Workers, Local 1981)--detail the protests and repression.

A SUMMIT meeting of the Group of 20 (G20) in Pittsburgh September 24-25 was met by an outpouring of challenges and protests by activists from a broad range of social movements, community groups, unions and progressive organizations.

The G20 is made up of finance ministers and central bankers--and at such summit meetings, heads of state--of the world's top 19 most economically developed countries plus the European Union. Its critics in labor and social movements charge that it represents multinational corporations and banks whose single-minded quest for maximizing profits is responsible for the devastation of the economies, cultures and environments of countries throughout the world.

Educational forums and other activities--including several demonstrations--were the result, culminating in a massive Peoples' March, with some 8,000 participants, according to march organizers, on Friday, September 25.

Starting off the "G20 week" in Pittsburgh was a Peoples' Summit September 19-22, organized by educators and activists who called for "a world in which basic rights--freedom of expression, freedom of thought and religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want--are enjoyed by all people."

A line of riot police brandish batons at G20 protesters in Pittsburgh
A line of riot police brandish batons at G20 protesters in Pittsburgh

Peoples' Summit organizers estimate that 700-800 people attended one or another session of the three-day event. Among those addressing the Peoples' Summit were global justice activist Walden Bello of the Philippines; Privilege Haangandu from Jubilee Zambia; Mexican labor leader Benedicto Martinez; journalist Jeremy Scahill; and historian Howard Zinn, who called for the gathering to challenge "the bigwigs of finance and industry who are trying to determine our fate" with an agenda of "what working people need," based on "solidarity across national lines."

United Steel Workers (USW) Education Director Lisa Jordan and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President John Tarka brought to the Peoples' Summit their sense of optimism from the just-concluded AFL-CIO national convention, which had taken place in Pittsburgh.

Also drawing support from the USW and United Electrical workers (UE) was a "March for Jobs" through the Hill District, in the heart of Pittsburgh's African American community. The march on September 20 drew some 500 people and was organized by Bail Out the People. Speakers included USW Vice President Fred Redmond and Clarence Thomas of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Bail Out the People also organized a weeklong "Tent City on the Hill" to focus attention on the plight of the unemployed and the homeless and the need for a jobs program.

UE's International Labor Affairs Director Robin Alexander was a key organizer of "Peoples Voices," another series of forums on the problems of the G20 and corporate globalization, on September 23-25. Sponsoring groups included Jobs with Justice, Grassroots Global Justice and Alliance for Responsible Trade/Hemispheric Social Alliance.

The first day's panel discussion included community and international activists; Steelworkers President Leo Gerard; and Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics, former World Bank vice president and chief economist, and critic of global economic policies and bodies. The next day's event featured 10 issue circles that indicted the G20's policies and called for alternatives; this led to a "People's Tribunal," that found the G20 guilty of violating human rights.

A VARIETY of other activities took place. Among these were demonstrations, vigils and educational efforts by a progressive and ecumenical religious coalition dubbed the G6 Billion. An educational encampment was organized by Code Pink and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and another by the Three Rivers Climate Convergence (which was, however, targeted and essentially closed down by police repression).

Public officials and news media--in particular TV news--spent the months leading to the G20 stoking fear and loathing of protestors and predicting violence. Outside police agencies augmented Pittsburgh's 900-officer police department to a security force of 4,000 police and 2,000 National Guard troops. As one newspaper columnist noted, this was the largest mobilization of armed force in Southwest Pennsylvania since 8,000 National Guard troops were sent to crush the Homestead steelworkers in 1892.

Considerable media attention was attracted on September 24 by the anarchist-led confrontations of the Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project. Its non-permitted actions, drawing about 1,500 people, were repressed fairly quickly by several thousand heavily armed and armored police forces, using tear-gas and pepper-spray, disrupting the working-class neighborhoods of Lawrenceville and Bloomfield, and making over 40 arrests.

Far more impressive, however, was the week's culmination--a Friday afternoon peaceful, legal Peoples' March with a broad and diverse outpouring of 8,000. Demands included: End war and occupations; Allow public input; jobs for all; Environmental justice; Economic justice.

Initiated by the Thomas Merton Center and its Anti-War Committee, the action drew endorsements from 70 organizations, including the USW and UE. The three-mile march was punctuated by three enthusiastic rallies, which included labor and community representatives and whose co-chairs included labor musician Anne Feeney and UE News editor Al Hart.

An ugly aftermath occurred on Friday evening, at the University of Pittsburgh, in the form of an unprovoked yet massive, highly coordinated police assault on students and others. Many saw this as "pay-back" from militarized and hyped-up police forces who had anticipated large-scale street battles that never materialized.

Over 100 arrests were made--including a number of by-standers and journalists. The assault has been widely denounced, including by the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh (Communications Workers of America Local 38061), representing employees of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, noting that:

[M]any of those arrested were attempting to lawfully exercise their First Amendment rights of peaceful assembly and of press freedom, rights that are essential to the survival of democracy. Others were bystanders who found themselves caught between lines of police ordering them to disperse and then blocking their dispersal until they were arrested.

The consensus among organizers and activists was that the week's events posed an important and effective challenge to the policies represented by the G20.

Further Reading

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