By Kaye Burnet | The Duquesne Duke
More than 1,000 protesters marched down Fifth Avenue from
Oakland to the City-County Building on Grant Street Monday to call for an end to police brutality, racism and war.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march, which was organized by activist groups We Change Pittsburgh and the Thomas Merton Center, stretched approximately 2.5 miles, beginning in the heart of the University of Pittsburgh’s campus.
The protest was one of many that erupted across the United States. People took to the streets in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, St. Paul, Atlanta, St. Louis and Chicago, among other cities, to protest police brutality and racism with marches and rallies.
Pittsburgh’s demonstrators made demands that went beyond ending racism and included greater LGTB rights, global peace and additional redistribution of wealth. One man called for an end to American militarism, saying that all American wars are racist and “target people of color” and that the American media are responsible for perpetuating racism at home.
“Remember how the same media portrayed the protesters in Ferguson? Violent criminals, looters, animals they said,” the speaker shouted. “Well, I’ll tell you who’s the criminals. The police that murdered black and Latino people with impunity are the real criminals.”
Edith Bell, 91, held a sign for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom protesting what she saw as racist wars in the Middle East.
Rebecca Waltner-Toews and her husband brought their sons, ages two and five.
“This is something my husband and I would have done a lot before we had kids, and we feel its important to raise our kids realizing what’s going to be important for them and their future,” Waltner-Toews said. “There’s a lot of messages and I want my kids to hear all of them.”
Several college students attended, including Raghav Sharma, a University of Pittsburgh Students for Justice in Palestine board member.
Sharma’s group worked with ANSWER, or Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, a co-sponsor of the march. Sharma was there to call for a resolution to conflict between Palestine and Israel, which he said has ties to race conflicts in America.
“If we want to attack the great evils that plague our society, we need to be able to recognize the things that tie those evils together and attack them at their roots,” Sharma said.
Julia Johnson, founding member of We Change Pittsburgh, said the march took a month to a plan. We Change Pittsburgh is an organization of Pittsburgh youth that was started in November in response to the trial of Michael Brown’s killer, officer Darren Wilson. Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri last August.
According to Johnson, a police liaison said only two police officers would be present for the march. Instead, approximately 30 police officers lined the route, re-directing traffic and interacting peacefully with protesters. Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay attended as an observer.
Johnson said the police chief’s presence was distracting from the focus of the event, which she identified as holding public officials accountable for social justice issues.
“I didn’t get to talk to him because he was too busy smiling for the cameras,” Johnson said.
Johnson also said the police threatened to arrest anyone who “set foot on the interstate,” as several protesters did in a December demonstration.
Pittsburgh’s police force has been at the center of racial tensions multiple times in the last five years, most notably with the shooting of Leon Ford, a black East Liberty resident who was shot five times and paralyzed by an officer after attempting to pull away at a traffic stop in November 2012, according to Johnson.
Johnson said people who think Martin Luther King, Jr. brought an end to racism are ignoring ongoing problems.
“There are black residents in Pittsburgh who suffer racial profiling every day,” Johnson said. “[King] did push for groundbreaking new laws and progress, but there’s more to be done. People think the work is done, but we’re still facing oppression.”
We Change Pittsburgh organizer Davon Magwood led chants with his megaphone during the protest. He said Martin Luther King Jr. Day needs to be treated as a “day on instead of a day off” for Pittsburghers.
“Pittsburgh’s one of the most segregated cities in the county,” Magwood said. “If you want to avoid a certain group of people, Jewish or black or whatever, you can. Garfield, Homewood, the Hill District—those are the black neighborhoods. Everybody knows that. And they don’t get as much attention as the other neighborhoods.”
Magwood said more demonstrations are being planned, including possible “die-ins,” which are similar to traditional sit-ins but instead involve protesters lying on the ground. Nothing specific has been announced yet.
McLay could not be reached for comment.