Pittsburgh officials and activists welcomed progressive activists from across the country to the Netroots Nation Downtown convention on Thursday. And they had some lessons to share – perhaps the most important being that if a progressive political movement can win here, it can win anywhere.
“Don’t procrastinate because our message is winning,” thundered State Representative and congressional candidate Summer Lee in a keynote address at the end of the first day of the convention.
Using a label to describe more conservative, pro-business Democrats, she said, “Pittsburgh can show you we can win anywhere. If we can win in the city of Blue Dog Dems on environmental justice, then we can win on environmental justice anywhere.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, and panel discussions and workshops throughout the day discussed how to build a grassroots movement in a time when money dominates the political landscape. Discussions covered issues ranging from tackling climate change misinformation to using social media tools to organize while challenging the power of Big Tech corporations.
A panel discussion on black-led movements involved input from a handful of Pittsburgh-area activists who presented a multi-pronged strategy for building a political movement.
Brandi Fisher, who leads the Alliance for Public Accountability, spoke about the role two referendums put to local voters last year – one to ban city police no-knock warrants and the other to significantly reduce the use of solitary confinement in Allegheny County. Prison – played into a larger political strategy.
Progressives already had key races on the ballot, including an effort to elect Ed Gainey as Pittsburgh’s first black mayor and to elect a slate of Common Pleas judges open to criminal justice reform. Referendums, she said, were a way to boost turnout among voters who might support those candidates.
“People say blacks and browns don’t vote,” Fisher said, but that’s because “a lot of times politics doesn’t mean change in our lives. At the end of the election, we usually see no change in the quality of our lives. … So we decided what had to have something on the ballot that would get blacks and browns and even poor whites on that ballot.
Miracle Jones, director of advocacy and policy at activist group 1Hood, said political movements are built outside of efforts to get the vote. While large-scale protests are sometimes derided as ineffective or a distraction from voting, Jones noted that protests against police brutality in recent years have created a common cause for participants.
In a segregated city like Pittsburgh, she said: ‘When you go to a protest, it’s one of the most diverse protests [events] you can see outside of a Steelers game. When you protest, your life depends on a stranger.
This process, she said, builds solidarity and trust – and the way police responded to these protests has strengthened a movement for change.
“What happened in 2020 was not just white people coming out to protest, but white people getting hurt” by the police, she said. “When it was the 20-year-old white kid you sent to college who was gassed in the middle of the street in East Liberty…it angered them, and so people stepped up” to support the criminal justice reform efforts the following year.
There were understandably many critics from the American right, especially figures such as Jeffrey Yass, the hedge fund billionaire from Pennsylvania who has become a top funder of conservative candidates and causes.
But perhaps inevitably in a one-party city like Pittsburgh, where the power structure is largely supported by Democrats, there have been complaints against both parties.
Jones, for his part, pitted Republican support for the Jan. 6 protesters against the criticism protest organizers received from nominal allies.
“These people who literally tried to stage a coup, the most moderate person in their party will always support them,” she said. “And that’s one thing that still hurts a bit.”
Lee made a similar point in his keynote that evening.
“We’re always told, you can’t be too progressive, you can’t be too black,” she said, “Rule #1 is you always have to appeal to someone in the middle that you have never met…” [But] while we were hunting that elusive voter, blacks and browns were dying every day.
Still, speakers said the success of the progressive movement in Pittsburgh bodes well for the future – whether activists will fight for it in every ballot, and across the electorate. And they said more good news might come
During a discussion among state lawmakers, state representative and former Senate candidate Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia said the Democrats’ recent political victory on issues such as climate change reflected the influence of young voters.
“We are changing… the balance of power,” he said.
State Rep. Sara Innamorato urged attendees “not to sleep in Pittsburgh” in future election cycles.
“In 2023, we expect great things,” she said.
Allegheny County will hold a number of key elections next year, starting with an open county executive seat as the term-limited Rich Fitzgerald completes his third term. Innamorato is seen as a possible candidate for that seat, a fact to which local activist Khari Mosley, who moderated this discussion, alluded: “I’m not going to blow you up,” Mosley told Innamorato, “but he can there will be announcements coming at some point.
Gainey, meanwhile, urged candidates and activists to stay engaged wherever they see an opportunity — and even in places where others might not. He said he became Pittsburgh’s first black mayor by addressing not only those who cared about his cause, but those who doubted it.
“I told them, ‘Take me to Donald Trump country,'” he said. “Because if it’s progressive values that’s bringing about a new economy, a new movement in this city, take me where they say they don’t want me.”