“This is going to be a catalyst. We’re taking back our community.”
On a bitter cold January afternoon in Uptown, the chatter started as a low murmur — and then it got louder. As more people crowded the sidewalk outside Pizza Milano, it was becoming clear that this wasn’t just a show of unity on Fifth Avenue, but a demand for action.
Until they got it, they wouldn’t stop.
“We’re not standing for it anymore,” said Anthony Hall, 33, of the North Side. “This is going to be a catalyst. We’re taking back our community.”
And so it happened — a few hours later, the restaurant’s manager was fired, a speedy victory for the citizens-turned-activists who demanded retribution for his assault of a black woman in the restaurant a few days earlier, an incident recorded on video. It is this kind of impact, this urgency, that has become the new normal for black activism in Pittsburgh in 2018.
Immersed in a two-year stretch of significant political change, black activists in Pittsburgh describe a movement of young people — particularly women of color — who are making a bid for political and social power locally, using social media to coalesce around small but meaningful causes that make an immediate impact.
Their activism is rooted in a desire for equality and a distrust of the political process, and takes its shape in the causes they support, protests they organize, art they create and campaigns they run.
“We’re at a crossroads in America, and we can confront this in a brave, intentional way or we can cower,” said Summer Lee, who is running for state office. “I believe how we react to this right now will dictate the culture of this nation moving forward.”
Several activists described the election of Donald Trump as a “wake-up call,” reinvigorating a discussion that has always existed below the surface about race, blackness and white supremacy in America.
But grassroots activism in Pittsburgh — though galvanized by all things Trump — isn’t focused on changing the White House. Instead, they fight small. They fight local. At Chatham University, student activists fought for more diverse programming and for a minority dinner during orientation. Another group of activists successfully elected four people to the Woodland Hills school board.
And then there was the Justice for Jade movement, when Pizza Milano became a microcosm for the movement.
“You have a group of primarily black women come together, in zero-degree weather, and shut this pizza place down,” said Jasiri X, head of the prominent Pittsburgh activist group 1Hood. “It was a really organic thing. This wasn’t, like, the NAACP organizing.”
More and more across Pittsburgh, black activists haven’t turned to traditional organizing to fight for change. Instead of forming by-the-books organizations, they’ve used social media to galvanize people around shared values — a trend that also has emerged nationally in activism.
“People are trying to find ways to heal from traumas that have been going on amongst black activists and come together authentically,” said Celeste Scott, anactivist who helped assemble an alternative march to the Downtown Women’s March after Mr. Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
Ms. Scott’s collective, the Black Femme Excellence Co., grew out of the Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional March, which labeled the main march as a display of traditional feminism exclusive to white middle-class women. In the year since then, her collective has organized events for black women, including a Beyonce-themed baby shower that gathered baby supplies to distribute to pregnant black and brown women in the community. “We decided we wanted to serve, and fill the gap for black femme leadership that was needed,” she said.
The journey of an activist leader can often times start in politics. Daeja Baker volunteered on Barack Obama’s campaign, then fought for change at Chatham as one of 11 African American students. Now her activism focuses on giving people of all genders, races and sexual orientations a voice. She helped organize a Black Brilliance march in August in Homewood, a showing of black unity in response to the white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, Va.
Ms. Baker said a greater communication between activists has empowered causes.
“I think that part of it does have to do with the political climate nationally,” Ms. Baker said. “I think that people have just kind of moved toward coming together and coalition building a lot more.”
Some are vying for political power, bidding to win seats on the councils, boroughs and committees that have been “very old” and “very white” for a long time, said Ms. Lee. The 30-year-old Howard University graduate said it’s no longer necessary to ask for a seat at the table. She wants black people to start their own table by grooming candidates for local offices.
“We have this narrative that if black people just voted more, everything would be OK,” Ms. Lee said. “I challenge that. I used to believe in the importance of voting, but now, like MLK said, I feel like I’ve integrated myself into a burning building. That should light a fire under us to start supporting diverse candidacies.”
Jasiri X, a longtime activist, said he has noticed a new political fervor among black activists, and said it is important to “get some younger, more forward-thinking, progressive folks on the ballot.” A heightened interest in activism has impacted his own group. More than 40 people applied to be a part of the collective during a recent sign-up period, showing an unprecedented interest in using art to talk about issues of black pride and blackness.
It’s showing in their art. On Wednesday, Jasiri released a video for his song “The Whitest House,” which flashes images across the screen of the “sea of white men” holding the presidency. He said it is becoming more mainstream to talk about one’s blackness. In January, the collective launched its first Artivist Academy. Billed as “assembling an Artivist Army in Trump’s America,” the academy will focus on mentoring artists and activists to use their talents to fight injustices and advocate for social change.
“Now is the time more than ever for action. Trump being president might be one of the best things to happen to black people,” said artist Jordan Howard, who performs under the name LiveFromTheCity. “I felt like us seeing that mobilized us in such a way, OK. ‘Oh, we gotta do something.’”
Julian Routh: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1952, Twitter @julianrouth.