By Matt Petras
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition drew dozens of protestors Friday evening outside the East Liberty Whole Foods that served as the first in a development plan that displaced hundreds of residents.
“We, former residents and supporters, have called for perpetual boycott of the Penn Plaza site. We don’t care if you’re a dentist,” Taylor told Pittsburgh Current at the demonstration. “If you move on here, we’re going to call for you to be boycotted. We’re not going anywhere.”
Randall Taylor, a 9th district city council candidate and former member of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board who was displaced himself, led the protest. He along with the crowd advocated for a boycott of the Penn Plaza site and demanded Whole Foods either pull out or pay reparations for the hundreds of displaced residents who lived in the affordable housing building.
Whole Foods more intensely catches the ire of these protestors partially because of its massive corporate overlord, Amazon, led by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man. Amazon’s imprint is all over Whole Foods–anyone who enters the store can’t miss deal advertisements for Amazon Prime members, for instance.
Several of the signs held by protestors, therefore, signaled jabs at Amazon, calling Bezos a “jagoff” and asking Alexa to “stop gentrifying Pittsburgh.” Other signs made fun of LG Realty Advisors, the group at the head of the current Penn Plaza site. Protesters often rejected the name LG, instead opting for “Limitless Greed.”
For a little more than an hour, the protestors walked up and down the sidewalk by the Whole Foods, chanting calls for affordable housing and reparations for the former residents. “Amazon, Whole Foods, guilty as hell!” the group yelled, among many other chants.
Megaphone in hand, Taylor and a few others gave some remarks. Taylor made clear that any business looking to set up shop in Penn Plaza should not feel welcomed.
“This Whole Foods here, they should think about what they did, because this store was the one who initiated it,” he said. “This store, right here.”
Taylor also addressed Whole Foods customers when he spoke.
“These people in here shopping, you’re part of this. You have responsibility for what happens here,” Taylor said. “You have a responsibility, and don’t hide from that. We’re not mad at you, but you accept your responsibility.”
Brittney Chantele, a local artist and activist, also spoke.
“Everyone who knows me knows that I’m an emotional person,” Chantelle said. “And I’m not going to apologize for that. I am hurt. My heart hurts. I’m not saying that to be cliché. My heart literally hurts right now.”
She spoke about the implications of being displaced from affordable housing in the city.
“We know that people have lost their jobs because of these decisions,” she said. “When someone loses affordable housing with access to the busway and they are forced to move outside of the city limits to be able to afford housing, they are no longer on the busway.”
Her appearance spoke to a sense of solidarity among a blend of activists with concerns that go beyond affordable housing. After she spoke, Taylor led chants about Antwon Rose II, the 17-year-old, unarmed black teenager killed by a Pittsburgh police officer.
“What was his name?” he’d ask the crowd. “How old was he?”
Helen Gerhardt, an activist who works for Just Harvest, a local non-profit that fights hunger, also joined the protests. When she wasn’t chanting, sign in hand, with the other protestors, she was chatting with and handing out literature to folks nearby waiting for the bus or walking down the street. She appeared out of a concern for folks struggling to get by in the city.
“The fight for a truly livable city and housing justice for all of us, including low income people and so many of the groups of people that are supposed to be protected by civil rights,” Gerhardt said. “Black people, people with disabilities, seniors. More and more of those people are being pushed out into the suburbs.”
Beyond the increased difficulty of working in the city, being moved into the suburbs has a long list of consequences, according to Gerhardt.
“They don’t have access to healthy food, to public transit, to healthcare, to the networks of friends and kin, the neighborhoods that they’ve lived for sometimes decades, even generations,” Gerhardt said.
Taylor joked that the protestors may stay the night. While that didn’t happen, he did make it clear that they won’t stop fighting when he led one of the last chants:
“We’ll be back!”