By Atiya Irvin-Mitchell
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
In light of recent weeks, the weekly “What Black Pittsburgh Needs to Know about Covid19” town hall sponsored through a collaboration with 1Hood Media and Urbankind Institute diverted the regular topic and focused on media.
Observing the moment, Cheryl Hall-Russell, president of B3W observed that the recent deaths which sparked protests not only across the nation but all over the world marked the end of deniability for many people.
“Sixteen days ago was the death of George Floyd, sixteen days ago a lot of white people in America lost their policing virginity,” Hall-Russell said. “They could no longer say they had no idea how we’d been treated, how lives had been taken. They had [George] Floyd, they had the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, and we had Breonna killed in her bed and there’s no way you could say ‘I had no idea’.”
And yet, although cautiously encouraged by the activism that’s taken place over the past two weeks the panelists expressed concern that some of the allyship that had taken place was performative. The first example examined was Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s decision to commission “Black Lives Matter” being painted in yellow on what was once Pennsylvania ave.
“The symbol of having Black Lives Matter on what was Pennsylvania ave…but when we get into substance and we say to the mayor ‘okay black lives if actually matter to you [then] you should have a budget that’s reflective of that,” Jasiri X said. “Giving the police more money in the midst of all of this police brutality and police killing and not holding police accountable is actually the antithesis to saying black lives matter.”
Currently Bowser’s proposed budget includes $45 million for the Metropolitan Police Department. Closer to home there was additional concern over the recent Black Lives Matter mural that can be seen in Downtown Pittsburgh. Jasiri X, said that like in D.C. it was a powerful symbol but was concerned over reports that the artists involved failed to consult black artists.
“This is a city that does not traditionally put a lot of support behind black artists. The last time we had a black artist do public art, which was Alisha Wormsley, put up ‘There Are Black People in the Future’ [and] white folks said it was focused and demanded it be taken down,” he said. “These are things Pittsburgh needs to grapple with.”
The lack of consultation and fact that the mural went up so quickly was another example of privilege for guest Janelle Young, a community artist in residence at the Urbankind Institute.
When recalling a recent project beautifying a Beltzhoover basketball court Young explained it had taken nearly a year to get approval.
“Black artists are left out of the conversation; this is exactly what we’re talking about,” Young said. “The system leaves us out all the time. Why wouldn’t you think to reach out to a black artist or muralists? I know a few, we could’ve partnered”
The panel agreed if the city truly wanted to take a stance it needed to invest in black artists and furthermore invest in policies that made life better for black residents.
“You can create whatever narrative you want, we can see the maylor kneeling, and Fitzgerald and the police kneeling but the stats show that this is a racist city,” Jasiri X explained. “The stats show that this is the worst place for black women to live and until you do something about the policies that make it so bad for black people here all the other stuff really don’t matter.”
Speaking of city government with discussions over defunding police departments happening, Jasiri X expressed frustration with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s comments in a Monday interview as he felt they were representative of his privilege.
“To hear mayor Peduto say less police wouldn’t make him more safe and it’s like of course it won’t because you’re a powerful white man,”Jasiri X said. “Like, you’re a white man with power in Pittsburgh so when the police come around they’re not treating you the way they treat us. Less police makes me feel super safe.”
Jasiri X, wondered if Peduto had spoken with any black people regarding recent events. If not, he challenged him to reach out to local organizations such as the Urbankind Institute to educate himself.
In addition to art, the panel examined the recent controversy regarding the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s banning two black journalists from covering Black Lives Matter protests. And later, sidelining reporters who’d supported them on social media.
The town hall invited Alexis Johnson, who’d made national headlines after a tweet about frequent pandemonium that followed Kenny Chesney concerts went viral and lead to the managers at the post-gazette barring her from Black Lives Matter coverage.
When recalling the event Johnson, said she didn’t think much about the tweet after she’d sent it. The Monday she returned to work, she said, she was excited to pitch different stories on the protests to her editor.
“A few hours later they told me I was being taken off of the coverage that I never was put on because they felt like I violated our social media guidelines,” Johnson explained “And that I’d showed bias in this tweet. And if i were to put my byline on any stories around the protests, the credibility of the newsroom would be put into question.”
Johnson argued against being banned from coverage for 20 to 25 minutes to no avail.
“I pushed back, we were on the phone for 20 maybe 25 minutes because I kept asking how does this show bias?” Johnson recalled. “How does this violate our guidelines and they didn’t really have an answer they just kept saying my opinion came through.”
Johnson added that she’d later learn from Michael Fucco, the President of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, that there actually were no social media guidelines that the Post-Gazette’s reporters had signed off on.
The union has filed a grievance on Johnson’s behalf for unfairly punishing her. Johnson pointed out that a white male reporter had tweeted something similarly but wasn’t removed from coverage until the union president pointed it out.
“I was pulled off the coverage and he wasn’t, we went on to cover a protest the same day and it wasn’t until my union president said ‘why did Alexis get pulled off and so and so didn’t,” Johnson said.
Speaking of the Kenny Chesney concerts that have become infamous in the city for their misconduct and trash left behind, Jasiri X pointed out a double standard.
“This Kenney Chesney thing happened three, four years in a row. Heinz Field was gonna ban Kenny Chesney because of the amount of trash people were leaving and the amount of arrests, but it’s never portrayed as an unruly place,” Jasiri X observed. “Let a Beyonce concert have forty arrests, then the conversation becomes about how black people can’t control themselves.”
Johnson wondered what two sides there were to racism and noted that in 2018 in the aftermath of the Tree of Life massecre it wasn’t considered bias to condem anti-semitism and white supremacy. Ultimately, Johnson said that many of the old rules about journalistic objectivity didn’t apply to the world as it is today. Furthermore, she pointed out that racist violence often holds a personal element for black reporters.
“Black journalists across this country have been covering these things since the beginning of time and we’ve had to swallow it, we can’t protest and we can’t tweet about how we’re feeling even though we have some of the biggest platforms, but we can’t use them to speak truth to power,” Johnson stated. “But we still have to show up everyday, and the fact that that story was taken away from me was kind of disheartening because I’m a pittsburgh native. Those were my friends protesting out there.
In response to the national criticism over Johnson and later Michael Santiago’s treatment the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette doubled down on it’s actions. On June 10, Keith Burris, the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, released a letter June 10 insisting that,“ Editors at this newspaper did not single out a black reporter and a black photographer and ban them from covering Pittsburgh protests after the killing of George Floyd.”
As it stands, Johnson remains employed at the Post-Gazette and has been assigned other stories, but the union has asked that management publicly apologize, reinstate her and other reporters banned from coverage, and cease “retaliating.” But, that would only be the start.
“I’m still working. It’s not like I’ve been fired, its just that they need to take a hard look at what made them respond like this,” Johnson said. “They’re getting all this backlash and they’re doubling down and retaliating. I think they need to ask where that comes from? Until that’s addressed and I don’t know if it will ever be because this isn’t the first time the Post-Gazette’s been in a situation like this.”