CPRB and Free Speech?

Beth Pittinger, Executive Director of the Citizen Police Review Board and longtime friend to local activists, seems to have changed her tune of late.  Usually on the frontline defending members of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group and other local activists from police-driven infringements on their right to assemble, Pittinger's sensibilities have been offended by local animal rights activists who protested at Dan Onorato's church in response to his decision to kill geese in North Park. 

“We’re concerned about the disruption that occurs to the person’s family and neighbors,” says Beth Pittinger, executive director of the CPRB, who called a recent protest by animal-rights activists at the church of county chief executive Dan Onorato “offensive.”

“There are plenty of other places a group can take their protest,” she says.

To protect the home as a “safe haven,” Pittinger wants Pgh City Council to make pickets at dwellings illegal.

Well, that's an interesting twist.  It is certainly debatable whether protesting at someone's home is tactically sound or in good taste, assuming one is concerned about such things.  But at last check, the Constitution wasn't designed to protect friends and neighbors from being offended. 

I'm perplexed that Pittinger has championed this cause.  She shows up at just about every peace and justice event in town to keep an eye on police conduct.  She pushes for transparency on police procedures regarding crowd control (and the use of tasers).  She seems to actually be trying to protect the civil rights of city residents, even when her organization is dismissed as ineffective and powerless. 

Unfortunately, I believe that Pittinger has failed to deliver on a promise she made to the LGBTQ community in the fall of 2005 when she agreed to work with the Mayor's office to appoint someone from our community to the CPRB.  That was three mayors ago.  So I'm skeptical of her ability to deliver. (It would be great if someone could prove me wrong and identify a current member of the CPRB who was appointed to represent the LGBTQ community.)

I'm even more skeptical of her motive for restricting free speech.  What does she say to housing and community groups that show up at the front door of slumlords who have refused to take responsibility for their properties?  Does the disruption to the neighbors outweight the disruption to the neighbors of the blighted rental properties? 

Is it possible that Ms. Pittinger is looking ahead to a potential City-County merger and what that might mean for her organization?  Is it just a coincidence that she has spoken out when the protest involved the County Chief Executive, the most powerful Democrat in the region? 

I should disclose that Ledcat has ties to the Department of Public Safety, so I fully expect that Ms. Pittinger's defenders would use that to suggest bias on my part.  That is probably true.  However, I also used to work for a statewide agency that served adults with developmental disabilities and Ms. Pittinger was the former divisional director and ongoing legal guardian to consumers while I was there, giving me ongoing indirect contact with her over civil rights issues. More room for bias?  Probably true.  Just want to get that out there.

Personally, I think protesting at a church over the geese issue wasn't tactically sound.  I think killing geese was a stupid option given that there are proven dog herding methods that are more humane and just as effective.  However, I doubt the church folks see it that way.  That being said, they had a right to assemble there. 

But where would it end?  Would survivors of sex abuse at the hands of priests be unable to protest at a church that harbored a perpetrator?  What is a so-called Christian politician engaged in political activity in direct conflict with his or her professed faith? 

If someone showed up to protest my neighbor harboring her drug-dealing, gun toting son and his incessant need to hurl glass bottles all over the street, I'd bring them glasses of ice team and an assortment of pastries.  Alas ///

My favorite example is Fred Phelps of www.godhatesfags.com. He protests at the funeral of soldiers, believing that God is mowing them down to punish America.  Laws are being passed to protect the families of soldiers.  Unconstitutional laws, but perhaps well intended.  Too bad Beth Pittinger and every elected official in the United States didn't feel so moved to restrict free speech when Phelps showed up at the funerals of gay men and women, bearing signs that said “Your son is in hell.”    What's more offensive — geese lovers in the parking lot after Mass or a grieving mother faced with personalized hatred directed at her dead child? 

The degree of offense is not the point. The point is that Beth Pittinger and the City Council are not in a position to protect people from being offended.  Unlike the bubble zone ordinance, this is not a matter of balancing two constitutional rights.  If the protestors prevent people from attending their religious services or trespass on private property, enforce the law.  But don't strip the protestors of THEIR rights.

One can only imagine that police misconduct must be non-existant if Ms. Pittinger has turned her attention to the woes of Onorato's neighbors.  If only that were the case …

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  • Just to be clear Beth has never been on the frontline of defending POG or local activists. The cprb has no credibility among younger activists, pog members, or radicals in general. They have been nothing if not condescending towards younger peace activists and people have responded in kind. Everything we've seen over the last five years has been the cprb “investigating” various incidents, without any tangible result. No one participates in the process anymore because no one has faith in the process. Attempts to stop house protests must be seen for what they are, poor attempts to stop any type of non-cprb initiated accountability of the pittsburgh police. Beth wants to keep her job. Boo hoo. So long as unprovoked assaults and homophobic/sexist/racist comments and actions are perpetrated by the Pittsburgh police people will do what they must to defend themselves, by any means necessary. people act outside the system because there is no solution within it.

  • Thanks for posting. That is an interesting perspective. I was trying to be fair b/c I have seen Beth at various events and I'm not particularly familiar with her outcomes.
    While I'm not a proponent of “by any means necessary,” I would like to know how the system could be solution oriented? I ask in completely sincerity, no snark intended.

  • well, I would be suprised if you don't agree with by any means necessary, maybe you're thinking of that phrase differently than me. From everything I've read in your posts you DO seem to be concerned with getting results rather than symbolically registering your opinion. We may disagree sometimes about the most effective means, but you don't strike me as someone interested in pursuing things that don't work over and over again (which sadly many do). I see by any means necessary as the reality that many of us within social movements are determined to stand up for ourselves and our rights, and that while we're committed to utilizing the least coercive/disruptive methods possible, we recognize that successfully challenging systems of oppression is the most important thing. Had other things worked stonewall wouldn't have ever been necessary. Maybe something like that is needed again, maybe its not, but regardless of the fact we have different tactical views I think we share common ground in the view that we're not content to settle for anything less than collective liberation, which is what I mean by any means necessary. If something doesn't work you move on to something that might.
    Beth shows up at a lot of things, that's her job, but that does not mean her presence is positive nor that the CPRB is doing work that furthers the cause of justice.
    I think something like the CPRB could be a good or bad thing, depending on how social movements interact with it. My question is at this point does it do more harm than good based on how cases have been handled in it and the lack of additional mobilizing outside of it? If it's simply a way for the system to channel peoples discontent into a non-effective body that draws things out for so many months people have forgotten or get burned out than it's not addressing the issues of police accountability. If it's something that people can use to put additional pressure on corrupt/violent police, get testimony that otherwise would be impossible, and it's complimented by organizing outside of these gov't connected institutions, than I think it could be a good thing.
    I think we need to face the fact that in 5 years of protests no CPRB investigation (that I'm aware of) has resulted in any tangible positive contribution to the accountability of the local police. Putting aside the fact that conflict between protesters and police has occured at some events the real issue is there have been numerous incidents of completely unprovoked violence, assaults in conjunction with homophobic and sexist comments, assaults against people taking pictures or trying to document events, attacks on critical mass bike rides, round ups of people where they were not given the option to leave, etc. That is just at events where no protester resistance or civil disobedience or confrontation was occuring, hence absolutely nothing even approaching a pretext for police violence.
    The CPRB has completely squandered any hope of being relevant to anyone. The police hate it and activists find it irrelevant. Of course people are going to protest at a copshouse if that's the only realistic option for putting pressure on the cops to stop the violence. If you've written the letters, called the council people, had the ignored protests, sent the emails, published articles, gotten media coverage, and gotten nowhere what is the alternative? I could easily articulate changes to the system that would make it more accountable but they're not going to happen and seem a useless diversion given the years of mobilizing that went to make the cprb possible. The range of possibilities for us is dependant on our strength and local movements aren't strong enough to get real change on police matters within the system. The FOP is too strong, the political climate isn't right, and there's little to no political support. For instance Peduto, who otherwise might be receptive to these kinds of things has been repositioning himself due to higher poltical ambition. You're going to have a tough time becoming mayor if the police union, and the 850 local cops forced to live locally, hate you.

  • As a queer person (I am “gay” by common definitions, but reject the word in favor of the more fluid and accurate term “queer”) who was one of the organizers of the protest at Dan Onorato's church, I must take issue with the fact that you are publicly taking a position against the strategy behind the action (this doesn't show solidarity) without speaking to Voices For Animals of Western Pennsylvania first (www.vfa-online.org). Our organization promotes Pride, attended actions against Focus on the Family, and challenges heterosexism in our mission statement and work. When will the same support be offered to animals from other social justice organizations and activists? When will the recognition finally take hold that true, long-term social justice will come to fruition only when we build a mass movement of resistance against ALL forms of exploitation and oppression – sexism, heterosexism, classism, racism, speciesism and the destruction of the Earth’s biotic communities? When will we stop separating our causes as if we are merely special interest groups that have nothing in common with one another? The same macho posturing, stubborn adherence to destructive paradigms that allowed Onorato to sign off on killing the geese unapologetically is the same one that keeps the rates of suicide in queer youth substantially higher then of their straight counterparts. Its no coincidence that people who abuse or kill human beings often start their work on animals – it is a testament to the reality that all of our work is connected.
    The fact is, out of all protests, vigils, litter clean ups and stunts animal protection advocates organized in response to the Canada goose kill, it was the church demonstration alone that received Associated Press interested – resulting in over a dozen and a half articles being published throughout Pennsylvania, as well as in New Jersey. This not only allowed the message and issue to be seen by the public, it spread the unsaid message that there will be personal repercussions (even if only slight discomfort and embarrassment) if animals are abused or killed unnecessarily by the acts of those in power – and there will be a demand for accountability. The time for treating the other inhabitants of this planet like trash and irrelevancy is over. Demands for animal protection and liberation are here to stay. As people who care deeply for our human brothers and sisters, as well as our nonhuman brothers are sister – we will not be silenced.
    The issue of the killing of Canada geese wasn’t just a “stupid option” – it was the blatant disregard of public trust (Onorato and his cronies promised organizations and constituents that the geese would not be killed) and unnecessary injustice and violence to vulnerable members of our community. Just because the beings in question are not human does not make them less worthy of compassion or justice. It is only bigotry and an ideological attachment to “might makes right” philosophy that allows this culture to treat Canada geese – and most other animals – with the disrespect, irreverent, exploitative and disdainful attitudes and actions that GLBTQ people have experienced for hundreds of years. This must change.
    Perhaps Stonewall wasn’t strategic. Perhaps including transgender folks in queer liberation rhetoric isn’t politically expedient for the benefit of white, upper middle class gay men pursuit for more political power. However, action is necessary in the face of enormous injustice to people, animals, and the ecological healthy of this planet. Let us stand together, side by side, and fight cruelty and injustice wherever we find it, while supporting each other in the process. The old activist adage is true: no one is free, while others are oppressed.
    The fact that Beth Pittinger, of the Citizen Police Review Board, is deeply “offended” by a peaceful, professional protest at a place of worship – but not the mass killing of free-living wild birds, City of Pittsburgh police officers brutalizing young activists at demonstrations, or the fact that City of Pittsburgh Police Officers looked on without action (accept to arrest activists) when a Mellon Arena Security Guard brutalized, shoved, pushed and hit anti-Focus on the Family protestors nearly a year ago, shows where her commitments truly lie. Let us ensure that her hair-brained idea to take away our civil liberties go extinct far before the plant and animal species our culture annihilates everyday do.

  • Does solidarity require me to leave my ability to make my own decisions at the curb? I think the tactic was not sound, but note that I publicly defend your right to engage in that action. Who else in the social justice movement has done so? Other bloggers?
    Solidarity isn't an issue here, my friend. I agree with you that no one is free while others are oppressed. That's why I became a social worker. That's why I blog. That's why I do a lot of the day to day things in my life a certain way. I wasn't at the Focus on the Family protest b/c I was in Arizona learning better ways to leverage community assets to assist people living in poverty. I wasn't at another community event because I was working with Animal Friends to educate foster parents about the nexus between animal abuse and child abuse.
    If we are going to stand side by side and support each other, it is important to recognize that our voices may be different. As may be our tactics.
    Keep up the good work, my friend.

  • To be honest, I don't understand what you are trying to say. Who said anything about you not being allowed to make your own decisions or have your own ideas about strategy? My point was that, if you want to build a movement – rather then be “right” you would be having conversations with organizers directly about what you perceive as a flawed strategy. Furthermore, you would know enough about the issue to begin with before making judgements about it to anyone who reads your blog. Pittsburgh Organizing Group and The Thomas Merton Center would never publiclly question the tactics of Voices for Animals, because they recognize it would only be counter-productive and divisive. If someone believes that a tactic is flawed, the respectful thing to do would be to have that conversation directly with the organizers. That is, if you truly believe in building a movement that is holistic.
    No one is implying you should be involved with every action or every issue. People work on the issues where their passions take them. However, creating mutual support and a movement where people trust each other does not stem from making judgements only – and not offering a helping hand. The largest number of animals being abused are in agricultural, are you still supporting this abuse through your lifestyle choices? Do meat, milk and eggs from factory farm prisoners still grace your fridge and food pantry and tastebuds? If they do, then I – with all due respect – question the legitmacy of you believing in no one being free until others are oppressed. Furthermore, I understand why you would feel it acceptable to question the strategy behind our actions to everyone, but the people who are actually involved with the process.
    Saying you believe that activists have a right to protest at a church does not mean you support the aims of the activists, it merely means you support free speech and civil liberties. I, of course, hate Fred Phelps – but I do believe he has a right to do as he wishes in the realm of assembly on public property. The fact is, if animals' interests were taking seriously (rather then being viewed as a somewhat relevant “pet” (no pun intended) issue of people with too much time on their hands, there would be no question of the righteousness in demonstrating in front of a church of a decision maker who literally massacred hundreds of beings – destroying families, and causing immense suffering and psychological stress, as well as premature death.
    No one questions the militancy of Act UP! in the way they question the strategy of animal protection advocates. The reason that is is because disrupting a church, throwing cat litter, or performing a die in on the street in the context of dying yourself (or watching your loved ones die) from government inaction are understandable responses to you and your communities needs being ignored. It often is the case with animals, however, that offering that same degree of support and compassion falls foul by some social justice activists.
    solidarity, by definition, is “the uniting of the interests, feelings or actions (of a group)”. Are we in this together or not? If so, then a united front offers more strength then nit-picking and trivializing issues of your comrades. please, remember that.

  • To be honest, I don't understand what you are trying to say. Who said anything about you not being allowed to make your own decisions or have your own ideas about strategy? My point was that, if you want to build a movement – rather then be “right” you would be having conversations with organizers directly about what you perceive as a flawed strategy. Furthermore, you would know enough about the issue to begin with before making judgements about it to anyone who reads your blog. Pittsburgh Organizing Group and The Thomas Merton Center would never publiclly question the tactics of Voices for Animals, because they recognize it would only be counter-productive and divisive. If someone believes that a tactic is flawed, the respectful thing to do would be to have that conversation directly with the organizers. That is, if you truly believe in building a movement that is holistic.
    No one is implying you should be involved with every action or every issue. People work on the issues where their passions take them. However, creating mutual support and a movement where people trust each other does not stem from making judgements only – and not offering a helping hand. The largest number of animals being abused are in agricultural, are you still supporting this abuse through your lifestyle choices? Do meat, milk and eggs from factory farm prisoners still grace your fridge and food pantry and tastebuds? If they do, then I – with all due respect – question the legitmacy of you believing in no one being free while others are oppressed. Furthermore, I understand why you would feel it acceptable to question the strategy behind our actions to everyone, but the people who are actually involved with the process.
    Saying you believe that activists have a right to protest at a church does not mean you support the aims of the activists, it merely means you support free speech and civil liberties. I, of course, hate Fred Phelps – but I do believe he has a right to do as he wishes in the realm of assembly on public property. The fact is, if animals' interests were taking seriously (rather then being viewed as a somewhat relevant “pet” (no pun intended) issue of people with too much time on their hands, there would be no question of the righteousness in demonstrating in front of a church of a decision maker who literally massacred hundreds of beings – destroying families, and causing immense suffering and psychological stress, as well as premature death.
    No one questions the militancy of Act UP! in the way they question the strategy of animal protection advocates. The reason that is is because disrupting a church, throwing cat litter, or performing a die in on the street in the context of dying yourself (or watching your loved ones die) from government inaction are understandable responses to you and your communities needs being ignored. It often is the case with animals, however, that offering that same degree of support and compassion falls foul by some social justice activists.
    solidarity, by definition, is “the uniting of the interests, feelings or actions (of a group)”. Are we in this together or not? If so, then a united front offers more strength then nit-picking and trivializing issues of your comrades. please, remember that.

  • I made a mistake: the correct sentence is: Furthermore, I simply CAN NOT understand why you would feel it acceptable to question the strategy behind our actions to everyone, but the people who are actually involved with the process.

  • I mostly agree with the previous poster, just want to add one thing.
    I can understand that you have a blog, and the nature of blogs is to comment on current affairs. I would never begrudge you that right and I think these types of discussion can be very positive. any time diverse perspectives are being put out it is an opportunity for growth by all. Institutions like the Merton Center are so important because they provide a conduit through which diverse tendencies can interact in ways they otherwise would not. I have no doubt that if me and sue went out for coffee once a week, or even saw each other at the TMC once a month that we'd both gain a better understanding of the others work, which would manifest in more accurate coverage from us on the others work.
    I think where it gets frustrating for organizations working on campaigns is that the people who purport to agree with the issue yet post public criticism of the tactics almost to a tee are not the ones attending the groups events, involved in the organizing, or interacting with the organizers in a mutually supportive way. So these comments can serve to turn readers off from getting involved. It's hard to have someone who says they “agree” with some of what you stand for end up as a negative influence on your efforts.
    People involved, even peripherally in the organizing circles, tend to understand more of the rational for why what's happening is happening and so critique is coming from a more informed position.
    It's definetly the responsibility of organizations to be explicit about why they're doing what they're doing, to explain the rational. At the same time it tends to be that people uninvolved in the organizing look at the tactics from a skewed perspetives. That is to say they see the downside without realizing the upside. All well run campaigns have specific and tangible (along with achievable) goals. They use specific tactics to meet these goals.
    Sometimes you have to take a hit, so to speak, in the court of public opinion to advance a campaign. Outsiders often look at an incident from a single incident perspective, they don't understand the way what you do one time has a bearing on the possible effectiveness of future events. Voices for animals picketed a church, they're getting slammed in the media/talk radio, protesting at a church's is somewhat controversial, etc. “they're just hurting their cause”, “people are just going to be turned off by the negativity”, “you've got to work with these officials, they're not the enemy”, “you've got to focus on education not being angry”, etc. As someone uninvolved in this particular campaign I can understand the necessity of them doing what they did. When officials make promises to you, then blantantly break those promises, you have to respond in a way that demonstrated your power. Often officials will say you're just hurting yourself and you in fact end up with a seat at the table. If you can hurt a politician (through showing the back tracking, or even just bringing attention to them in a negative way) that demonstrates you have power, and that's important so that the next time a official won't as easily think they can screw you over. Corporations can hit politicians in the pocketbooks and on the public airways, unions through withdrawing the grassroots workers democrats depend on, social movements need to be a bit more creative because we lack the resources of institutions intimately tied into the system. Voices for animals doesn't need to be “liked” by everyone to be effective. They can make a huge difference as a small group of people working on specific campaigns. A politician on the other hand can't risk alienating even small groups, they depend on a much wider circle of support to remain in power. There's no upside for Onorato in taking on VFA because he's likely to lose permantly a small number of VFA supporters who care very much about the issue while the other “side” doesn't care nearly as strongly. That's a net loss for him politically.
    So I'd sum up by saying I understand why you think the way you do Sue but that if you had more exposure to the people involved in the campaigns (utilizing the tactics you often disagree with) I think you would come away with a different outlook. We'd probably still disagree it'd just be a different discussion.

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