By Alison Bodine
During the September 20-25, 2009 protests at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Fire This Time had the opportunity to sit down with Reverend Thomas E. Smith. Rev. Smith is currently the Pastor at Monumental Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Monumental Baptist Church was one of the main organizing centres for the Sept 20 March for Jobs and the following Tent City and Rev. Smith, himself, was one of the initiators of the March for Jobs and Tent City.
Rev. Smith is President of the Board of Directors of IFCO/Pastors for Peace. He has traveled with Pastors for Peace caravans to Cuba on several occasions, and participated in caravans to Chiapas, Mexico. He has a rich history of civil rights and social justice organizing, and continues to be a strong voice for not only his own community, but people fighting for peace with justice all over the world.
Monumental Baptist Church is located in a district of Pittsburgh known as “The Hill.” The Hill District is a historic African American community, once known as home to some of the most famous jazz musicians and writers, and now home to boarded up buildings, poverty, and unemployment. Rev. Smith has been witness to the destruction and the effect that so-called ‘economic development’ has had on his community, and will continue to be part of the fight back.
FTT: Tell me about the relationship between the G-20 activities that are going to be starting later this week and your community here in Pittsburgh?
RTS: A lot of the economic problems that we face in this community are result of the change in the economic opportunities in Pennsylvania. We have gone through this transition as a result of losing the steel industry, steel mills that have gone to China and other places and consequently impact of the loss of the manufacturing sector. This has a devastating effect on the African American community in particular, the whole community in general, but the African American community in particular. All of these jobs and other jobs that are related to that industry, or that help support that industry, were cut back. So a lot of Black people are unemployed as a consequence; coupled with the lack of health insurance, the unemployment and indecent housing. We saw this as a good opportunity to voice our concerns about the need for jobs and the need for change in the system that continues to produce this kind of devastation on our community.
FTT: What is the significance of the March for Jobs that happened yesterday and the continuing Tent City? What impact does it have here on the Hill?
RTS: I think it is the impact that it will have. It is a first step, it's this kind of organizing that needs to occur throughout the country and throughout the world. Workers need to come together to combat the systemic problem that we have in the world today. Globalization has really brought a lot of these industrial economies together and has tied them together in such a way that now, as we have just experienced in this country, we have industries that are too big to fail. So they get bailed out and still move the jobs somewhere else, that's a systemic problem. The government is doing more for the corporations then it is for working people. That process needs to be changed and the only way that it is going to change is for the workers to organize and demand the change.
Right now corporations have the money. They have the influence to protect their interests and they are doing that with the G-20. There is no comparable organization, no comparable institution that's able to negotiate with the G-20 on behalf of workers to offset that. That is why the march yesterday was very significant, to see people coming from all over the country, everyone having the same story, because it is the same issue in all of our communities.
Seeing jobs leave the country, seeing people being devastated, families being devastated; I have a personal interest as a Pastor of a church because people need jobs to support their families and the families support the church. If they don't have jobs that means that I eventually won't have a job. So it’s direct harm that is being done for me and is why I am so concerned about it.
FTT: What changes have you seen here on the Hill in your time here, what is it like to live on the Hill today?
RTS: There is a lot of new housing coming up in this community after 30 years of land banking, but the people that used to live here now cannot afford the new housing that is being built and so the community is being gentrified. There seems to be, I don't want to say apathy, but the people feel beat down, in a way, in a sense, and don't believe that their voices count, that the things that they do make a difference, and that has to change. People need to see that when we do come together that we can make a difference.
The march yesterday was very significant in the impact that it had on this city. A lot of people see that when people from all over the country come together in an orderly fashion, raising their voices out of a concern for jobs, I think that what happened will have a tremendous impact on the future.
FTT: What is next for organizing for social justice, here in Pittsburgh?
RTS: In Pittsburgh, I think that the civil rights organizations need to get back on task to refocus their attention on the real agenda, that is jobs for people, healthcare, decent housing, education. Not that they are not doing some of that, but I don't think it is as focused as it ought to be and organized in a way that people really see how it is all related.
I also think that we need to, that people need to, understand that the cause of all of this is a systemic problem that we are facing- that we need an institutional solution. We can start a movement, but that movement isn't going to be sustained unless there is some kind of institutional process or some kind of institutional force that will sustain it that will continue to groom the leaders and show that there is some continuity within the movement.
That's been the problem in the past, that when we have a great leader that comes along and gets things going, they will say let's kill the dreamer and see what happens to the dream. We should, by this time, be smart enough to understand that we cannot continue to wait for a messiah. We cannot continue to wait for a leader. We have to continuously groom leadership in a process that has continuity that is staying focused on issues and continues to fight for the long haul. I think that is the major thing that I see.
I would hope, and certainly, the church can play a major role in that because the church is the only thing that we control and can sustain us for the long haul. But activists, social activists need to understand the significance of the church, as an institution for change, and help to empower the church by getting more involved with the church. Even though in the 60s there was some distance with social activists outside of the church, who saw the church as a part of the problem, it is time that we put away those fears. We are all in this together and we need that kind of institutional support in order to wage the struggle.
FTT: Thank you.
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