A week ago today, Pittsburgh was the sad scenario of a ruthless crime: the hate-driven racist Tree of Life synagogue murders of 11 members of the city’s Jewish community in the historic Squirrel Hill neighborhood. In a small-sized city with almost 70% of the population white Caucasian, a tendency to legitimize equal rights seems to distort their collective sense of proportion when self-defining the boundaries of racism.
The world was astonished by the tragic events that took place inside the Tree of Life last Saturday. Now, we should take time to reflect on the impact a city’s own culture of acceptance and tolerance for white supremacy and hate are influential in perpetuating systemic racism.
In recent years, Pittsburgh has become a hip destination for young professionals for its solid economy and affordable cost of living. It is home to a vibrant arts and music scene, overall a far cry from the city’s steel mill industrial past. It is a sports-loving town with a blue collar pride. The media portrays the city as an example of what the United States of America truly represents.
Yet inside a local hot dog shop near Squirrel Hill, a paper sign taped on a wall tells residents to be aware of a violent group of neo-Nazi skinheads. According to the sign, this group has been physically attacking people and also actively recruiting new members around the city. They are the Pittsburgh chapter of the Keystone State Skinheads, a Pennsylvania-based white supremacist group. Unlike faceless hooded Ku Klux Klan members, skinheads in Pittsburgh are not afraid or ashamed to show their swastika armbands. On the contrary, they seem to wear them with pride. Some members are staple customers at taverns and bars associated with the punk rock scene. The word on the street is that their goal is to intimidate and drive away customers of color to maintain “safe white spaces.”
A few years ago, while I was living in Pittsburgh’s South Side, I was more than shocked to witness how it is socially acceptable to be a neo-Nazi identified by swastika armbands or t-shirts. Somehow they managed to comfortably get normal service at regular bars and restaurants all over the neighborhood. Ironically, including at a Mexican-themed restaurant called Iguana Grill.
One random night, on my way to have an after-work drink, I walked to a popular neighborhood bar in close proximity to my house called the Smiling Moose. As I approached the place, I saw a group of about six swastika-wearing skinheads walk into the bar. When I got to the door and concerned about my safety (dark brown skin and Puerto Rican with an accent), I inquired the bouncer about the presence of skinheads. He explained to me how neo-Nazis were hard working-class citizens who have the right to be served there. I turned around and slowly walked away, having just learned that in this city, the Nazi right to express their beliefs by intimidating imagery representative of violent death and racial hatred was more important than my personal safety.
Although many white residents share a collective progressive notion which rejects racism, there is also a validation for the right to the freedom of speech and artistic expression—allowing an open space for white supremacy and racism to become rationally acceptable.
Pittsburgh’s Real Soul?
In an attempt to modernize their image by recognizing the LGBTQ community, every June 12 Pittsburgh celebrates what they call “Sharon Needles Day.”. Since 2012 the day is dedicated to honor the career of drag queen performer Aaron Coady, better known by the stage name, Sharon Needles. Needles gained national notoriety after their participation on the popular TV show “Drag Race.” Along with their success outside the TV show, Sharon’s career has been tainted by use of swastikas during stage performances, constant racist remarks and the repeated use of the “N” word. Despite the controversy and under heavy criticism from local members of the LGBTQ community who felt Needles was not representative of them, the city council made “Sharon Needles Day” an official event. Today, it is still a common occurrence for trans people to be the target of violence and harassment from conservative white male residents.
In the heart of the trendy, hipster neighborhood of Lawrenceville, right on a corner wall at the intersection of 46th Street and Butler Street, a sign says that immigrants are criminals. For the people of Pittsburgh, seeing this kind of sign is as normal as seeing a Pepsi ad, a regular part of everyday life oftentimes ignored. This sign however was not to be overlooked. At the bottom of the sign, taking credit for the propaganda, was the organization “Blood and Soil,” a part of the “Patriot Front,” a solid national network of anti-Semitic white supremacists.
For years, I have been a city correspondent for La Jornada Latina, the only newspaper reporting in Spanish for Pittsburgh’s Latino community. Last month, before the Squirrel Hill tragedy, I published an article making the Spanish-speaking community aware of the existence of these threatening campaign signs. For that story, I interviewed a city police officer who told me that he did not find the signs threatening.
Those words still stick to me today, one week after Squirrel Hill.
Pittsburgh is trying to heal and it deserves to heal. However, the city should learn how to eradicate any practice that re-centers white people in conversations about racism. We face unique issues that go unaddressed in a city that fails to acknowledge the disadvantages of vulnerable groups. In the end, this city continues to reinforce racism by further blurring the marginalization of those of us who are not white.
That needs to stop.
Hugo Marín González is a Puerto Rican linguist and a journalist. A regular correspondent for La Jornada Latina in Pittsburgh, he holds a B.A. in Hispanic Linguistics from the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico in San German.