Pittsburgh’s Suburbs Try to De-Karen the 2020 Election

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When Voice of Westmoreland met on a recent Zoom call, leader Clare Dooley posed a question to the assembled group of political organizers: What does the election mean to you?

One attendee began talking about fighting the fascism of the Trump administration, and Dooley interrupted to clarify that she was asking how the election would affect him personally. The young man, an African American, pushed back against Dooley, a 53-year-old white woman. It did affect him personally, he said: He had experienced fascism and racism as both a student and resident of Westmoreland, which is 94.7% white.

“I shouldn’t have implied that fascism or totalitarianism were things that didn’t affect people personally, because obviously they did,” says Dooley. “It was a stupid thing to say.” 

For Dooley, it was one of many learning moments she’s encountered since co-founding Voice of Westmoreland, or VOW, in the far-eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh with a mission, in part, to confront whiteness — and more specifically, to win over her neighbors in a county where roughly two-thirds of voters supported President Donald Trump in 2016. The goal, at least for November, is to not only steer Westmoreland County residents in a different direction this year, but also to help them realize how racism is blocking progress on issues such as health care and housing.

Dooley is one of thousands of mostly college-educated white women who, awakened by the Trump upset of 2016 and charged up by the subsequent Women’s March in Washington, D.C., began building local political organizations in their homes in outer-ring suburbs, middle suburbs, exurbs and rural communities across the U.S. The new women leaders were convinced that there was enough liberal energy that existed, or was hiding, in these mostly white enclaves to ensure that 2020 would not be a repeat of 2016. The general understanding was that America under Trump was broken, and so who better to fix it?

“We still have a long way to go to fix the injustices in our society,” Dooley said, “but as white women, we have a particular responsibility because we know that white women elected Donald Trump.”

White Women Voters

She’s referencing the oft-cited statistic that Trump claimed at least 52% of white women’s votes, which may or may not be a precise data point. Other researchers place it closer to 47%. Either way, this reality is likely less reflective of Trump’s popularity by gender and more reflective of popularity by place — Trump won most of the outer-ring suburbs, middle suburbs, and rural landscapes, and it just so happens a lot of white women live in those places. 

That is definitely the case in southwest Pennsylvania, the region that played a substantial role in helping Trump get elected, and Westmoreland County is expected to bea deciding factor inthis year’s election as well. While the city of Pittsburgh and many of its inner-ring suburbs went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, almost everything around it in Allegheny County went for Trump. Every other county in this corner of Pennsylvania — Westmoreland, Butler, Greene, Beaver, Armstrong, Butler — also went to Trump with at least a 2-1 advantage over Clinton

The new white women-led political organizations that have sprung up over the last few years — VOW, Beaver County Voice for Change, Women’s March on Washington Pittsburgh, Partners for Progress Southwest PA, Indivisible Pittsburgh and Order of the Phoenix, to name a few — have been working to change that dynamic. Despite the fact that many of these organizations are driven by white women, their issues reach far beyond gender-based causes such as reproductive rights and pay equity. They are just as steeped in issues of racial and environmental justice.

“If you believe in the importance of affordable healthcare, clean air and water, racial justice, a living wage, quality education and fair government, then join us!” reads the Voice of Westmoreland website

And nestled somewhat quietly in these organizations’ call of duty is the realization that if racial justice is going to be central to their mission, some self-reflection is in order, given not only how many of them voted in 2016, but also the high-profile damage done along racial lines in the years since. There’s an evolving recognition that a rethinking, or a de-Karen-izing of the region, needs to happen. 

How It Started

Many of the white suburban women behind these new groups initially got involved via long-established political networks like MoveOn.org, and developed themselves into leaders and organizers via the canon of political organizing training guides: Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” Organizing For Action, Women’s March webinars, and several other toolkits adopted under “The Resistance” tag. But perhaps the most influential trainer has been the Indivisible Guide, created by a group of former congressional staffers with the specific aim of helping grassroots organizations take Trump out of office.

The Indivisible movement has hundreds of local chapters and claims millions of activists across the U.S., with several groups embedded in Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs. It also bills itself in anti-racist terms and goals. 

“We face two fundamental problems: first, our democracy was rigged from the start in favor of the white and wealthy,” reads the Indivisible website. “Second, in the last few decades, an alliance of white nationalists and the ultra-rich have been actively working to further undermine democracy and cement their hold on power permanently. That’s how we ended up with Trump.”

Despite its willingness to name the problem in white supremacy terms, Indivisible still bears some problematic birthmarks that have caused non-white activists to question its tactics: For one, its architects created the Indivisible training guide from studying the tactics of the Tea Party. For Black and Latinx Americans, the Tea Party is the movement that arose out of a xenophobic fervor against Latinx immigrants and the first Black president.  

“The biggest flaw was that they did not examine differences between the Tea Party and the liberal Left movement,” says Felicity Williams, a racial and economic justice advocate in Pittsburgh. “The Tea Party was homogenous, with not many intersections of people and so that strategy will not work.” 

`Follow and Be Guests’

Williams and other Black activists in Pittsburgh have noticed resources being diverted from Black and LGBTQ groups that had long been doing political work in the region to some of the newer political organizations. While additional grassroots efforts are welcome, some white women still haven’t learned how to “follow and be guests,” says Williams, to non-white leaders in these movement spaces.

“Your role is to corral and organize your neighborhood, your aunts and uncles, other white people around you who are advocating for Trump or who are not understanding systemic racism,” Williams says. “That is the role we need for them — but even in that role, you still have a responsibility in what you translate to other white people, and that it’s not just something you came up with. It must be something generated from Black-led organizations and platforms.”

The suburbs and neighborhoods surrounding Pittsburgh — the whitest metro in the U.S. — is the primary battlefield for most of the local Indivisible chapters and groups like VOW, which relies heavily on “deep canvassing” techniques urging its activists to use personal stories to find common ground with people in their outreach. When racism comes up, Dooley says they stick to a script that emphasizes “that we all want the same things: to live our lives free from violence and injustice, livable wages, in a livable environment.”

However, in a region where livability is among the worst for Black women, compared with every other major U.S. city, it’s not clear that everyone wants the same thing. That point becomes translucent on the topic of policing, where several fissures broke open over the past several years among the various political organizing groups, often along racial and sometimes along urban/suburban lines.

It’s not that white women-led groups have shied away from this subject. In 2018, a Black teenager named Antwon Rose II was killed by a police officer in the inner-ring suburban municipality of East Pittsburgh, triggering a summer of widespread protests, street marches, highway takeovers and boycotts. While most of that action took place in the city of Pittsburgh, there were protests and rallies throughout the region, including in the middle and outer suburbs. At one rally Dooley attended in Westmoreland County, a group of counter-protesters, mostly white men, showed up with military-grade weapons. This only strengthened Dooley’s resolve. 

“It’s simply not acceptable for members of law enforcement to kill Black people without any legal repercussions,” says Dooley. “Until people are not being gunned down in their beds or choked in broad daylight on the street of this country, we just can’t accept the status quo.”

Defund the Police?

Her reference is to Breonna Taylor, the Black woman in Louisville, Kentucky, who was killed by police officers who entered her house; and George Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis by an officer who kneeled on his neck. Those murders set off a whole new round of marches and demonstrations this past summer. But unlike the Antwon Rose protests of 2018, this year’s events led to some violence and rioting.

Also, while “defund the police” was definitely in the mix of chants in 2018, it became a full-throttled battle cry for the post-Floyd/Taylor protests, with many demanding that police departments should be fully abolished. In East Pittsburgh, where Rose was killed, that is essentially what happened, as the local government, no longer able to afford its police department, voted to disband it. But those “defund/abolish” mantras don’t play as well in the suburbs.

“It’s hard to reconcile the kind of politics that you see in cities where the awareness of police violence and racism is really acute, with the kind in the suburbs where people don’t see it,” says Marie Norman, a co-founder of the Order of the Phoenix. “As far as they’re concerned, the police are their friends, are good people: Why are people vilifying the police?”

Norman says she realizes that police reform needs to be extensive and demonstrations are coming from a legitimate place “but in the meanwhile we’re also thinking, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to sell that message out there?’”

While white women have faced challenges being the messenger of “defund the police,” there have been plenty of groups led by young white and BIPOC activists doing much better. After the police killing of Floyd, some of the largest Black Lives Matter rallies were held in Pittsburgh’s northern and southern suburbs, led by high school and middle school students in some of the whitest parts of the region. There were in fact more rallies like this in May and June than there were right after the Women’s March in D.C. or even the seminal Tax Day protests that spawned the Tea Party in 2009, according to research from University of Pittsburgh historian Lara Putnam

“In suburbs, cities and small towns alike, such coalitions are articulating local demands that range from changing high school curriculums and reconsidering the presence of police officers in schools, to advancing stalled county legislation for police accountability, changing use-of-force rules and challenging police budget allocations,” Putnam wrote in The Washington Post.  

Despite the indigestion from rising “defund/abolish police” tides, or conservatives increasingly looking to use curricula such as critical race theory and the 1619 Project as racial wedge issues, the white women-led groups have yet to back down from anti-racist stances. Meanwhile, VOW’s Dooley says she knows Westmoreland County won’t change overnight.  

“Our big focus right now is not on winning Westmoreland [for Biden], but we do want to narrow the margin,” she says. “If we keep Trump’s vote totals down here in Westmoreland, we know that he can’t win the state. That’s what I meant by small victories. We know that we’re not going to turn Westmoreland blue in the short term, but we are going to work on defeating Trump, and then continue working on local issues that matter to people here in our communities.”

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