An Open Letter Regarding Our Relationship with the Thomas Merton Center
To our friends and supporters:
For the better part of our 8-year history, the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG) has maintained a relationship with the Thomas Merton Center (TMC), a local peace and justice resource center. The TMC is an official 501c3 non-profit corporation, a designation that by law mandates a board of directors. In its current incarnation ultimate decision-making within the organization rests with the board of directors, which oversees a paid staff that handles most day-to-day operations and tasks such as financial book-keeping. This is the official TMC organization, which we refer to in
As a resource center the TMC also serves as a sort of umbrella for about two dozen autonomous projects that work on a number of diverse issues. Through their formal affiliation with the Center these projects are able to utilize its non-profit tax status and book keeping, and have access to a number of practical resources. The TMC also has affiliates, outside projects that do work generally in line with the Center’s mission to
advance social justice struggles.
POG has historically been an affiliate of the TMC, which means for a number of years we’ve had our mailing address at the TMC and have held a number of events in the Center’s space. We could easily have kept our previous P.O. box, or held our events at other spaces, but we utilized the TMC because we saw the Center as a valuable incubator for struggle and we believed that there is great value in a common space in which diverse tendencies interact. There are many schisms and divisions present within communities of resistance; the TMC’s existence as a common gathering point
where diverse interests would regularly come into contact with one another helped to build unity and break down peoples’ assumptions about one another. As individuals, our membership’s commitment to the Center has extended beyond the group’s , and has included contributing financially, volunteering time for major events, working as unpaid interns, working on the Center’s staff, and serving on the Center’s board of directors.
At times our organizational relationship has been very strong and mutually beneficial; in 2003 we worked closely with the TMC staff to organize a major anti-war convergence here in Pittsburgh. Often our events and support have brought new folks – especially many new young people – and energy into the Center, helping it fulfill its mission. At other times our relationship has been much more difficult. The TMC has come under attack for listing us as an affiliate because of our refusal to condemn
all instances of property destruction and because of our upholding the right to self-defense. In 2007 the TMC board refused to endorse a month-long fast and camp-out against the war that we organized because the action did not proscribe a commitment to nonviolence if attendees were attacked. Issues such as ageism, both within our organization and within the membership of the TMC have occasioned sometimes painful moments of growth on both sides.
As frustrating as relations between our organizations have been at times over the years we have worked hard to maintain an open, honest and mutually respectful relationship with the TMC and we believe the TMC has endeavored to do similarly.
In light of recent developments we have been forced to re-examine our long-standing relationship with the Center.
In November 2009, the Merton Center’s board of directors voted unanimously
to move from its current location at 5125 Penn Ave. to a smaller space next door. The new space at 5129 Penn Ave is owned by the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation (BGC.) We appreciate all of the reasons that have been articulated as to the financial necessity of a new space for the Center at this time, and in no way do we wish this statement to
come across as dismissive of the organization’s needs.
That said, serious issues are raised for us, and we believe for wider communities of resistance, by the decision to locate the center in a BGC-controlled space.
We are an anarchist organization that often finds common cause and solidarity with diverse social movements, activist organizations, and resistance efforts. Recognizing the inter-connected nature of struggle we stand beside those working to oppose police brutality, abolish the criminal injustice system, support political prisoners, oppose US military actions and occupations, oppose destructive environmental practices, and ensure just development practices in our community, to name but a few.
The BGC is a development corporation dependant on state and corporate funding (especially from large banks). The BGC works closely with the local police. There is an inescapable conflict between the TMC’s often-articulated desire to create a safe space in which diverse strands of social struggle can interact and the board’s decision to rent that space from the BGC.
To name but a few examples:
In the build-up to the G-20 summit last summer the state engaged in a pattern of conduct intended to terrorize local residents and facilitate widespread repression. Much of this propaganda centered on the idea that evil outside anarchists were coming to town to terrorize local residents and indiscriminately attack individuals personal property. The state’s ability to spread these messages was often facilitated by meetings held by, or supported by, local “community” organizations such as the BGC and Lawrenceville United. At one such meeting BGC officials stood beside Pittsburgh police as they talked about the need to tackle “the anarchist problem” in Bloomfield. The police informed the meeting that there were a number of active investigations into individual anarchists in the neighborhood. At this, and other, similar meetings police officials variously attempted to blame anarchists for a string of robberies in Polish Hill, stated that anarchists were planning to abandon tractor trailers in a conspiracy to block the Bloomfield bridge, and that anarchists might try and set fire to oil tankers.
Last summer the BGC called the city with bogus “code violations” about a building hosting an anarchist conference (unaffiliated with POG) being held just a few blocks from the Merton Center. Officials at the code office stated to conference organizers that they believed the BGC was targeting the event because of the politics of those involved.
Project 1877 was a community center, and a project of the TMC that operated a community center in a BGC-owned building on Penn Avenue in 2003. The arrangement led to escalating conflict with the BGC who steadily enforced constraints on the project’s ability to use the space as they saw fit. Without digressing on the merits of the situation, it serves to highlight the possibility of landlord pressure compromising the organization’s decisions on use of space.
The police and other agents of the state have often harassed POG, just as they have the TMC. The BGC currently operates a “public safety task force,” a kind of public-private partnership bringing together the BGC, additional private interests, and local police for meetings about crime in the Bloomfield-Garfield-Friendship neighborhoods. In practice we have seen this initiative used to facilitate and encourage politically
The BGC is deeply involved in law enforcement initiatives intended to weed out so-called “bad” elements and tackle “vice” crimes. We see these efforts, like many BGC approaches to issues of crime, leading to the vast expansion of the prison population and the unrelenting devastation caused by the “war on drugs.”
Entering this sort of landlord-tenant relationship with the BGC stands to seriously compromise the Center’s ability to take positions in opposing BGC-connected practices in the neighborhood; it also gives the BGC an incredible amount of leverage over the Center and its projects on a whole host of other issues. Like it or not, renting from the BGC seems to implicitly condone the organization and its role in the community. Were we to maintain our current relationship with the TMC we would be taking on serious security concerns and anticipate we would be dragged into serious
unnecessary drama over BGC complaints as to events within the space.
For these reasons we have decided to sever our limited formal ties with the Thomas Merton Center. We have asked that the Merton Center remove us from their listing of affiliates in The NewPeople and on their website. We will no longer hold events at the TMC’s new space, nor will we advertise or support events held there. Our new mailing address is:
Pittsburgh Organizing Group
PO Box 90125
Pittsburgh, PA 15224
We would like to say we have been excited to see that some of the Center’s staff have stepped up to organize community forums and discussions on issues related to community development, and we continue to remember efforts the TMC has made in the past to oppose gentrification in the Bloomfield-Garfield area. In 2004, for example, several members of the Center and Center staff circulated an open letter to protest a policy adopted by the BGC Public Safety Taskforce of shaming neighborhood
residents arrested in the area by publicizing arrestees’ names and addresses. The statement, which can be seen in the July/August 2004 issue of The NewPeople, clearly articulated the harms the BGC’s actions had on members of the community surrounding the Center, and the role such policies play in gentrification.
Additionally, we continue to be inspired by much of the good work done on a variety of issues by the many projects affiliated with the TMC.
We have been told that the lease agreement is only one year in duration. In that time we sincerely hope alternatives to continuing to rent from the BGC will be considered. We wish the Center luck in finding a buyer for the 5125 Penn Avenue building; it is an important decision with ramifications for the neighborhood.
The decision to sever our relationship with the Merton Center has certainly been difficult. Our ties to the Center, its projects and all of the amazing folks who have put so much of their time and energy into the Center over the years are much deeper and stronger than a simple affiliation would imply. We are optimistic about what the future might bring and hopeful that someday we will be able to re-establish formal organizational ties with the Center. But while the Thomas Merton Centeris renting space from the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, we find the possibility of any formal relationship simply untenable.
Love and Solidarity,
The Pittsburgh Organizing Group