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INMATE NUMBERS AN INFECTION RATE OF 55%  ONLY 2.7% OF INMATES TESTED INFECTION RATES DOUBLED OVERIGHT COV ID- 1 9 S TATISTIC S A T TH E A L L E GH E N Y C OU N TY J A IL J U S T D O N' T A D D U P


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contents

Vol. III Iss. XII May 5, 2020

NEWS 6 | Second Opinion 7 | Racial Injustice 8 | From a Distance 9 | Mail-in Ballots 10 | Casey Warns Trump OPINION 11 | Brewed on Grant 12 | Modern Union Busting 14 | New ad dings Toomey on CARES Act ARTs & ENTERTAINMENT 15 | Mars Jackson 16 | Death in Mud Lick 17 | Jessica Victoria 18 | Same 19 | Jordan Montgomery POP 20 | The Game is Still On EXTRA 22 | Savage Love 23 | Coney Island 24 | Parting Shot

COVER:

PHOTO BY JAKE MYSLIWCZYK The Fine Print The contents of the Pittsburgh Current are © 2020 by Pittsburgh Current, LLC. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this publication shall be duplicated or reprinted without the express-written consent of Pittsburgh Current LLC. One copy per person. The Pittsburgh Current is published twice monthly beginning August 2018. The opinions contained in columns and letters to the editors represent the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Pittsburgh Current ownership, management and staff. The Pittsburgh Current is an independently owned and operated print and online media company produced in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood, 1665 Broadway Ave., Pittsburgh, PA., 15216. 412-204-7248. Email us or don’t: info@pittsburghcurrent.com.


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NEWS SECOND OPINION

ALLEGHENY COUNTY JAIL'S COVID-19 STATS AREN'T AS HEALTHY AS THEY MAY APPEAR BY CHARLIE DEITCH - PITTSBURGH CURRENT EDITOR

CHARLIE@PITTSBURGHCURRENT.COM

“Numbers don’t lie.” We’ve all heard that old trope millions of times in the past. But what can also be said is that numbers don’t always tell the whole truth. When it comes to COVID-19 data from the Allegheny County Jail, the numbers the public sees are true and accurate, but the way they’re being used doesn’t tell the whole story. Let’s look at two situations at the ACJ where raw data and press releases don’t tell the whole story. All is not well There’s no doubt that raw numbers easily make the situation at least look, at least, OK–the jail’s population is down, the number of releases since March 16 are up, and bookings at the jail are down. But are things really that good.? At the moment, 24 inmates have been confirmed to have COVID-19 through limited testing. Looking at that in the simplest of terms, 24 cases of COVID-19 is just 1.5 percent of the total incarcerated population of 1,643. The infection rate in Allegheny County is less than one percent. But let’s look at it another way. The number of individuals who tested positive is 24. The number of inmates tested for COVID-19 is 44. That means the jail’s rate of positive results to overall testing is 55 percent. That rate in Pennsylvania, according to stats from the State Health Department, is 21 percent. This high rate of infection exists and the county has only tested 2.7 percent of the inmate population. Many states and jurisdictions have moved to mass testing and had pretty shocking results. The Federal government has widened its testing to

The Allegheny County Jail (Current photos by Jake Mysliwczyk)

seek out asymptomatic patients after a pregnant inmate died of coronavirus last week. In Montgomery County, officials wanted to find out how rampant the virus was in the jail and decided to test all 948 inmates. Of those tested, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, 177 inmates tested positive, an 18 percent rate of infection, a rate that was also 30 times higher than what initial tests have shown. Additionally, the paper reports, 171 of those inmates exhibited no symptoms. Mass texting has revealed large numbers of infected inmates at every facility that has done mass testing. In North Carolina, officials became concerned after 39 inmates tested positive for the virus. They decided to test all 700 inmates at the jail and the number of infected sky-rocketed to 444. The results have been similar in other states as well. But those who know, say it’s

6 | MAY 5, 2020 | PITTSBURGH CURRENT

the only way to get a clear picture. “Unless you do universal testing in all environments, the risk of spread is enormous,” Leonard Rubenstein, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told USA Today. “If you are waiting for symptoms to emerge before you do the testing, you are getting a false picture of what is going on. … It’s too late.” However, mass testing does not seem to be on the agenda here. At the county’s weekly COVID-19 briefing, according to Trib Live, “Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald on Wednesday shrugged off the idea of mass testing at the county jail, where at least two dozen inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus.” Catch, Release, Catch Again One number touted by the ACJ, county government, and the courts,

is that 1,148 inmates have been released from the jail since March 16. The move to decarcerate the jail began before that when several advocates, citizens, and elected officials began a campaign to urge the release of as many inmates as possible to avoid a massive outbreak. The problem is, the jail has been filling up again with new arrivals. According to jail stats, the inmate population was 2,181 on March 16 and 1,148 inmates have been released. Optically, that’s a pretty good-looking achievement. But it’s just optics. Since March 16, 400 new inmates were booked into the facility. Granted, fewer people have been booked into the jail and more people have been released than in previous months or even years, but the goal is to limit exposure to COVID-19. So while technically 1,148 people have been released, the jail population from March 16 to April 29 has only decreased by 570 inmates. Another problem is that the facility is still receiving individuals arrested on minor charges, despite the need to keep the population down. Advocates and elected officials have urged for a decrease in arrests for such “ticky-tack” charges. For example, a $5,000 cash bail was set in early April for two different individuals on separate criminal trespass charges. Another individual was jailed on $1,000 cash bail for retail theft. In fact, the county jail’s population as of May 5 is actually larger than it was in mid-April.

EDITOR'S NOTE

This story was made possible

through a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Local Media Association.


NEWS DESPITE A PANDEMIC, BLACK INCARCERATED PEOPLE AT ALLEGHENY COUNTY JAIL STILL FACE INEQUITY IN BOOKINGS AND RELEASES BY CHARLIE DEITCH - PITTSBURGH CURRENT EDITOR

CHARLIE@PITTSBURGHCURRENT.COM

Just because there’s a pandemic on, doesn’t mean that black inmates get any more help or leniency from the justice system than they normally would. On March 16, the jail population was 2,181. This graph, top right, shows the population broken down by race. The middle graph represents the racial breakdown on April 27. All is well, right? All of the numbers went down. Well, but then we get to the graph at bottom right. This means there are proportionally more black individuals incarcerated now than there was before the pandemic. Of the incarcerated population, black individuals were still the largest segment of the population, while the total population saw a percentage decrease of white inmates and those of other races. Of the total population, the percentage of black incarcerated inmates actually grew by four percentage points. How did that happen? The system never changes. People of color make up 37% of the U.S. population but 67% of the prison population. Let’s look at some numbers. Between March 16, 2019, and April 28, 2019, 1,674 people were booked into the county jail. 50.2 percent of them, 841, were black and 46.7 of them were white. This is despite the fact that only 13 percent of the county’s population is African American. As I’ve said, bookings at the county jail are down. In fact, from March 16, 2020, to April 28, 2020, only 393 inmates were booked into the county jail. Of that number, 214 of those individuals were black and 171 were white. That means despite fewer bookings and an effort by law enforcement to not make ticky-tack arrests and fill the jail, the largest percentage of that population is black. In fact, between March 16 and April 28 of this year, a larger percentage of black individuals (54.4%) were sent to the county lockup. The proportion of white inmates booked, by the way, was over 3 percent less than last year. That means that during a pandemic proportionally more black individuals were arrested and booked into the jail than during the same period last year. Jasiri X, an activist and executive director of 1Hood Media, who has long spoken out about the effects of mass

incarceration on black and brown people, said even he was surprised that in the time of pandemic, that the numbers were “so stark.” “I am definitely surprised by that,” Jasiri X said. “But what I’m not surprised about is when you start talking about releasing people from jail, that proportionally, most of those people are not black. It shows you that when politicians are tasked to release people, it always comes down to profile. “A lot of politicians think making things safer means locking up more black and brown people.” And while it’s easy to point to one number — the fact that more black people were released than white people — Jasiri X said proportionality is just as, if not more important. Black people makeup just 13 percent of the county population, a clear minority, but is by the largest part of the jail population. Oddly though, in the jail where black incarcerated individuals are the majority, they aren’t proportionally treated like that when it comes time for release and bookings. Jasiri X says the argument that more black inmates were released is a flawed argument when discussing these release numbers. “To say you released more black people, but proportionally the black population increased is a biased argument,” said Jasiri X. “Like Jay-Z famously said, ‘People lie, numbers don’t.’ Here’s the data taken during this pandemic, a worst-case scenario and black and brown people are the first ones arrested and the last ones freed. “They were able to take an unjust system and somehow made it even more inequitable.” Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy counsel at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says “racial disparities are pervasive throughout the criminal legal system in Allegheny County. So, sadly, it’s not surprising. Even in a pandemic, stakeholders in Allegheny County are harsher on Black people.” Taylor says the justice system was constructed to treat black individuals differently. “Black individuals are incarcerated at a much higher rate than other races, despite being a smaller percentage of the population, she said. “ACLU-PA’s report on cash bail in Allegheny County showed that Black people and poor people were more likely to get cash bail orders. The ACLU’s report on marijuana arrests shows Black people in the county are six times more likely to be arrested for possession than white people. Racism in the criminal legal system continues, and stakeholders – from the courts to the DA to the county executive – don’t appear to be serious about addressing it.” As for the increase in bookings at the jail during the pandemic, Taylor added: “Black people make up about 13% of Allegheny County’s total population but make up over half of the jail population, which suggests that the county’s Black community is overpoliced. All of these pieces of the criminal legal system are connected to each other. Police have excessive contact with Black people, and courts disproportionately keep them incarcerated before they’ve had a trial. Each part of the system impacts the others. And this is the result.”

PITTSBURGH CURRENT | MAY 5, 2020 | 7


NEWS FROM A DISTANCE

1HOOD, URBANKIND TOWN HALL FOCUSES ON DISTANCE LWEARNING AT PITTSBURGH PUBLIC SCHOOLS BY ATIYA IRVIN-MITCHELL - PITTSBURGH CURRENT CONTRIBUTING WRITER

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In 1Hood Media and Urbankind Institute's weekly virtual hall focusing on the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on black Pittsburghers, the panel opted to explore the impact distance learning has had on parents, students, and how the district will respond. As if the move from the classroom to instructional packets and zoom weren’t daunting enough for students like Cecil Price, student body president and student at Pittsburgh Obama Academy, the losses to come with remote learning have been “unexplainable.” Aside from mourning the loss of events like graduation and prom, an added source of discontent for Price and his peers was the lack of communication from the district. “I believe the whole thing could’ve been done better, we got the official announcement that we’d be stopping school on March 13 and the school didn’t really reach out to us until they had a concrete plan,” Price recalled. “We were just waiting and waiting to see what would be our next steps.” Price explained that much of the information regarding the shift to distance learning had been posted on social media, the problem was not every student could access it. Due to the disconnect Price recalled his classmates reaching out to him for information. In addition to communication issues, Price reminded panelists that distance learning wasn’t effective for every student. “I can’t talk about everyone’s experience, but what I’ve been hearing essentially is that this isn’t the way that everyone can learn,” Price

said. “Most people are able to learn through face to face interaction with their teachers. I know growing up I learned best by having in-person interaction with my teachers, I'm not a virtual learner.” Price added that for some students having lengthy packets to turn in at the end of the week could be a struggle. “There’s this big disconnect in how best to learn especially in this education system,” Price said. As a parent Khamil Scantling, founder of Cocaprener Pgh, admitted that some days implementing distance learning are rougher than others. Sometimes this means getting her 3-year-old to stay focused on the screen. Other times it means grappling with her 6-year-old daughter’s sadness over not having friends around. But Scantling stressed and encouraged parents to cut themselves slack during this challenging time. “I think people really need to give themselves grace and space and just not expect perfection,” Scantling said. “My schedule literally says rough schedule.” Due to many demands of distance-learning, Scantling explained many of her usual endeavors have had to take a backseat. Thinking of the variety of roles parents are forced to fill during the pandemic, Scantling worried that parenting and ultimately learning this way wasn’t tenable long-term. “There’s a part of me that worries how much of this they’re even retaining,” Scantling said. “As a

8 | MAY 5, 2020 | PITTSBURGH CURRENT

Screen capture from 1Hood and Urbankind Town hall.

college student doing online courses I could only do one or two of those a semester. For them being children, it’s not sustainable.” While the future remains uncertain for recently sworn in Devon Taliaferro, a board member for Pittsburgh Public Schools, the objectives remain the same: ensuring that the students receive an education. However, with the district’s technology survey showing that roughly 41 percent of responding families reported that not every child had access to a device, for some students that’s easier said than done. Taliaferro admitted that due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and other constraints the transition into remote learning hadn't gone seamlessly. “This approach to remote learning has not been easy for the district and very early on wanting to make sure we had the time to put something together that would meet the needs of our children and especially children who might have special education needs,” Taliaferro said. In the beginning, Taliaferro explained, it became clear that the district lacked the resources to ensure that every student who needed a

device could be given one. Therefore the focus went on gauging the need and prioritizing seniors. “We really wanted to make sure we started with our seniors first because they don’t have a chance to go back and re-learn, so this is kind of it for them,” Taliaferro stated. The district was working toward distributing technology devices to the 9-11 grade levels by May 1. “Making sure we’re not penalizing students for not having the resources they need to be able to learn from home,” Taliaferro said. “There’s no perfect way to do any of this and a lot of it is learning as we go but, we’re making sure our most vulnerable students are protected because they’re usually the first to be forgotten.” When asked about the district’s plans for those students, Taliaferro declined to answer due to the constantly changing nature of the pandemic. Yet, she stated that conversations were happening to confront learning loss for students who lacked the materials to distance learn.

EDITOR'S NOTE

This story was made possible through a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Local Media


NEWS STATE OFFICIALS URGE PENNSYLVANIANS TO 'APPLY TODAY' FOR MAIL-IN BALLOTS FOR JUNE 2 PRIMARY ELECTION BY CASSIE MILLER - FOR THE PITTSBURGH CURRENT

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ith Pennsylvania’s primary election just four weeks away, state officials asked voters to register to vote and apply online for mail-in ballots as soon as possible. “This primary election is the first chance Pennsylvanians have to take advantage of mail-in voting,” Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday in a virtual press briefing. So far, nearly 1 million Pennsylvanians have applied for mail-in and absentee ballots, Wolf confirmed. Pennsylvanians have until May 18 to register to vote in Pennsylvania’s June 2 primary. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot for the primary is May 26 by 5 p.m. “I strongly encourage Pennsylvanians wanting to vote by mail to apply today,” Wolf said. “I want to emphasize how important it is for voters to have their voice heard, even in a pandemic.” Wolf said that giving the Department of State, which oversees elections across Pennsylvania, enough time to process requests for ballots, is “a great way to help workers.” When asked if voters who choose to voter in-person would be required to wear masks, Wolf hesitated to say that it would be required, but urged Pennsylvanians 12.8 million residents to think of their fellow Pennsylvanians and choose to wear a mask because “it’s the right thing to do.” Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who also joined Wolf at the briefing, said officials knew the 2020 election would be “historic,” given the new measures passed in Act 77 last fall that allowed for no-excuse mail-in voting and eliminated straight-ticket voting, but not for changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “At the time, Boockvar said, “we did not know how important those

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measures would be.” Boockvar took time to address election questions regarding the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown during Monday’s briefing. For voters who already applied for a mail-in ballot during the primary’s original April 28 date, Boockvar said they do not need to re-apply. Boockvar also clarified the state’s stance on voter ID requirements, saying that ID is not required if the polling place is moved due to COVID closings, it is only required when the voter changes precincts Boockvar said that regardless of what phase a county or region is in during the primary, voters can leave their home to vote. “You should feel free to go ahead and exercise your right to vote,” Boockvar said, encouraging voters to heed social distancing efforts.

Boockvar said that state officials have taken “multiple steps” to help county election offices, including providing extra funds. Wolf expressed concern over overwhelming the county election offices to process the high demand of mail-in ballot requests. “We all had that concern well before the pandemic,” Wolf said. To address those concerns, Boockvar said the state department has sub-granted $13 million directly to counties to improve safety, security and administration ahead of the June 2 primary. Funding from the federal government is being used to provide polling places with tape, masks and hand sanitizer, Boockvar said. Boockvar said Pennsylvania has joined other states in calling for more federal funding ahead of the Novem-

ber general election. Due to COVID-19, some polling places have changed. Both Boockvar and Wolf urged voters to check for changes to the location of their polling place before the election. Boockvar added that even businesses that are closed under Wolf’s order to close all non-essential businesses can open to serve as polling places, with approval from state officials. Boockvar called on those businesses to volunteer their locations. “Help serve democracy,” she said. Pennsylvanians can visit votespa. com or call 1-877-VOTESPA for more information. Cassie Miller is the Associate Editor of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star where this story first appeared

PITTSBURGH CURRENT | MAY 5, 2020 | 9


NEWS CASEY WARNS TRUMP THAT ORDER TO KEEP MEAT PLANTS OPEN IMPERILS WORKERS ROBIN BRAVENDER - FOR THE PITTSBURGH CURRENT

INFO@PITTSBURGHCURRENT.COM

U.S. Sen Bob Casey, D-Pa., and his fellow Democratic senators have accused President Donald Trump of putting workers at risk by ordering meat and poultry processors to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Casey, along with Democratic U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, of Nevada; Sherrod Brown, of Ohio; Chris Van Hollen, of Maryland, and Tammy Baldwin, of Wisconsin, have asked Trump to amend an executive order he signed last week, which declared meat plants to be “critical infrastructure” and ordered his administration to ensure that they continue to operate. Trump’s order comes as slaughterhouses around the country have emerged as hot spots for the spread of COVID-19, forcing closures in some locations and disrupting food supply chains. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were at least 115 meat or poultry processing facilities with COVID-19 cases by April 27. More than 4,900 workers had been diagnosed with the disease, and 20 deaths linked to COVID-19 had been reported among those workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union — the nation’s largest meatpacking union — puts the number of infections even higher, stating that 6,500 meat industry workers had contracted COVID-19. “Without immediate, comprehensive intervention by the federal government to ensure the health and safety of workers at these plants, workers in the meat processing industry will remain at extremely high risk of contracting the virus and the plants will continue to be a major

vector of significant infection,” the Democratic senators wrote last week in a letter to Trump. CNN reported last week that although Trump gave Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue the power to invoke the Defense Production Act to order companies to continue operating, the department hadn’t forced any shuttered facilities to reopen. The order could, however, allow the federal government to override the decisions of state and local officials who may try to close plants based on health concerns. The Democratic senators accused the administration of refusing to use its existing authority to keep workers safe. “In light of the woeful lack of federal standards and enforcement, state and local officials have recently taken action to close several unsafe meatpacking plants that put workers and their communities at risk,” they wrote to the president. The administration’s use of the Defense Production Act to mandate plants’ reopening “could prevent State and local authorities from compelling companies to provide workers with essential protections, and thus being able to keep their communities safe,” they wrote. They urged Trump to amend his executive order to mandate that meat plants shuttered by officials or of their own accord could reopen only after meeting safety guidelines. Last week, the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released new voluntary guidance for meat and poultry processing facilities intended to improve worker safety during the pandemic. It notes that workers often work close to one another on

10 | MAY 5, 2020 | PITTSBURGH CURRENT

President Donald Trump

processing lines for prolonged periods of time, and it urges employers to keep workers at least six feet apart or put physical barriers between them, “if feasible.” But Democrats and some former safety officials want the administration to implement tougher standards. Deborah Berkowitz, a former senior policy advisor at OSHA, said on a conference call earlier this month that the “outbreak in meatpacking was not inevitable.” She added, “It was because of a decision by all big meat companies to not implement basic guidance that the CDC issued back in March to keep everyone six feet apart and prevent the spread of COVID-19 … The companies will continue to prioritize production and profits over worker safety until they are required to implement safe provisions.”

Democrats in the House and Senate are separately pushing for legislation that would require emergency enforceable standards to protect workers from COVID-19 exposure while on the job. The House version of the bill has 63 Democratic co-sponsors and one Republican backer, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. At least 20 co-sponsors had signed on to the Senate version of the legislation. They include Baldwin, Brown, Casey and Van Hollen, along with U.S. Sens. Angus King, I-Maine; and Democrats Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, and Sen. Tim Kaine, of Virginia. Robin Bravender is the Washington Bureau Chief for the Pennsylvania Capital-tar where this story first appeared.


OPINION

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OPINION Modern Union Busting, and the Decline of the Middle Class

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BY LARRY J. SCHWEIGER - PITTSBURGH CURRENT COLUMNIST INFO@PITTSBURGH CURRENT.COM

orkers in slaughmasks, swabs, and test kits to be terhouses, frontline able to produce widespread and bus drivers, transit timely testing because he does operators, and essential grocery not want voters to know how store clerks did their jobs during bad things are. Economist Robthis past month. Many faithfulert Reich explained “Trump’s ly showed up to work despite actions regarding re-opening the not having proper protection national economy to a chilling measures, adequate healthfour-point plan: Remove incare coverage, or decent living come support, so people have wages. Far too many are now no choice but to return to work; paying the price. "Workers of hide the facts; pretend it’s about every stripe are supporting the “freedom”; and shield businesssick, the isolated, and the vules against lawsuits for spreading nerable. Even in the face of this the infection.” The coronaviemergency, working people are rus did not cause a myriad of showing no crisis is too great, workplace injustices; it merely and no task is too small." AFLbrought them into sharp focus. CIO President Richard Trumka Just after the first Earth Day recently spoke on a March 19 when millions of Americans Facebook telecast: "Our values protested and demanded corare needed more today and more porations stop polluting the air than ever before." Once the and waters, Milton Friedman in immediate pandemic crisis has apparent response to the public run its course, Trumka said, "We demands, published an article in can rebuild America. the New York Times on SepIn response to widespread tember 13, 1970, asserting the COVID-19 outbreaks at thirteen sole purpose of a firm is to make meat-producing operations, money for its shareholders. Full Trump invoked the Defense Pro- stop. Friedman's article claimed duction Act, and ordered slaugh- executives who pursued any terhouse workers, sick or not, goal other than making money back on the job while relieving (like caring for workers' health the meat-producing corporations and safety or addressing pollufrom liability. More concerned tion) were "unwitting puppets of with his re-election than the the intellectual forces that have health of workers, Trump has been undermining the basis of a also been encouraging goverfree society these past decades." nors who are ignoring CDC He said they were guilty of benchmarks to reopen prema"analytical looseness and lack of turely. Trump and many govrigor," turning themselves into ernors are forcing workers off "unelected government offiunemployment compensation cials" who were illegally taxing back to work with inadequate employers and customers. For safeguards, including masks, this economic drivel, Friedman gloves, testing, and contact tracwon a Nobel Prize in Economing. He has refused to use the ics in 1976. More importantly, same Defense Production Law his economic theory found a that gives government sweeping home on Wall Street. Corporate powers to dramatically ramp up culture has shifted to become lathe manufacturing capacity of ser-focused on quarterly returns 12 | MAY 5, 2020 | PITTSBURGH CURRENT


OPINION and stock prices as the compensation measure for rewarding CEO's. Oligopolistic behemoths see organized labor as a serious threat to their profits and have successfully attacked labor with crippling state laws and through conservative courts decisions. Increasing corporate profits by keeping workers down, and wages low has been vital element of corporate strategy in recent decades following Friedman’s admonition. Historically, organized labor has been a vital force for numerous progressive changes and has been a driving force building a vibrant middleclass. The American labor movement has been systematically targeted, and as a result, it has dramatically contracted in recent decades. Now, unions struggle to be relevant as wages have flattened, and healthcare and pensions disappeared. More than ever, labor unions must be well-resourced to be able stand up for workers in the face of the rapid corporatization of America. In recent years, monopolistic practices of buying up competition have been great for executives, and shareholders, and very bad for almost everyone else, including our struggling capitalistic system. They have an outsized influence in elections aimed at keeping regulations down, and to promote self-serving policies like a flat tax that disproportionately advantaged the wealthy. David Leonhardt wrote a piece on November 25, 2018, New York Times entitled "The Monopolization of America" explains: "In one industry after another, big companies have become more dominant (in their markets) over the past 15 years, new data show ... They hold down wages because where else are workers going to go? They use their resources to sway government policy. Many of our economic ills—like income

stagnation and a decline in entrepreneurship—stem partly from corporate gigantism." Sooner or later, crony capitalists and monopolistic corporations will jack prices as we have seen in the pharmaceutical and airline industries Mega-wealthy libertarians like Koch have enjoyed an unprecedented upward spiral in wealth. To maintain status, they invest in efforts aimed at crippling unions. Corporate elites also enlisted conservative politicians, and conservative talking heads to carry out a coordinated stratagem to suppress labor unions. The nature of a strike can at times include some drama. Russ Limbaugh labeled protestors "union thugs." (Not surprisingly, Limbaugh has been silent about the armed and masked terrorists who raided the Michigan State Capitol to overthrow stay-at-home-orders intended to control the pandemic.) Limbaugh and the other right-wing talking heads have long been breeding discontent and skepticism among truckers and other blue-collar workers, and they have aimed at more conservative union members, focusing on coal miners, steelworkers, and other workers whose jobs will change with the climate crisis and clean energy policies. In 2016, corporate PACs and other political investments yielded six times the amount donated by labor. Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, warned that labor is "so overshadowed by corporation's and billionaire's money. The labor stuff is pathetic in comparison." The intensity of efforts to undermine labor unions has dramatically expanded with much success. Since 2009 for the first time, Americans now increasingly see labor in a more negative light. David Madland and Karla Walter prepared a paper for July 2010 for the Center of American

Progress Action Fund entitled, "Why Is the Public Suddenly Down on Unions? Labor unions, like any other institution led by humans, may have had their share of issues over the years. Despite failings, they have historically been the most influential counterweight to the heavy hand of corporate money. Currently, 117 million private-sector workers and 21 million public sector workers are under severe pressure. The number of unionized workers has dramatically contracted in recent decades with a concurrent decline of the middleclass. Organized labor has fallen from about 25% of the private workforce to about 6.5%. Now the private and public sector unions are nearly identical in size with 7.6 million members versus 7.2 million. For labor, and for much of the disappearing middle class, the stakes in this struggle are high. No one should be surprised that the wealthy are getting wealthier while workers receive crumbs. As a recent example of their strategy, anti-union groups set their sights on home-healthcare workers as one of the fastest-growing professions in the country, but also one of the lowest-paid jobs. A Michigan law banned paycheck deductions from home-healthcare workers. Trump followed with a Department of Health and Human Services rule banning union dues deduction from home-healthcare workers' Medicaid-funded paychecks. The SEIU Healthcare Michigan experienced an 84 percent drop in membership and a 74 percent drop in revenue. Influenced by Trump’s hot rhetoric and empty promises, far too many low-information workers voted for Trump in 2016 despite his long and well-documented history of abusing workers on job sites. Trump has consistently opposed their interests as a private-sector employer repeatedly braking

contracts and abandoning promises. Despite Trump's corporate practices that were hostile to labor, many workers have naively supported Trump. Some have even supported "right to work" laws to avoid paying union dues. Since 1981, a well-coordinated state-by-state effort has undermined unions through so-called "Right to Work" laws. These laws diminish union revenues and prevent them from being an effective counter-current to the dominant corporate politics aimed at keeping wages and benefits low. Labor's influence has been declining as "right to work for less" laws are now in force in 26 states, including Michigan of all places. Arizona went so far as to add "right to work" to its Constitution. Such laws strip unions of the right to collect dues from all workers even in shops where workers voted to require dues payments. Senator Rand Paul has introduced the National Right to Work Act to make paying union dues optional. Senator Paul does not care that forty percent of Americans make less than $15 an hour, and essential workers cannot afford even a $400 bill for medicine during a pandemic. Richard Trumka is right. We must rebuild America. Once again, organized labor needs to be at the forefront of a progressive movement to create safe working environments, fair wages, health care, and retirement benefits. Ending unjust "Right to Work" laws can be an essential step towards addressing the enormous inequities of a run-away capitalistic system laid bare by the pandemic. By fusing environmental, labor, faith, and other forward-minded organizations in common cause, we must take steps to correct a system that has bent not towards justice as Martin Luther King Jr. had hoped, but to toward extreme greed of the one percent. PITTSBURGH CURRENT | MAY 5, 2020 | 13


OPINION PA DEMS HIT TOOMEY IN NEW WEB AD OVER CARES ACT AID TO BIG BUSINESS BY JOHN L. MICEK- FOR THE PITTSURGH CURRENT INFO@PITTSBURGH CURRENT.COM

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ennsylvania Dems are out with a new digital spot hitting U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., over an emerging dispute over how to hold the Federal Reserve Board and the Treasury Department accountable as it doles out billions of dollars in loan money authorized by the CARES Act. As Politico reports, the “fault lines” in the congressional panel charged with exercising oversight on the lending pit Toomey, a former Wall Streeter, against Bharat Ramamurti, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., whose hostility to Big Money is well-established. According to Politico, Ramamurti believes the Fed should restrict stock buybacks and executive bonuses for large corporations that are the beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse. He also believes that midsize firms should face conditions that include limitations on corporate outsourcing, Politico reports. Not so for Toomey, who was tapped by noted Sith Lord Mitch McConnell, for the oversight panel. “The Fed’s role is to comply with the statute,” Toomey said, according to Politico. “If Congress had wanted those restrictions to be in place, it would’ve been in the statute.” As you might expect, Pa. Dems pounced on Toomey’s comments like the guy in “Oliver!” bellowing “Moooorreee??? You wanntttt moorreee!!???” A 60-second YouTube spot shows the unseen hand of corporate America penning thank you notes to Toomey for the loans authorized by the CARES

Act. They include airline, oil and cruise line execs. "Pat Toomey is letting millionaires get away with using taxpayer funded bailout funds to write themselves big checks,” Beth Melena, a spokesperson for the state party said in an email. “Pat Toomey’s looking out for millionaires and billionaires because he only works for the rich and powerful. When will Pat Toomey start working for us?” Here’s the part where we get to the nuance. In an email, Toomey’s spokesman, Steve Kelly, accused Dems of faulty fact-checking, noting that the oversight panel’s purview doesn’t include small businesses, pointing to reporting by The Hill, a publication that covers Congress. *”Lawmakers established

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the five-person congressional oversight commission as part of their deal on the massive $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress late last month,” The Hill reported. “The panel is charged with monitoring the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve’s handling of the $500 billion in aid to impacted industries like airlines included in the bill.” And while he acknowledged that Toomey wanted to offer loans to the airline industry, Kelly pointed to a Washington Post story which shows Democrats wanted to offer grants to the industry. “It didn’t end up in the place I thought was ideal,” Toomey said, according to the Post, adding that the assistance offered to a variety of industries “will do a

tremendous amount of good.” While it’s far from perfect, the Senate version of the CARES Act did include, as NPR reports, $560 billion in assistance to individuals, including those direct cash payments of as much as $2,900. Aid to small business in the Senate package was nearly equaled by assistance to large corporations at $500 billion. And as a member of the majority party in the Senate, Toomey was in a position at the time to shift that balance. As we know, that ended up not happening in the bill, which sailed through the majority Democrat House before landing on President Donald Trump’s desk. John L. Micek is the editor of the Penneylvania Capital-Star where this story first appeared.


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AFTER TWO YEARS AWAY FROM MUSIC, MARS JACKSON IS FINALLY LOOKING UP BY CHARLIE DEITCH - PITTSBURGH CURRENT EDITOR

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CHARLIE@PITTSBURGHCURRENT.COM

ver the past two years when people would ask hip-hop artist Mars Jackson when he was going to release new music, he gave pretty standard answers. But the truth is, he wasn’t writing new music for an upcoming project or in the studio recording new tracks. He was in a therapist’s office trying to work through some serious issues that have dogged him for the past few years. “A couple of years ago I went through a spell where I had all of these emotions come to the surface and I didn’t know where they came from,” Jackson told the Pittsburgh Current on May 4, his 34th birthday. “It all had to do with never meeting my father, despite the fact that he lives four hours away. I had no relationship with him and I couldn't understand why this dude didn’t work harder to make that happen. “I was internalizing everything. I tried to suppress these things. I couldn’t write, I didn't go on tour. It was like I lost my super power. “I was emotionally breaking down and having panic attacks and I felt ‘less than’ because I had those feelings. In the black community, we don’t talk about stuff like this, But I had to get through this mess.” Most importantly,therapy helped him get through a rough time in his life. But it also gave him the ability to work through those emotional barriers and begin creating again. On May 4, Jackson released his first piece of new music in two years. “Look Up” was born out of those hard times and it’s about his journey dealing with the issues surrounding his father. The track, produced by DanSully and Bobby Webster and featuring Cam Chambers, is a smooth, jazz-influenced piece. Jackson begins the song: “They said you

had a long way before your strong enough. So what you waiting for, do you want it bad enough? You gotta take control if it ain’t addin’ up. Keep shining your light and you’ll find your way.” As Jackson was planning to get his music rolling again, he met up with DanSully and Webster and then Cam Chambers. He began meeting the trio at the Empty Space Project in New Kensington where they began working on the track. “It started out, we were just talking about life and getting to know each other,” Jackson said. “Then we started going back and forth until we had the music.” Jackson had already been working on the lyrics for “Look Up,” and he knew he wanted to write about what he was going through. And to do that, he had to make himself vulnerable and be honest about his struggle. With a first verse in hand, he and Chambers performed it several months ago at a show at Spirit Lounge in Lawrenceville. Hi fans didn’t recognize it, of course, and it was still incomplete. That second verse still hadn’t materialized. Then, in March, he and his fiancee went to New Orleans to look at Wedding venues. “At the time, COVID-19 was bubbling up, but it wasn’t hot then,” Jackson recalls. “But when we got back home, life changed.” While Jackson doesn’t have a relationship with his father, he does have one with members of his father’s side of the family, at the urging of his mother, who Jackson calls his hero, he is close with his aunt, his father’s sister. Within a period of a few weeks. His aunt had lost her husband and her father-in-law. Two days after burying her father-in-law, she lost her mother, Jackson’s grandmother due to complications from COVID-19.

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Mars Jackson (Current Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk

The loss hit Jackson hard. Because he lost his grandmother, of course, but also because he wasn’t able to have a closer relationship with her. “It just brought up these feelings that I’ve had my whole life and I had to get these feelings out,” Jackson said. “That’s what the song is about, it’s about looking up even when things are really hard. “I wanted to try and connect with people’s hearts. Then when the COVID happened, I realized there were other people who probably felt the way I did. “I started thinking, what if I caught this and died, never meeting my father. But I realized there’s only so much I could do in that situation. When I would talk to my dad on the phone years ago, he would always say he loved me and I said it back to him. But in recent years I realized I was

making it easy on him by saying that. There’s no reason in 34 years that we couldn’t have met. I made it easy on him, I was right here and he couldn’t make that sacrifice. So, I had to let that go and not let those feelings control my life.” That time allowed him to finish the song. And although his fulllength isn’t due until later in the year, he decided to release the song now in a difficult time for everyone. “I’m not trying to bash nobody, but this is my story,” Jackson says. “It feels good to be able to open up about stuff. In an odd way, this has turned out to be a positive influence in my life. This experience has helped me create a whole new outlook.” To hear the new song: song.link/ MarsLookUp

PITTSBURGH CURRENT | MAY 5, 2020 | 15


A&E 'DEATH IN MUD LICK'

Pulitzer-winning writer takes on Big Pharma in new book BY JODY DIPERNA - PITTSBURGH CURRENT LIT WRITER

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JODY@PITTSBURGHCURRENT.COM

est Virginia was as ravaged by the opioid epidemic as it was by extractive industry, ranking first in the nation in drug overdose deaths. Opioids wrecked huge swaths of Appalachia, including Western Pennsylvania, as drugs flooded the region. Both here in Allegheny County and all through West Virginia, drug overdose deaths peaked in 2017 and though the numbers have dropped a bit, they remain considerably higher than the time before opioids hit the region like a bag of wet cement. Even as I prepared to call veteran journalist Eric Eyre, I wondered if the Current should cover another book about opioids in Appalachia. Minutes after Eyre and I got off the phone, an email notification dinged. The toxicology report had just been released for the death of a 1-year old child in Sharpsburg -- it showed a mix of heroin and fentanyl were the cause of death. Eyre's book, 'Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic' (Scribner, 2020), goes right to the heart of how things like a 1-year old accidentally overdosing can even happen. As a reporter for the Charleston Gazette, the paper of record for West Virginia, Eyre covered much of the opioid epidemic in real time, through deaths and investigations, legal battles and cover-ups. His comprehensive, fearless, and deeply humane coverage won him the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. "You can't escape it. It's

everywhere around you," Eyre said of his hometown which wears ugly scars from the crisis and continues to suffer. "Today, I saw an obituary. A friend of my wife's -- her son overdosed. He had lived in London and Chicago and New York and LA, but didn't get addicted to opioids until he came back to West Virginia. There's always a story you hear, everywhere you go." Eyre covered the state government beat, which meant he covered everything from the legislature and the governor's office, to the state agencies, one of which is the Attorney General's office. It was in that capacity that he crossed paths with the legal battles going on with opioids in his state. Eyre writes, "As the addiction crisis spread across the country, some health advocates sounded the alarm, but industry lobbyists snuffed out policymakers' efforts to stop the scourge. They found politicians willing to do their bidding. The regulators -- the DEA, the pharmacy board -- failed to do their jobs. Pablo Escobar and El Chapo couldn't have set things up any better." In clean, detailed language, Eyre takes the reader through his efforts to uncover records held by the AG's office and the DEA, and the court battles undertaken on behalf of the Charleston Gazette and Washington Post, so that they could report accurately and comprehensively on the epidemic. There are the lawsuits. There are Congressional hearings. There are cozy relationships between elected officials, enforcement agencies and large corporations.

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There is a lot of sleeping at the switch. He also tells personal stories that bring the book to life. Eyre describes the tiny coal town of Kermit (population 382), home to Sav-Rite Pharmacy, one of

the nation's top sellers of hydrocodone, where they served hot buttered popcorn and other snacks to crowds waiting for their scripts to be filled. You didn't have to be a next-level investigator to see that something


A&E was up. But Sav-Rite and other pill mills like it operated freely for years. The actual building was about quarter the size of a free-standing fast food restaurant, but Eyre's recalls Sav-Rite as being the 12th biggest dispenser of hydrocodone in the country. He also tells the story of lifelong Kermit resident, Debbie Preece. Preece is a less-thanperfect protagonist. She has a checkered criminal past. She did some time. She also has a relentless courage, like an Appalachian Erin Brokovich. When Debbie's brother Bull died from overdose, she didn't take that lying down. "She's a firebrand. There's no bullshit," Eyre laughed. Together with a local attorney, Preece fought back by suing doctors and pharmacists responsible for letting the spigot of opioids overflow the region. Neither she nor her attorney knew about drug distribution companies like McKesson, Cardinal, AmeriSourceBergen and Miami-Luken who had their hands in the mess, too. If Eyre had written this as fiction, it would be too ridiculous to believe, but Debbie Preece camped out at a pharmacy and then followed the unmarked delivery truck on his rounds to various rural pharmacies. She tracked down the license number -- that was the first time she heard of the distributors. "None of us knew -- I didn't know. As far as I knew, Purdue Pharma put their drugs from their factory and shipped them direct to pharmacies," Eyre recalled. 'A Death in Mud Lick,' is full of sharp reporting and story-telling. But is also infused with the kind of compassion and moral outrage necessary to understand how a man-made disaster like this one happens.

CLASSICALLY TRAINED MUSICIAN JESSICA VICTORIA PRESENTS AN IMMERSIVE MYTH ON SINGS OF THE SUMMER REALM BY MARGARET WELSH - PITTSBURGH CURRENT MUSIC EDITOR

MARGARET@PITTSBURGHCURRENT.COM

Jessica Victoria has always been captivated by stories. As a kid, she’d rush home from school, grab a snack and then disappear for hours into her books. Music always held stories for her, too. When she was just three, her uncle introduced her to Beethoven’s symphonies. “Picture this little three year old,” she recalls, “going to sleep listening to Beethoven’s 4th, thinking, ‘Hm, what’s happening?” She imagined monsters, heroes, drama. Victoria -- who is originally from New Mexico, and now lives in Mount Lebanon -- went on to pursue classical music training, including a doctorate in musical arts and a masters in vocal performance. Currently she directs the voice track of the sacred music program at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio. She’s performed at the Vatican and with orchestras around the world. Born blind, she composes using braille music transcription. On her new record, Songs of the Summer Realm, which comes out Friday, May 8, Victoria moves from formal classical compositions to songwriting influenced by both traditional celtic traditions, and modern rock and jazz. And at the center is one of her favorite stories: the legend of King Arthur. Victoria was particularly inspired by Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle series, which she describes as presenting a more “rugged” and -- for her -- relatable version of the stories that many of us know. And she was especially interested in Lawhead’s depictions of women. “They’re so strong and memorable,” she says. “I wanted to devote some of the songs to them and offer a different way of looking at the women in Arthur’s life.” Songs of the Summer Realm is

Jessica Victoria

an ambitious work, which Victoria, with her powerful, opera-trained voice, delivers with the emotional and tonal range required to create a captivating narrative worthy of its rich subject matter. Fans of Canadian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Loreena McKennitt -- one of Victoria’s favorites -- will find the approach familiar. “I’ll never forget when I first listened to [McKennitt’s] “Lady of Shalott,” I was spellbound because she was able to bring the music and the story together ... and really capture the mystery and the magic,” says Victoria. “And she hasn’t really been restricted by genre, either. She’s been able to put the genre in the service of the story and that's what I strive to do.” Victoria, too, incorporates other genres in surprisingly fluid ways: “The Prophecy,” for one, opens with raucous bagpipes, underscored by rock guitar riffs and bolstered by piano parts that border on free jazz. The fact that this potentially chaotic instrumentation actually

works is a credit to Victoria’s broad musical knowledge and songwriting skills (Iron Maiden is another influence), and to the musicians she worked with on the record, including Lorne MacDougall of long-running Scotland-based celtic band Tannahill Weavers. To deepen the Arthurian atmosphere, the record was recorded in the Scottish Highlands where, myth holds, Arthur spent some of his formative years. “The goal for the album is for people to have an immersive experience in the story,” says Victoria. “I read that there was some research done that sometimes people will listen to something for seven seconds, and then move on to the next thing. And I wanted this album to be an alternative to that,” she explains. “Especially now that people are home during this pandemic, I think it's a really good time to release it because people can listen to it once, twice, more, and still get something out of the whole story.” For more information, visit www.jessicavictoria.com

PITTSBURGH CURRENT | MAY 5, 2020 | 17


A&E PITTSBURGH'S SAME SYNTHESIZES INDIE-ROCK INFLUENCES TO MAKE SOMETHING DIFFERENT BY JUSTIN VELLUCCI - PITTSBURGH CURRENT CONTRIBUTING WRITER

INFO@PITTSBURGHCURRENT.COM

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laying guitar in an indie-rock band in 2020 requires some genre knowledge and a lot of muscle memory, that ability to reproduce the fingers shifting between chords and sentiments without conscious thought. Jake Stern, who plays guitar and keys and provides backing vocals in the placid Pittsburgh band Same, knows the instinct to rely on muscle memory, using it as a kind of short-hand to recapture the energy of the music that inspired him. He also doesn’t like it very much. “When [Same] first jammed, we’d say, ‘Oh, this is like that Pinback song,’” says Stern, who lives in Mt. Washington. ”But we just wanted to do something different. We all just kind of wanted to branch out.” Guitarist Tom Higgins echoes the sentiment. “We didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into making a certain kind of music,” Higgins says. “A lot of people make a band and say, ‘We want our band to sound like this other band that we like.’ We had all done that before. We wanted to actively stay away from that mindset.” There’s no sense of pigeon-holing on Plastic Western, the engaging and truly excellent debut LP the Pittsburgh quartet – bassist/vocalist Jesse Caggiano, drummer Jamie Gruzinski and guitarists Higgins and Stern – is set to release May 8 via Lauren Records. The addictive-as-sugar “Landlady” might amplify the haziness or THC-laced slacker-isms of Stephen Malkmus and tracks like “Como Esta La Serenidad?” drip with glassy notes and reverb, splitting the difference between emo or

Same

dream-pop mood-setting and Weezer-ish ear-worms. The lushness elsewhere betrays a debt to Yo La Tengo. But Same is clearly its own beast. The group formed around 2015 and, for the first year, the friends mostly percolated, talking about musical ideas rather than playing out live or going into the studio. The group’s debut instead became two EPs, 2016’s Weird As Hell and 2018’s Forgot to Say ‘Action.’ When the time came to cut Plastic Western, the band hunkered down in a quaint studio in the Poconos, battling the January cold by firing up an illegal propane heater. (Don’t go ratting them out now to zoning officials, OK?) Once the record was pressed, Same booked a release show at Club Café and a host of

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road shows throughout the U.S. and Canada. COVID-19 had other plans. But the group still is celebrating and will host a virtual “listening party” for Plastic Western at 8 p.m. May 8 on its Instagram handle, @sameband. “We’ll be video-chatting, talking about the record as we listen,” Stern says. “We were considering doing some live streams of stuff but we want to do things other than just showing us playing our instruments in our bedrooms.” Aaron Kovacs, who owns Lauren Records in California, says, despite the geographical distance, “Same comes from the same DIY scene as most of the Lauren Records roster.” “They are super creative, enthusiastic and hard working,”

Kovacs says. “We're stoked to be part of their team.” Kovacs admits having some familiarity, though, with Stern beyond Same’s music. His label released music by Signals Midwest, which features Stern’s Philly-based older brother, Max. “Some call us the Stern Family Label,” Kovacs laughs. The younger Stern and Same, though, are straight-faced about getting their music heard outside Pennsylvania. “We just really hope people like this album,” Stern says. “It’s the culmination of the last five years of our lives as a band. I hope people are able to enjoy it, to find it relaxing, to find some calming effect in it in these crazy times we’re in.” “I think there’s a lot to be gotten from listening right now.”


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Jordan Montgomery (Current Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

JORDAN MONTGOMERY STAYS ON MESSAGE WITH NEW SINGLES BY CHARLIE DEITCH - PITTSBURGH CURRENT EDITOR CHARLIE@PITTSBURGHCURRENT.COM

There’s a theme to the new record, Thank You 4 Ur Purchase But We R Not For $ale that hiphop artist Jordan Montgomery is dropping on June 30. “In this country, black art is more celebrated than black life,” Montgomery told the Pittsburgh Current on May 4. “Hip hop is the most popular genre of music in the world, yet we as a community are still out there fighting for basic civil rights. There’s an investment in our culture and our music because it can make a profit. But, there’s no investment in our communities and our quality of life.”

In advance of that record, Montgomery released two singles on May 1, Exclusive and Not 4 Sale. Musically, the two songs show off Montgomery’s ability to perform in different styles. Exclusive is more of a traditional, R&B-driven track, while Not For Sale has an edgier, trap vibe. Montgomery is comfortable with both sounds and at the end of the day, it’s the message he lays down over the music that is most important. “I try to find a good balance of both,” Montgomery says. “Musically, I like to keep myself open. The lyrics and the track

need to have good chemistry. But, honestly, I can rap over any type of sound. The important thing is to have something to say.” Like most people, time in quarantine has been tough on Montgomery and his label, Driving While Black Records. With a new record dropping in a month, he would normally be performing and lining up gigs for that all-important summer touring season. But all of that is on hold since no one is exactly sure when the pandemic-related restrictions will be lifted. “Myself and artists on my

label, we’ve all taken a hit financially,” Montgomery says. “But it’s also forcing us to be a lot more creative through virtual events and taking advantage of those Bandcamp Fridays events. As a label, we’ve doing Instagram live and giving some items away. Anything to keep in touch with the public. “We do look forward to the time we can personally interact with people in person. But we’re making the best out of it.” To buy Montgomery’s new singles: jordanmontgomery. bandcamp.com/

PITTSBURGH CURRENT | MAY 5, 2020 | 19


POP GAME STILL ON

WHILE OTHER PRO SPORTS ARE HUNG UP BY COVID-19, THE PITTSBURGH KNIGHTS ARE GOING STRONG BY MATT PETRAS - PITTSBURGH CURRENT CONTRIBUTING WRITER

INFO@PITTSBURGHCURRENT.COM

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efore the COVID-19 pandemic, The Pittsburgh Knights, a local esports franchise, were coming up with a schedule that would last from May through the end of the year, which included a slew of in-person tournaments as well as events at spaces like Stage AE. “Obviously, that landscape has completely changed,” says the franchise’s CEO James O’Connor. The pandemic has put traditional sports on hold around the country, but competitive video games still have a path to continue through the internet. As O’Connor puts it, “you can’t play baseball from home.” During the pandemic, the Knights have lost important revenue from the loss of in-person events but have a lot to gain from huge bumps in viewership for online tournaments. Around the world, gamers have been playing and watching video games much more than before the pandemic. Far more eyes are now on Twitch, the premiere place for both casual and professional gamers to stream gameplay. Traffic for online esports tournaments have surged, and the Knights are certainly seeing that. At first glance, this is promising for esports, an industry that has been striving toward the prominence of sports like baseball and football through video games like Overwatch, Counter-Strike and League of Legends. However, the business model for esports has traditionally relied on in-person tournaments. About a quarter of the Knights’ revenue was anticipated to come from in-person events this year, according to O’Connor. These

Despite, a global pandemc, the Pittsburgh Knights Esports franchise is still making waves worldwide.

also serve as marketing opportunities for the game developers and the teams. For players, missing out on tournaments can also simply be a bummer. Garett Bambrough, the esports consultant for the league, played Counter-Strike competitively with and against O’Connor years ago and can attest to the joy of an in-person tournament. “Just being able to be in another country and compete, in front of a live audience and so on and so forth, that’s the best part of being a pro gamer, to be honest with you,” Bambrough says. “And that part’s been taken

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away.” There’s also additional fun in watching the players as they win and lose throughout an in-person tournament. “You see them get loud and excited and pumped up, or you see them get sad and depressed. And fans like to see the experiences of the players as it’s happening,” Bambrough says. “But online, you don’t get to see those people’s expressions at all.” It’s not standard practice for esports players to have cameras streaming them as they play in a tournament, which means that the sponsor-clad jerseys aren’t visible during online

tournaments. Getting a camera on every player would be costly and require a lot of behind-thescenes work to get players a properly set up camera. It’s also an addition that makes some players uncomfortable, according to Bambrough. “For a lot of teams, they’re not cool with that,” Bambrough says. “They don’t want that.” Even before the pandemic, the Knights tried to give their fans some window into the players’ reactions and conversations during online tournament gameplay. The league has a video series called “Rocket League Comms Chaos,” for example,


POP which features compilations of gameplay clips with the players’ audio attached as they communicate with each other through audio. O’Connor believes that the Knights’ business model, in particular, is well-suited for a transition into online-only competition, partly because much of their competing was already online. “We’re not sitting here and saying ‘oh no, our team isn’t going to the finals anymore in a certain city or Chicago or wherever to a live event, and our sponsors aren’t being represented’ because we’re doing online tournaments,” O’Connor says. They’re also doing online events like the Valorant Charity Invitational, which Sheetz and G FUEL sponsor. Players competed to raise money for protective equipment and other medical supplies to combat COVID-19, playing the new game Valorant. This new game has been making enormous waves in the competitive gaming community, bringing in ludicrous amounts of online viewers. It garnered 1.73 million concurrent viewers on Twitch, the second-most in history, when its early, pre-release version launched this month, according to ESPN. To put this in perspective, the only game to ever surpass this, League of Legends, a game that’s been an esports smash hit for years, did so last year in a global tournament. “As messed up as this may sound, the fact that the game came out during the virus might have helped them,” Bambrough said. “Because everyone’s at home. Everyone’s online.” It makes sense that players and viewers alike are enjoying the game, as it’s more or less a combination of two of the most popular competitive games right now, Counter-Strike and Overwatch, and it’s developed by Riot Games, who created League of

The Pittsburgh Knights in action. Above at a tournament and below playng a game of Madden with NFL star Ryan Shazier.

Legends. It is a five-vs-five shooter that generally plays a lot like Counter-Strike, an intense and technical first-person shooter, but with a slew of different characters with their own unique abilities, a concept popularized in esports by Overwatch. And it’s phenomenal, Bambrough says. “We’re very curious to see how this game is going to evolve over the next year or two, because the strategies you can do in this game are endless because the abilities add another layer that Counterstrike doesn’t have,” Bambrough says.

The power wielded by this game means that the Knights are keeping a close eye on the game and calculating how they’re going to play it. “This game, we feel for sure it’s going to be successful, we’re just waiting to see how it develops, and we’re going to go from there,” Bambrough says. “We’re going day-by-day with Valorant for sure.” So in some ways, what the Pittsburgh Knights and other esports teams have been doing has largely been similar to what they did before the pandemic. The same players are playing the

same games, though there are new challenges for the business of the industry as it learns to forgo revenue and marketing from in-person events and lean into the new eyes paying attention to online tournaments. “I can tell you that our phone is off the hook, and it’s completely different,” O’Connor says. “Honestly, it’s sad that it’s happened right now. It’s a concern for everybody. I hope everybody is safe. It’s highlighted our work, and we’re just trying to do a good job in that light.”

PITTSBURGH CURRENT | MAY 5, 2020 | 21


EXTRA

Savage Love Love | sex | relationships

I

BY DAN SAVAGE MAIL@SAVAGELOVE.NET

’ve been with the same amazing man a dozen years. We’ve had our ups and our downs, same as any other couple, but these days life is better then it ever has been for us. Except in the bedroom. A few years ago he started having fantasies about sucking dick. Specifically, he wanted to suck a small one because his is very big and he wanted to “service” a guy who’s less hung than he is. Which is fine except it's now the only thing that gets him off. We seldom have sex since now because his obsession with sucking off a guy with a small dick makes me feel unattractive and to be honest I don't share the fantasy. I even let him suck a dude off in front of me once and I didn't enjoy it at all. He tells me he still finds me attractive but when we’re having sex the talk always goes to how he wants to take “warm and salty loads” down his throat. I've told him I'm not into it but he enjoys talking about it so much he can’t help himself. I thought by allowing him to live out his fantasy would help him "get over it," so to speak, but that didn't happen. So now we just don't have sex except once every few months. I'm not sure how to make him see that it's just not my thing and to get the focus back on just the two of us. Loves Obsesses About Dick Sucking If you can look at your husband and think, “Things are better than ever!”, despite the dismal state of your sex life, LOADS, I hate to think what life with him used to be like. There’s not an easy fix here. If you’ve already told your husband the “warm and salty load” talk is a turn-off and

made it clear it’s the reason your sex life has pretty much collapsed and nevertheless he persists with the “warm and salty load” talk, well, then your husband is telling you would he would rather not have sex than have sex without talking about warm and salty loads. Now I’m assuming that you actually told him how you feel, LOADS, in clear and unambiguous terms and that you said what you needed to say emphatically. And by “emphatically,” LOADS, I mean, “repeatedly and at the top of your lungs.” If not—if you’re doing that thing women are socialized to do, i.e. if you’re downplaying the severity of your displeasure in a misguided effort to spare your husband’s feelings—then you need to get emphatic. Sometimes it’s not enough to tell, LOADS, sometimes you have to yell. You’re obviously GGG—you’re good, giving, and game—but your husband has taken you for granted and been almost unbelievably inconsiderate. Because even if he needs to think about sucking dick to get off, LOADS, he doesn’t need to verbalize that fantasy each and every time you fuck. Even if you were into it, which you’re not, it would get tedious. And it wasn’t just selfish of him to ignore how you felt, LOADS, it was shortsighted. Because women who are willing let their husbands talk about wanting to suck a dick—much less suck a dick—aren’t exactly easy to come by. I guess what I’m trying to say, LOADS, is that your husband really blew it. If he hadn’t allowed this obsession to completely dominate your sex life—if he’d made some small effort to control himself—you might’ve been willing to let him act on his fantasy more than once. But as things stand now, it’s hard to see how you come back from this, LOADS, because even if can manage to STFU about warm and salty loads long enough to fuck

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you, you’re going to know he’s thinking about warm and salty loads. So the most plausible solution here—assuming that you want to stay married to this guy—would be for him to go suck little dicks (once circumstances allow) while you get some decent sex elsewhere (ditto). Finally, a lot of vanilla people think—erroneously—that acting on kink will somehow get it out a kinky person’s system. That’s not the way kinks work. Kinks are hard-wired and kinky people wanna act on their kinks again and again for the exact same reason vanilla people wanna do vanilla things again and again: because it turns them on. I have what most people would consider an amazing life. I have two healthy kids, financial security, a stable career, and a husband who is the exact partner I could ever want. I really couldn't ask for more. I just have one issue: my husband wants to be intimate more often than I do. We are both nearing 40, and his libido has not slowed down. I, on the other hand, due to a combination of being busy with work and us both taking care of the kids (especially during the lockdown), find myself with a decreased sexual drive. Because of all my (and our) obligations, I find myself alternating between a state of tiredness, anxiousness or distraction, none of which get me “in the mood.” We've talked about the situation, and he is absolutely respectful when we do so, but he has made it clear he’s very frustrated. I think once a week is more than enough and he could go multiple times a day. It's to the point where he feels he’s begging just to fit some “us” time into our lives, which he says makes him feel undesirable and humiliated. There isn't anything wrong with him that leaves me not wanting to engage in physical intimacy, we just seem to have different physical intimacy schedules, and it's putting a serious strain on our relationship. How can we work to find a comfortable middle ground, or at the absolute least, help me explain to him why I'm not as randy as he is? Completely Lost In Tacoma You don’t need to craft an elaborate

explanation, CLIT, as what’s going on here is pretty simple: your husband has a high libido and you have a low one. What you need is a reasonable accommodation. Opening up your marriage obviously isn’t an option right now, CLIT, and it might not be an option you would’ve considered even if it were possible for your husband to find an outlet (or inlet) elsewhere. But there is something you can do. Your husband is doubtless jacking off a lot to relieve the pressure. If there’s something he enjoys that you don’t find physically taxing and if he promises not to pressure you to upgrade to intercourse in the moment, then you could enhance his masturbatory routine. Does he like it when you sit on his face? Then sit on his face—you can even keep your clothes on—while he rubs one out. Does he love your tits? Let him look at them while he beats off. Is he a little kinky? It doesn’t take that long to piss on someone in the tub and it wouldn’t mean adding something to your already packed schedule, CLIT, as you have to find time to piss anyway. It would be unreasonable of your husband to expect sex three times a day—that would be an irrational expectation even if you were childless and independently wealthy—but your husband isn’t asking you to fuck him three times a day. He wants a little more sexual activity, some erotic affirmation, and more couple time. Giving him an assist while he masturbates ticks all those boxes. That said, this will only work if your husband solemnly vows never to initiate intercourse during an assisted masturbation session. If you catch a groove and start feeling horny and wanna upgrade to intercourse, you should. But he needs to let you lead because if he starts pressuring you for sex when you’re just there to assist then you’re going to be reluctant to help him out. If he can follow that one rule, CLIT, you’ll feel more connected and you’ll probably wind up having more PIV/ PIB/PIM sex—maybe twice a week instead of once a week—but it will be sex you both want.


ESSAY CONEY ISLAND BY MATTHEW WALLENSTEIN - PITTSBURGH CURRENT CONTRIBUTING WRITER INFO@PITTSBURGHCURRENT.COM

W

e moved to New York so she could go to the hospital there.There were a lot of arguments that summer. It wore her down and me down. I went looking for her past midnight more than once after she had run out in a fit. I was learning I couldn’t fix things. I was learning it was better to listen. There were a few scares. She spent days in hospital beds and I spent days next to her. She would tell me she was worried about dying. I would tell her she wasn’t going to die, but I was worried too. One night alone on Stuart Avenue I knocked myself unconscious by hitting my head against a brick wall as hard as I could. I woke up slurring her name. I had demons of my own. I wanted to carry hers for her too. I couldn’t figure out how. I was trying everything I could. I felt a stacking failure and felt selfish for feeling. On her birthday we went to Coney Island. Neither of us had ever gone on any of the rides there. I had only been there in winter, late at night, when men built like stubble-faced bowling pins fished off the boardwalk, and Alex had offered me $20 if I would jump off into the ocean and swim to shore. But this was during the day, and in July. She, Sandra, Chris and I took Chris’ van out there. Georgia may have been there too. We went swimming. She ran into the water and stepped on a diaper as soon as she got in. Chris and I kept swimming anyway. On the Ferris Wheel, when we reached the top, she stood, lifted up her shirt, and pressed her bare chest against the cage. “Hey, Coney Island, look at my tits,” she said. “It’s my birthday.” Chris took a picture of it with his camera. I can’t remember whether or not ended up in one of his photography shows but I think it did. A month later she bought a 15 passenger van in New Hampshire. We were going to the country she was from. She said she could get

medical attention cheaper there. I drove her and everything she owned to Mexico City. I brought a backpack and a book. Along the way we lost a wheel in Connecticut, picked up her brother in Texas, bribed the border guards, got pulled out of the van at gunpoint a few times by military police. I collected dead butterflies at a truck stop in the desert where they covered the ground like some kind of old magic. We spent nights with friends of hers, and drove all day without a radio or air conditioning. The city was massive. There were places in it I loved. I managed to get a job teaching English classes to business executives. The bus ride to their office building was over an hour each way. I would leave the house at 4:30 a.m. I learned to tattoo in Coyoacon. I worked out on our roof using buckets of plaster as weights. Our roommates were funny and kind. One of them, Paulina, had a mother who made the best salsa I had ever tasted. There were more trips to the hospital, to clinics, there were waiting rooms. Once outside of the hospital a woman started praying for her and she passed out. For a minute I thought she was playing a trick on the woman. She wasn’t. I carried her back over to the building and they rushed her inside. I did my best to tell the doctors what I could in my bad Spanish. I felt helpless. When she was stable she told me to tell her family. I went to the payphones. There was endurance. Gradually, there was climbing back. But she had a feeling of disappointment with the city. It was not the same for her as it was when she had left it years ago. I was ready to leave too. I was feeling isolation, I was separate from this place and the people in it. *** Ten months after arriving in Mexico we were living in New Hampshire again, staying in the

Illustration by Matthew Wallenstein

basement of a friend of mine from high school. We only planned to be there a month or so, and that wasn’t enough time to get a job at a tattoo shop. I got a job at a factory instead. 11p.m. - 8 a.m. The boss wore a clip-on tie and had bad breath. The place printed fliers and menus and calendars. Different nights I would have different tasks. Some nights it was hard work but mostly it was just boring. One shift I was paired with a guy and it was our job to build and stack boxes for another person to fill with bundles of menus. The machine printing them broke down. We wanted to look busy to avoid getting thrown onto another machine, so we just stacked boxes, knocked the stacks over, and stacked them again. He told me about how when he was fifteen he broke into the elementary school that was just down the street from the factory we were

working at. He tried to steal a computer. The cops caught him walking across the street with the thing in his arms and they tased him. Next thing he remembered was waking up in the back seat of the police car. He had pissed himself. I told him about the time I stole a computer from an office at a college. The mechanic came by to fix the menu printer and showed us where part of his skull had been caved in when he was a teenager. He said they used a bat on him, something about drugs. Then it was off to Braddock, Pennsylvania. We moved into a house down the road from Dave. A woman who had just won the McArthur Genius Grant for her photography had lived there as a child. I started tattooing again. Bills were in my name for the first time in my life. The following year she was deported.

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PA R T I N G S H OT

PITTSBURGH CURRENT PHOTO BY JAKE MYSLIWCZYK

PITTSBURGH CURRENT | MAY 5, 2020 | 24

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Pittsburgh Current, Volume 3, Issue 12, May 5, 2020  

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