Social Movements, Communities, and Campaigns in Pittsburgh

Editor’s note: In anticipation of the Urban History Association’s 2023 conference being held in Pittsburgh from October 26 – October 29, The Metropole is making the Steel City its Metropolis of the Month for January 2023. The CFP remains open until February 20, 2023. See here for details.

By Suzanne Staggenborg

Social movements, such as those dedicated to labor rights, environmentalism, and civil rights, have played a key role in the growth and development of cities like Pittsburgh. The following are some of the concepts that scholars employ to capture the presence and impact of social movements in urban spaces. Social movement communities consist of organizations, networks, cultural venues, and centers that support the activities of movements. Movement campaigns consist of a series of collective actions aimed at achieving specific goals. Organizers of campaigns build on the mobilizing structures of movement communities, such as networks and organizations, and campaigns often create or expand these communities. 

Urban social movement communities vary in size, diversity, and capacity for generating and sustaining collective action. Communities and campaigns may be more or less visible and ongoing in cities. For example, movement communities in some metropolises consist largely of networks among activists and may be hard for outsiders to locate, whereas other cities have visible organizations and community centers. 

Some cities even have social movement scenes, which are often physical places such as encampments where activists can be located.[1] Depending on such characteristics of the movement community, participants may be able to create alliances with other groups in the larger social movement field, which includes not just the movement but other actors in its environment such as opponents, potential allies, the public, and authorities.

One important question is how social movement communities emerge and maintain themselves. Movement campaigns and tactics are vital to the mobilization of social movements, and they often leave behind communities of supporters even when the visible and public action declines. For example, tactical innovation was critical to the growth of the American civil rights movement, with spurts of growth occurring when campaigns were launched with tactics such as bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and community-wide protests.[2] 

Outcomes are affected by movement infrastructure, which includes organizations, leaders and resources. In the case of the civil rights movement, the creation of local infrastructure had long-term impacts on communities, such as increased Black electoral participation and the election of African Americans to public office.[3] Beyond the achievement of immediate goals, social movements create relationships and build skills in communities, which can later be used to mobilize new campaigns.

Preexisting movement communities often provide the structures, cultures, and resources needed to mobilize campaigns, which in turn strengthen the communities.[4] A study of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in New York found that it extended the movement community by creating relationships among organizations in the larger field, leading to collaborations that helped to build later campaigns such as Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter.[5] Studies of protests at the sites of G20 meetings in Pittsburgh and Toronto demonstrate how preexisting networks and organizations, ideological alignments, and relationships in the movement communities affected mobilization and coalition work, and how participation in the protests introduced activists to new skills and tactics and created new relationships that affected subsequent coalitions and campaigns.[6]

A key issue is how long the relationships, networks, and organizations created by campaigns last and how they are maintained. New collaborations in OWS lasted at least four years after the occupation of Zuccotti Park ended.[7] In comparing the impacts of the G20 protests in Toronto and Pittsburgh, Wood et al. interviewed activists at different points in time and found that some of them were energized by the protests while others were exhausted.[8] Some organizations and coalitions created during campaigns decline soon afterwards, while others endure. These and other studies suggest the need for more research to explain these different outcomes and to explore the impacts of protests and changes in movement communities over time.

The Environmental Movement Community in Pittsburgh

In the remainder of this essay, I draw on my study of grassroots environmentalism in Pittsburgh to describe the movement community that I observed.[9] I began this study in 2010 at a time when the movement against shale gas drilling (known as “fracking”) was emerging in Pittsburgh. Attending many meetings and events as a participant observer, I could see how this movement arose and what types of impacts it had on the movement community. 

The battle against fracking mobilized numerous participants, including both new and seasoned activists, who were alarmed about the threats posed by fracking in the City of Pittsburgh and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Owing to movement efforts, in 2010 Pittsburgh became the first American city to ban fracking, and activists helped to raise consciousness about the dangers associated with fracking for human health and the environment.

Before the issue of fracking became prominent in local environmental politics, Pittsburgh was home to long-term movement organizations, such as the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), which was founded in 1969 to combat air pollution in the “smoky city,”[10] and the Allegheny Group of the Sierra Club, which was formed in 1970 and addressed a wide range of issues such as wilderness conservation, the impacts of coal mining, and air and water pollution. These and other organizations, including Clean Water Action and PennEnvironment, were part of a network of environmental groups and activists that provided participants and resources to the emerging anti-fracking movement. There were also long-standing peace and justice activists, such as those connected to the Thomas Merton Center, and more radical young activists associated with newer student, anarchist, and environmental justice groups. The Pittsburgh anti-fracking movement also built on earlier organizing by progressive activists such as the 2009 protests of the G20 meetings held in Pittsburgh. Some activists learned skills and tactics that transferred from one campaign to the next and formed relationships of trust that carried over from the G20 protests to the anti-fracking movement. For example, some of the same activists who persuaded the Pittsburgh City Council to permit demonstrations during the G20 also lobbied city council to ban fracking.

The anti-fracking movement built on pre-existing mobilizing structures, but also brought in new people who were outraged by the threats to their communities posed by fracking. A new group called the Lincoln Place Action Group organized after residents of the Pittsburgh neighborhood were approached by “landmen,” who tried to persuade them to sell their drilling rights. In response, neighbors began talking to one another and educating themselves about fracking. Early meetings in neighborhoods like Lincoln Place led an ad hoc group of experienced activists, newly mobilized neighborhood residents, and other concerned people to organize a large anti-fracking demonstration on the occasion of a shale gas industry conference in Pittsburgh. Organizers held a series of public meetings to plan the protest, which was intended to kickstart the Pittsburgh anti-fracking movement, and working groups, such as outreach, media, logistics, fundraising and art, formed to plan the demonstration, which took place on November 3, 2010. The protest was considered highly successful as hundreds of activists gathered for a rally with music and speakers at the Allegheny Landing on the North Shore before marching across the Rachel Carson Bridge to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh, where the gas industry conference was held. At this site there were more performers and speakers, including Gasland producer Josh Fox and city councilor Doug Shields, who sponsored the ban on fracking in Pittsburgh, which City Council passed a few weeks after the demonstration.

November 3, 2010, protest against fracking. Photo by Tom Jefferson.

The tactic not only helped to bring about this result but expanded the environmental movement community in the city. This happened as new organizations were founded, existing ones were strengthened, and new relationships were established. Planning for the demonstration on November 3, 2010, was extensive, and the process of organizing created new networks among activists and organizations. 

Often, individuals took initiatives that built the movement community. For example, one activist hosted weekly brunches at his home to raise money for the demonstration—attendees tossed coins and bills into a bucket—but also in order to bring people together. When I attended one of the brunches, people were talking excitedly to one another about plans for the demonstration, and I felt like I was witnessing the formation of a movement community. 

The experience of participating in a memorable demonstration also created solidarity. One participant in the November 3 demonstration, who had not been involved in the environmental movement previously, commented at a meeting a few weeks later that it was an “amazing feeling” to walk over the Rachel Carson Bridge with the other demonstrators, saying, “I was proud to be part of that group. I haven’t felt that way since high school football. It was awe inspiring.” 

Following the successful demonstration, many participants worked to build an ongoing umbrella organization, known as Marcellus Protest, and to organize smaller-scale actions and demonstrations across Pennsylvania. The Shadbush Environmental Justice Collective brought together several informal groups of activists to form a radical environmental collective in 2010 and quickly became involved in organizing the November 3 demonstration and subsequent anti-fracking activities.

Tactics and campaigns are clearly important in building social movement communities that support subsequent collective action. Movement organizations often dissolve or become inactive, but networks of supporters remain, and they often become involved in new actions, organizations, and movements. Movement campaigns leave behind networks, websites and social media, experienced activists, and other mobilizing structures that continue to support collective action. For example, many veterans of Marcellus Protest became heavily involved in a coalition called Protect Our Parks (POP), which opposed plans to lease county parks for shale gas drilling. After POP dissolved, activists went on to other activities and organizations, often using tactics learned in earlier efforts, such as testimony before city and county councils.

Social movements are integral to cities like Pittsburgh, creating activist networks, tactical repertoires, and public policy impacts that change the structure, culture, and politics of the city. Historically, Pittsburgh, like many other metropolises, was governed by a “growth machine” of government, business, and civic leaders who shaped its post-industrial transition with top down leadership.[11] Over the years, various constituencies and movements, such as Black communities and civil rights groups, challenged the projects and policies of the growth machine and helped to make the city more responsive to neighborhoods and local activists. As Pittsburgh’s Democratic city machine declined and the city lost population and political power, Allegheny County institutions became important targets for groups concerned about pollution.[12] GASP took advantage of these changes, as well as new federal laws that created opportunities for legal standing and citizen participation, to provide public testimony in favor of new policies to reduce air pollution.[13] Later, the anti-fracking movement influenced both the city and county governments and inspired subsequent movement campaigns.

Suzanne Staggenborg is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.  She is the author of Grassroots Environmentalism, published in Cambridge University Press’s Contentious Politics series in 2020.

Featured image (at top): “Pittsburgh Panorama at U.S. Courthouse and Post Office, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” (2007). Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1]Darcy K. Leach and Sebastian Haunss, “Scenes and Social Movements,” in Culture, Social Movements, and Protest, ed. Hank Johnston (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 255-277; Kimberly A. Creasap, Making a Scene: Urban Landscapes, Gentrification, and Social Movements in Sweden (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2022).

 [2] Doug McAdam, “Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency,” American Sociological Review 48, no. 6 (1983): 735-54.

[3] Kenneth T. Andrews, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[4] Suzanne Staggenborg and Josée Lecomte, “Social Movement Campaigns: Mobilization and Outcomes in the Montreal Women’s Movement Community.” Mobilization 14, no. 2 (2009): 405-22.

[5] Adam D. Reich, “The Organizational Trace of an Insurgent Moment: Occupy Wall Street and New York City’s Social Movement Field, 2004 to 2015.” Socius 3 (2017): 2378023117700651.

[6] Suzanne Staggenborg, “Event Coalitions in the Pittsburgh G20 Protests,” The Sociological Quarterly 56 (2015): 386-411; Lesley J. Wood, Suzanne Staggenborg, Glenn J. Stalker, and Rachel V Kutz-Flamenbaum, “Eventful Events: Local Outcomes of G20 Summit Protests in Pittsburgh and Toronto,” Social Movement Studies 16, no 5 (2017): 595-609.

[7] Reich, 2017.

[8] Wood et al., 2017.

[9] Suzanne Staggenborg, Grassroots Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[10] James Longhurst, Citizen Environmentalists (Medford, MA: Tufts University Press, 2010).

[11] Barbara Ferman, Challenging the Growth Machine: Neighborhood Politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh  (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996).

[12] Longhurst, Citizen Environmentalists, 39-41.

[13] Longhurst, Citizen Environmentalists, 49-58.

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