How the Pittsburgh Women’s March is weathering a national anti-Semitism scandal

The Downtown march is scheduled for noon Saturday.

The 2017 Pittsburgh Women's March is pictured.

The 2017 Pittsburgh Women's March is pictured.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

With organizers of the national Women’s March on Washington, D.C., facing accusations of anti-Semitism and a splintering coalition, organizers of a sister march slated Saturday for Downtown Pittsburgh are distancing themselves and insisting their event will be unified and inclusive.

Following Tablet and New York Times reports of anti-Semitism among the national chapter’s leadership, sponsors have dropped out and Democrats considering presidential runs in 2020 say they’ll steer clear of Saturday’s main march in the nation’s capital.

Women’s March chapters around the country have been left to grapple with the fallout and in some cases have cancelled marches altogether, saying the controversy has hurt fundraising efforts, NBC News reported.

In Pittsburgh, Saturday’s Women’s March will take place as scheduled, beginning at noon outside the City-County Building on Grant Street. Thousands are expected.

The list of speakers includes Michelle Kenney, the mother of Antwon Rose II who was fatally shot by an East Pittsburgh police officer in June; Democratic state Representative Summer Lee; Dena Stanley, director and founder of Trans YOUniting; Duquesne Mayor Nickole Nesby; Zohra Lasania, program director with the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Pittsburgh; and Carmen Brown, a community organizer with Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition.

But in a city that became the site of the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history just under three months ago, the anti-Semitism controversy surrounding the national Women’s March comes at a time of heightened sensitivity to this very issue.

Pittsburgh Women’s March organizer Tracy Baton said she’s heard from individuals concerned about the controversy and Pittsburgh’s connection to an increasingly scandalized national organization, but says she’s seen no major upheaval here.

She points to communal ties strengthened in the wake of the Oct. 27 mass shooting at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue as a likely reason. “In Pittsburgh, we work in radical hospitality, and we have moved forward together without all that [controversy].”

The Pittsburgh march does not receive financial support from the national Women’s March but remains an official satellite event, Baton said.

“Being connected to the national movement means we are informed and connected with other women’s marches around the country,” she added. “That way women can come from Ohio and West Virginia and know about our action and more. […] Radical hospitality and seeking unity requires working with allies that are at different places in their journey.”

But Suzi Neft, a Pittsburgh Women’s March promoter, described the local-national connection as little more than skin deep.

“We don’t believe in the national organization’s internal politics, and we don’t run Pittsburgh the way the national organization runs theirs,” Neft said by phone.

The allegations that prompted the backlash involve national co-founder Tamika Mallory’s failure to condemn anti-Semitic remarks made by Louis Farrakhan at a dinner she attended in February. Another involves a claim that Mallory and national co-founder Carmen Perez told a Jewish organizer of the first Women’s March that Jews had a disproportionate role in the enslavement of African Americans. Perez and Mallory dispute the claims.

A Dec. 27 joint statement from Bend the Arc – Pittsburgh, a progressive Jewish organization, and the Pittsburgh chapter of the Women’s March reads, in part: “We are well aware that statements from national Women’s March leaders have raised concerns about anti-Semitism. But rather than allow this pain to tear apart a powerful movement for justice, we call instead for dialogue, for growth, for difficult and productive conversations.”

The statement continues: “While we follow conversations on the national level, we act locally. Now more than ever, we are determined to build bridges, increase justice, and protect one another in our beloved city of Pittsburgh.”

Reached for comment on Tuesday, Bend the Arc – Pittsburgh said the group’s position hasn’t changed.

Pittsburgh’s Women’s March hasn’t escaped controversy. In 2017, the march splintered amid infighting, claims of racism and a feeling that black women weren’t being adequately represented in the planning process. Baton, who organized that march and who is herself a black woman, dismissed the criticism.

This year, organizers were criticized for soliciting donations to have a prop balloon depicting President Donald Trump as a giant, diapered baby floated over the march. Critics called it a waste of money that could have gone to help those in need. Baton said the fundraiser was an attempt to cover costs associated with putting on such a large-scale event.

At the national level, the anti-Semitism claims against leadership have dominated the discussion and news coverage. And with the marches days away, there are calls for a boycott of the main event in Washington, D.C.

Neft, a congregant at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, is familiar with related concerns and questions about the Pittsburgh chapter’s association with an embattled national organization. However, she insists on Pittsburgh’s autonomy.

“We are not the national organization,” Neft said. “We are not them, and they are not us.”