Yesterday afternoon anarchists and others held a car-based noise demo at the county courthouse to demand that prisoners at risk of coronavirus infection be released from Allegheny County Jail. A couple of dozen vehicles circled the building for an hour, honking their horns and hanging signs out their windows, while a handful of protesters on foot (fully masked!) took pictures and chanted through bullhorns. A phone zap was held the same day, which reportedly filled up the voicemail accounts of the judges being targeted.
The police showed up late and didn’t do anything besides block other traffic from entering the demo. No arrests were made or tickets given.
Unfortunately, news came on the same day that 11 out of 17 residents at the county’s alternative housing facility in Oakland had tested positive for coronavirus. This is the same pattern we have seen across the country in nursing homes, jails, meat packing plants, and homeless shelters. Everywhere mass testing has been done in these facilities, huge numbers of cases have been found. In one nearby example, a single prison in Ohio accounts for over 15 percent of the state’s known infections. Any facility whose only purpose is to warehouse the surplus population as cheaply as possible will always be a breeding ground for disease. Cramped quarters and shortages of basic necessities, along with with lazy, uncaring, and malicious managers, create a perfect storm for the virus to spread. Official responses, already too little and too late, are even more inadequate and delayed when applied to people on the margins.
Media coverage of the noise demo shows the complicity of corporate outlets with jail bosses. Only the Post-Gazette and KDKA Radio covered it at all, and KDKA Radio’s coverage was just a couple of sentences tacked on to a piece celebrating yet another judge’s refusal to release a vulnerable prisoner. Even the usually reliable City Paper didn’t bother publishing an article, even though they sent a reporter to the protest.
The PG’s article is notable for more than uniqueness. On the surface it is an exercise in Rob Corddry-eque hyper-balance, but this facade only holds up when you ignore what they’re leaving out. They say nothing about the growing numbers of symptomatic prisoners in ACJ, the lack of testing, or the ongoing arrests that keep adding new prisoners to the incarcerated population. One tidbit they might be regretting, however, is an admission by Warden Orlando Harper that the jail commissary had been closed for 10 days because the company that runs it refused to send its employees into the building for their safety. What makes him think it’s any safer for the prisoners?
The media vacuum surrounding the demo is in stark contrast to the flood of attention received by another protest that happened on Monday, also downtown, also with no arrests, with roughly the same number of participants as the noise demo. This protest though, was by right wingers demanding that Governor Tom Wolf lift social distancing restrictions so that other people could go back to work for them. Despite the insanity of their demand, and the fact that the protest was part of a very obvious astroturf operation, every media outlet in the county turned up for it. Granted, much of their coverage was critical, but for trolls criticism is oxygen. The voluminous attention lavished on them by the local media just makes it more likely they’ll be back in greater numbers next time. Meanwhile. we can look to Singapore for an example of coronavirus not respecting class barriers.