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Pittsburgh Juneteenth founder says rules for the festival are racist

 Activist Tim Stevens speaks in front of supporters and microphones.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
Activist Tim Stevens speaks at Thursday's Juneteenth press event. Festival founder B Marshall is to Stevens' right.

The founder of Pittsburgh’s long-running Juneteenth festival says city and state officials keep throwing obstacles in its way, and he says racism is to blame.

William “B” Marshall and a number of his supporters aired their concerns Thursday in a press event held at Point State Park, home to Pittsburgh’s commemoration of this national holiday since 2018.

Marshall said state parks officials in particular have sought to burden the multi-day festival with new rules.

Last year, the festival celebrating Black culture with live music, food and craft vendors, and more, drew an estimated 40,000.

This year, Marshall was so frustrated by organizing it that Wednesday night he sent a mass email announcing the festival had been “canceled by the State.”

It hadn’t. And by Thursday morning, Marshall had decided to proceed, even if it meant ignoring what he claimed were new rules regarding the use of generators in the park, enhanced security for a planned fireworks display, and the city’s apparent refusal to provide police protection for the event, as it has done in years past.

“We’re going to proceed with the Juneteenth celebration, we’re going to proceed with the fireworks as we said, we’re going to allow them to make whatever adjustments they have to make — that’s the city and the state — so we can host these events, and host them peacefully,” Marshall said.

“We’re not leaving,” he added. “They’re not going to push us out with all these new restrictions and requirements that they create merely to try to get us out of here.”

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In a statement, the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources emphasized its support for Juneteenth and said that it had not canceled the Juneteenth celebration or fireworks at the park. The statement read, in part, “We are working closely with the City of Pittsburgh regarding this event, and we remain committed to working with the event organizers to provide the appropriate security and conservation measures for the event that ensure this iconic park is welcoming, safe, and conserved for all Pennsylvanians.”

The statement did not address specific issues Marshall had raised, but added that “a set of guidelines that we ask all event organizers at Point [State Park] to adhere to” was meant “to ensure visitor safety in state parks and forests, and that the resources that belong to all Pennsylvanians are protected for future generations.”

In a separate interview, DCNR spokesperson Wesley Robinson said gas generators have been prohibited at Point State Park since at least 2009, as a way to address issues including air quality, but that the rule might not have been enforced in the past, including at prior Juneteenth festivals. Asked about this year, he said, “We are enforcing the policies in place.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey pushed back on accusations that the city created obstacles for organizers. During a public address streamed live on Facebook on Friday, Gainey argued the city had in fact shown more support for the event than it has other privately organized events.

“No other private event is going to receive the amount of financial support from the city [that has been] given to Juneteenth,” he said.

Gainey noted the city has awarded a $125,000 grant to support Juneteenth and will provide $80,000 in in-kind support in the form of public safety assistance.

The city provided nearly $200,000 in financial and in-kind support and forgave debt owed by the promoter in previous years, Gainey added.

Juneteenth marks the date in 1865 when the last enslaved Black people in the U.S. learned of their emancipation. It became a federal holiday in 2021.

Speakers at Thursday’s press event touted the festival’s cultural and economic impact.

Long-time prominent civil-rights activist Tim Stevens praised Marshall’s handling of the festival and its positive presence over the years. “Some of my proudest moments of being Black in Pittsburgh have occurred right here,” said Stevens. “We cannot mess with Juneteenth.”

Other speakers included Mark Lewis, CEO of festival sponsor the POISE Foundation, who noted research indicating last year’s festival had generated $2 million in spending.

Michael Day, pastor of Legacy International Worship Center, in Perry South, said Black people are often blamed for “causing havoc,” but they don’t receive credit for positive developments like the festival. “We bring something that’s working! It’s working and you ain’t supporting it!” he said.

Marshall said Point State Park was prohibiting food vendors from using gas-powered generators there, even though other state parks allow them. He said the state had required bag checks be done on attendees at Juneteenth’s first-ever fireworks celebration, while indicating that the festival’s own security personnel were not properly credentialed to do so. (Marshall said the state’s mandated credential is effectively a private-detective license that takes two years to obtain.)

In his remarks Friday, Mayor Gainey said it was the responsibility of the Juneteenth promoters "to comply with all regulations associated with the event," the way other private event promoters have.

As to the presence of city police, Marshall said the city has long provided protection for the event. Referencing a 2019 threat of violence against the festival, he said the city is obligated to look out for the Black community, as he said it would for any other community holding a celebration.

“We feel that the city police should be protecting Black people at Point State Park,” he said. “We are a vulnerable audience and a vulnerable crowd.”

Gainey said Friday that city police would be present at the event. “[Police] will be patrolling the event, our EMS crews will be on hand and our fire department as well,” he said.

Other recent events, including Pittsburgh Pride Revolution, have elected to hire additional private security during events.

WESA's Kiley Koscinski contributed to this report.

Updated: June 9, 2023 at 5:27 PM EDT
The headline has been updated to clarify that some rules referred to by the subject of this story are not new and have governed past festivals at Point State Park.
Updated: June 9, 2023 at 3:41 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include a statement from Mayor Ed Gainey.
Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: