For some, Schenley Plaza encampments represented a double standard
Protesting protestsCommunity members angry at perceived lack of equity by city

For some, Schenley Plaza encampments represented a double standard

"They’re getting funding from these massive pro-Palestinian organizations such as the Students for Justice in Palestine...which are getting funding from Iran and Qatar,” she said.

Protestors were granted use of Schenley Plaza at no cost, something that has some crying foul. (Photo by Jim Busis)
Protestors were granted use of Schenley Plaza at no cost, something that has some crying foul. (Photo by Jim Busis)

Is the Pittsburgh Jewish community being held to a different standard than other groups that use public space in the city? Some think so and are frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of equity demonstrated by city officials and politicians.

Case in point: the Schenley Plaza encampment created by anti-Israel protesters on April 23, shortly after the group was forced to vacate the University of Pittsburgh’s property outside of the Cathedral of Learning on Forbes Avenue.

According to Maria Montaño, communications director and spokesperson for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, the group “Pitt Divest from Apartheid” was granted use of the space as a protected First Amendment activity for which there is no charge.

The city’s “Regulations for Special events” defines First Amendment activity as “all expressive and associative activity that is protected by the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions, including speech, press, assembly and/or the right to petition.”

In Part III, section b of the regulations, it states that permits for First Amendment activities “intended to respond to current events and depending for its value on a timely response shall be evaluated by the mayor’s designee no later than two business days from the receipt of a completed permit application by the Special Events Committee.”

The Chronicle has reached out to the mayor’s office asking if a permit application had been submitted more than two days before the protest that started on Pitt’s campus. We have not received a response before our publication deadline.

Montaño said that many of the spaces used at the park require a rental fee, including the use of the “oval tent” which is billed at $300 an hour or $1,400 for more than four hours.

Rental of park space also often requires organizations to have general liability insurance, “due to the risk of personal injury and property damage under certain circumstances.”

It is not known if “Pitt Divests from Apartheid” was required or had insurance to cover their use of the public space.

The perceived double standard between what was allowed by the Gainey administration and the cost of Jewish organizations to use parts of Schenley Plaza was highlighted in an April 28 letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Ben Koby, co-president of the Carnegie Mellon University Jewish Graduate Student Association.

He noted that those encamped at the park did not pay rent and violated various park ordinances including “prohibitions on camping, staking items into the ground, noise, smoking and vaping.”

The group, he alleged, didn’t allow Jewish students who support Israel onto the grass where they camped.

Koby noted the cost to rent the plaza for a day is $8,000. He said that when University of Pittsburgh students wanted to rent a tent at the park for a single day in memory of those murdered and kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7, they were billed almost $600 and had to obtain permits.

This, he wrote, is a clear double standard.

Koby told the Chronicle that his concern is that the city isn’t enforcing its own rules.

“It really crystallizes this view that there’s impunity going on, and it just gives this view of chaos and the breakdown of law and order,” he said. “I think that’s terrifying.”

He said that the buck ultimately stops with Gainey, but that at the end of the day, it’s the city that’s ultimately responsible.

The graduate student said that his takeaway is that “it doesn’t really matter what the rules are. It matters who enforces the rules.”

Sofia Rubin is a former University of Pittsburgh student now living in Israel.

After Oct. 7, she created a vigil of 1,400 flameless candles in the shape of the Star of David in the tent at the park.

“For me to use that tent, I had to acquire a permit, I had to pay a $500 fee to use a tent for 24 hours. I had to get permission from City Parks, which is run by the city government, or else I couldn’t use that tent,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been legal.”

For Rubin, finding $500 in the budget of an undergraduate student was hard and she had to go out and locate donors. She expressed frustration that others were able to use the plaza at no fee.

Rubin was also bothered by the appearance of Summer Lee and other political figures at the encampment, which she said appeared to give the appearance of the state sanctioning the protest and choosing sides.

The city government, she said, allowed the encampments because they believe in an oppressor/victim mentality in which the Palestinians are seen as the victims and they view the protesters as students simply sitting on the grass. She takes issue with that characterization.

“One of my friends was called a dirty Zionist, among other things, and told that Oct. 7 never happened,” she said. “They said it was all Israeli propaganda. These are the things you hear.”

Rubin also disputes the idea that the protesters were simply a group of concerned students. Rather, she views them as an extremely well-structured and funded organization.

“They had all these camps and flyers and everything. They had it all planned. They’re getting funding from these massive pro-Palestinian organizations such as the Students for Justice in Palestine, among others, which are getting funding from Iran and Qatar,” she said.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh set up a Seder for Hostages on April 18 under the tent at Schenley Plaza. Adam Hertzman, associate vice president of marketing, said that the organization rented the space.

“We needed to use the pavilion itself,” he said. “There were items we rented or borrowed, there were food items that we wanted to give away. We weren’t going to buy food or kosher wine or grape juice that we were going to discard afterward; it had to go to a usable cause,” he said.

Hertzman said he understood the need for the city to charge rent. He pointed out that it would be helping with Federation’s Yom Ha’atzmaut event on May 19 and would be closing a street for a community march.

“Which is a lot more time-consuming and complicated,” he said, “in terms of their resources than other public demonstrations would be, and they are still accommodating.”

Hertzman understood the concern of the students though and noted that while there is a need for free speech, when it is threatening, intimidating or threatening violence then there is an issue.

“Which is what we’ve seen on some college campuses across the United States,” he said. “Some of the public protests are really abhorrent. I think it’s important for all Americans to support free speech and it’s critical for the Jewish Federation, for all Jews, in my opinion, to condemn loudly and publicly the hateful rhetoric that we’re seeing.” pjc

David Rullo can be reached at

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