Brunch and big ideas: Bookstore raises funds for arrested protesters


Big Idea hosts a bi-monthly brunch to raise funds for legal fees of locals arrested while protesting. Max Datner | Staff Writer

By Max Datner / Staff Writer

Supporters of anti-fascist protests gathered at the Big Idea Bookstore in Bloomfield Sunday not for a book signing or a poetry reading, but for brunch.  

The store — also home to an in-house café — has been holding brunches since October to contribute to the legal fees of locals arrested while protesting, and has become well known in local activist circles for its dedication to anti-capitalist ideals. Every employee is an equal owner in the shop, which turned a profit for the first time since it opened 16 years ago. Employees chose to donate the money to the Red Warrior fund — a legal fund designed for those arrested at Dakota Access Pipeline protests — as well as to the legal fund of Pittsburghers arrested at President Donald Trump’s inauguration protests.

With the goal of aiding local protesters again, about 75 community members showed up for one of the shop’s biggest events Sunday. Through suggested donations of $7 to $15, the shop raised $500 to offset legal fees for two protesters, Victoria Brown and Phillip Cancilla, who were arrested in Litchfield Towers last November.

For the fundraisers, the bookstore transforms its basement — normally reserved as a meeting space for community organizers — into a buffet area, serving mostly vegan dishes. Since beginning the brunches Oct. 30, the bookstore has raised about $1,800 for protesters’ legal fees.

Autumn Detchon, 24, of Shadyside, heard about the event online and attended for the first time.  While at the store, Detchon enjoyed the vegan food and company of fellow supporters.

“It was just a nice brunch,” they said. “They are good people helping people out.”

The focus of this afternoon was Pitt student Brown and activist Cancilla, who were arrested in November for aggravated assault, resisting arrest and trespassing after pushing back against police who were attempting to physically remove members of the group during an anti-Trump protest inside Towers lobby.

The arrests — which resulted in felony charges — sparked outrage among activists online and at the protest, many of whom felt the police had acted too aggressively. Detchon said they wanted to contribute.

“I think that honestly the felony charges were a little extreme and I just want to support protesters how I can,” Detchon said. “If I can’t be out there, then I should at least support people who can be.”

The University and police stood by their actions at the protest in November. Joe Miksch, a University spokesperson, released a straightforward statement in line with police following the arrests.

“Protesters attempted to enter Litchfield Towers lobby after being asked by University police not to do so,” Miksch said, before listing the charges.

Pitt’s Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner penned a letter in support of peaceful activism but also stood by the police officers’ actions — a choice he received criticism for.

The atmosphere Sunday was calm, despite the focus on the November protests.

While munching on barbecue seitan and tofu scramble, Detchon discussed everything from activism to what they called “everyday brunch talk” with other attendees.

The hiss of a coffee machine filled the room as people perused the bookshelves and helped themselves to a table of food made in the store’s small in-house cafe. Signs on the front window read, “Respect Native Sovereignty” and “Stop the Pipelines,” making it clear that the store is about more than selling paperbacks.

Of the staff who attended the brunch, Amanda Johnson, 32, of Bloomfield, cleaned up and took count of the day’s sales behind the main desk. Johnson — one of the store’s employees who has been involved with a number of similar brunch fundraisers in the past — explained the straightforward nature of the fundraisers.

“Everybody needs to eat food so it’s a simple way to bring people together,” she said.

Another employee, who did not wish to be identified due to his own ongoing legal proceedings, said the Big Idea Bookstore plays an important role in the pursuit of social justice.

“it’s just a question of realizing [that] if we want to reorganize society, it has to start on a small scale and federate outwards from there,” he said. “It can’t be imposed. It’s about living differently I guess, as opposed to some magical revolution that’s never going to happen.”

Looking to the future, the employee said the anarchist movement is strengthening in Pittsburgh.

“With the repression, with the way things seem to be going … sadly, we’re going to have many more benefits,” he said.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story referred to Autumn Detchon by using the pronouns “her” and “she,” rather than Detchon’s actual pronouns, “them” and “they.” The online version of the story has been updated to reflect these changes. The Pitt News regrets these errors.

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