Pittsburgh’s Human Relations Commission did the right thing in January in the pizza “redlining” case against Pizza Hut brought by Carl and Shelia Truss. The Trusses, a middle-class black couple who reside in a mixed-race area of well-kept homes in the upper Hill District area of Pittsburgh, also known as Sugar Top, phoned Pizza Hut to order a sausage pizza on the night of May 2, 1992, but were refused delivery due to the rioting in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict.
Shelia Truss told the Pizza Hut clerk that all was peaceful and quiet in her neighborhood. “What does what’s going on in California have to do with me?” she asked, upset that she couldn’t have her usual weekly delivery. Mrs. Truss, who testified that she was stewing, spastic, venting, hyper, and obsessed after the refusal, walked across the street in her pajamas to visit her attorney friend, Ann Simms, complaining that she could not get a pizza. Ms. Simms then filed a complaint with the Human Relations Commission (HRC), resulting in a four-year investigation into whether Pizza Hut was guilty of unlawful public accommodation practices.
“We wanted to err on the side of caution,” testified Mike Logan, Pizza Hut manager, at the HRC hearing. When the store first opened in April 1991, he said. Pizza Hut delivered to the Hill District, but due to several robberies of their drivers, deliveries were curbed. Logan said the sight of white truck driver Reginald Denny being pulled from his cab, during the L.A. riots, and beaten by black rioters further worried the company.
Last summer, Charles Morrison, HRC Director, stated that Pizza Hut’s failure to deliver to the Trusses was probably a case of “illegal redlining.” He told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that “We had looked at it every which way and couldn’t see Pizza Hut’s defense as legitimate.” Morrison argued that the HRC was going after “a large company, not a mom-and-pop store,” as if it would make any difference to a parent whose son or daughter was shot while delivering a pizza.
Claiming that the HRC had “declared war on pizza shops,” and fearing that they were going to be forced to deliver to unsafe neighborhoods, a grassroots group sprung up called the Pittsburgh Pizza Coalition. Vowing not to give up their rights, or their lives, without a fight, pizza drivers and shop owners demonstrated on the steps of Pittsburgh’s City-County building an hour before the January hearing. Co-organizer Dan Sullivan said that he worked for the Pizza Hut store that was “being smeared” by the HRC: “I went to work there when that shop first opened. We went door-to-door in the Hill District, delivering coupons for discounts on pizzas. The shop definitely wanted to do business in the neighborhood.”
“We had drivers robbed every day,” explained Sullivan. “In East Liberty, we had the same driver robbed three times in one day. They usually robbed us with a gun. They know we’re not allowed to carry a gun, or more than $20. If we’d drive to the Hill District, they hid in the bushes across Herron Avenue to rob us. Drivers would quit after a couple of days.”
“I Won’t Die for a $9 Pie,” read the magic-marker inscription on the raised pizza box of Jane Wadsworth, owner of Pizza Outlet in the Greenfield section of Pittsburgh. Her husband, she said, once had a loaded pistol held to his head while delivering. “I’ve been robbed,” read the pizza box sign held by Alexander Lifshitz, a Russian emigre who delivers pizza to support his family.
“In memory of Jay Weiss,” read one of the homemade signs. Jay Weiss was murdered in 1993 while delivering for Chubby’s Pizza in the Manchester area of Pittsburgh. Weiss, a 34-year-old father of three children, accompanied pizza driver Paul Puhac on the delivery because Puhac was a bit apprehensive about going to that section of Manchester alone. Both men were shot, Weiss fatally.
Pittsburgh police said that a few blocks away, two teenagers who lived in an abandoned house ate the pizza they had ordered as a ruse to rob the delivery men. As coroner’s deputies removed the body of the slain delivery man, people in the crowd that gathered laughed out loud. Veteran homicide detectives shook their heads in disbelief.
At a break in the hearing, I suggested to Attorney Simms that this case seemed not to be about racial discrimination, but about Pizza Hut’s concern for the safety of their drivers. “Bulls—!” she replied, as if a multinational corporation, or any company for that matter, could possibly care for the safety of its employees, an attitude not uncommon among civil rights activists and personal injury attorneys.
Ms. Simms’ advertisement in the Pittsburgh Yellow Pages promotes herself as an attorney specializing in “Criminal-Personal Injury-Civil Rights-Social Security-Disability-Workers Compensation.” If Pizza Hut sent a driver into a dangerous area where he or she was injured or killed, lawyers like Ms. Simms are all too eager to sue the company for being “negligent” and valuing profits over peoples’ lives. In a catch-22 situation. Pizza Hut was charged for being overly concerned with safety.
“How did it make you feel, when you couldn’t get a pizza?” Simms asked her client. “I felt sad and ashamed,” said Cad Truss. “This is modern times. 1992. You wouldn’t think that this kind of thing was going on.”
It would be easy to trivialize this case as just much ado about a sausage pizza. Still, the civil rights movement in our time has focused on many mundane events, like being refused the right to sip a Coke at a Woolworth counter or to sit in the front section of a bus. The small everyday things that are denied to blacks, or said, make up the quality of their lives. An accumulation of such things makes one feel humiliated, separated, second class, and alienated.
Indeed, it is a shame that people like the Trusses, through no fault of their own, couldn’t get something as simple as a pizza, but the solution is not to sue Pizza Hut. The answer is to attack crime so that businesses, both black and white, large and small, can prosper in all our neighborhoods. During the hearing, I wondered how the Trusses would feel if a young black man, maybe their son, were forced to deliver pizza to an area where the KKK was up-in-arms. Most of us would consider it a travesty for a store owner to force a black driver into such an area.
During the pizza drivers’ protest and the HRC hearing, Pittsburgh’s talk shows were ablaze with the pizza controversy. Exhibiting the common sense that seems to have fled today’s civil rights establishment and many legal proceedings, even the liberal talk show hosts and their callers were opposed to forcible delivery of pizza to crime-ridden areas. Against this backdrop of public outcry, the case against Pizza Hut was dismissed by the Human Relations Commission on a technicality. Appeals may be pending.
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