The occupation of Pittsburgh

September 28, 2009

Ashley Smith reports from Pittsburgh on the multimillion-dollar police crackdown on the right to protest during the Group of 20 economic summit.

WHILE LEADERS of the Group of 20 economic summit debated how to run global capitalism at their meeting in Pittsburgh, police placed the city under lockdown and attacked unpermitted protests. Over 210 people were swept up and arrested, and authorities fired rubber bullets, beanbags, pepper spray and OC gas at hundreds more.

For the first time on American soil, the police also used a sonic weapon against protesters--the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) that emits earsplitting noise designed to subdue and disperse crowds. Previously, the U.S. used it in its occupation of Iraq, against crowds in Falluja and other cities.

Before the protests in Pittsburgh, authorities tried whip up a climate of paranoia over the specter of an invasion of up to 40,000 violent radicals. In preparation for this wildly exaggerated scenario, the government spent $18 million to secure the city for the arriving financiers and political representatives.

Pittsburgh seemed to be under foreign occupation, not by "outside agitators" but by the police. They set up a command-and-control center, the Multi-Agency Communications Center, where they monitored live video from hundreds of surveillance cameras, including at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

A line of riot police brandish batons at G20 protesters in Pittsburgh
A line of riot police brandish batons at G20 protesters in Pittsburgh

Helicopters hovered in the skies across the city, 6,000 police and National Guard troops patrolled the streets, 11 Coast Guard vessels cruised Pittsburgh's famous three rivers, and huge 12-foot barricades lined Pittsburgh's business district, the Golden Triangle.

Faced with this repressive apparatus and a Democratic city government that wasn't forthcoming with permits to assemble, activists had to file several lawsuits--some successful, and others not--to secure their rights to assemble and stage peaceful protest.

THE WEEK'S series of demonstrations began mildly with a rally on Wednesday, September 23 organized by the United Steel Workers and their Blue Green Alliance, which brings together unions and mainstream environmental organizations like the Sierra Club. Hundreds came out to hear union officials and a parade of Democratic Party leaders--including Al Gore, speaking by video--call for green jobs and establishment reforms like carbon trading.

Anarchists took to the streets on September 24. Brought together by the Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project, the anarchists opted not to pursue legal channels for a permit, and thus faced off with the giant security apparatus. The anarchists attracted about 1,000 protesters, many of whom were brand new student activists with little experience in such situations.

They assembled in Arsenal Park in the afternoon. The police quickly surrounded the park. After a tense standoff, the demonstrators managed to march several blocks before police decided to disperse them. At the very moment that Barack Obama landed in Pittsburgh--3:30 p.m.--police announced that the march was illegal and gave marchers a brief amount of time to disperse. Most of the activists retreated, and then police attacked the remaining hard core with all of their force, arresting 13.

In response to this aggression, a handful of anarchists--or perhaps police provocateurs--smashed up bank windows and local franchises of national businesses. Many in the crowd tried to stop this. In turn, police used these actions as justification to pursue the splintered remnants of the march.

Later that evening, hundreds of protesters, curious students and even anti-protesters gathered in Schenley Plaza, near the University of Pittsburgh campus and the Phipps Conservatory, where President Obama was throwing a gala celebration for the G20. Some of the curious hoped to get a glimpse of Obama, activists planned to stage a demonstration, and right wing anti-protesters showed up to taunt anarchists.

The police descended on the crowd and indiscriminately arrested 42 protesters, anti-protesters and bystanders. The security forces again used their full array of weapons. "I think its shameful--none of this needs to happen," said one activist on the scene. "They don't need to be firing on the citizens of this country who are trying to creatively and non-violently express themselves."

On morning of Friday, September 25, by mutual agreement between all wings of the protest movement, activists assembled for a peaceful, legal march. Spearheaded by Pittsburgh's Thomas Merton Center, the Peoples' March received endorsement from well over 70 local and national organizations.

Organizers estimated that about 8,000 people joined the protest, making this the biggest march in Pittsburgh since the 1970s. Demonstrators went from near the University of Pittsburgh to the City Council Building, where they rallied and then marched to East Park for a concluding rally.

Every step of the march was subject to intense police attention. Cops lined the side of the streets--some on horseback, others with dogs, and many in full riot gear. At one point, for no apparent reason, a phalanx of police on motorcycles drove through the protest.

But the demonstrators refused to fall for police provocation and engaged in spirited chants, taking up a range of issues, from an end to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan to jobs and environmental reforms. The marchers also voiced their opposition to the near lockdown of the city, chanting, "Occupation is a crime from Pittsburgh to Palestine."

IN THE wake of this confident and large demonstration, the police were clearly looking for a fight. On Friday evening, after the G20 was actually over and many of the financiers and politicians had already left the city, police staged their most illegitimate and aggressive act of repression.

In response to a flier announcing a concert, some 400 people again assembled in Schenley Plaza. The police moved in and announced that they were canceling the event. They claimed they had received reports that people had purchased lighters and sought lighter fluid, and therefore, the concert was a threat to public safety.

Police drove the crowd from the Plaza, pursued them through the streets, and arrested over 110 people who had merely showed up to see a concert. "We're all very angry," said one person. "I saw some of the events that unfolded last night--we want them to know we're not going to take this--we can't have them hurting our peers, hurting innocent bystanders because they're overreacting to a situation."

In response to this repression, over 100 students at the University of Pittsburgh staged a rally at Schenley Plaza on September 26. The Thomas Merton Center also organized an emergency meeting the next day to plan an activist and legal response to the government's violation of people's civil liberties.

As it stands now, the authorities still have seven people in custody who have charged with felonies. One of, who naively attempted to hug a policeman, has been charged with assaulting an officer. Twenty-five others are charged with various misdemeanors, and the rest got summary offenses, the equivalent of a parking ticket.

The Merton Center called a press conference for September 28 to announce plans for challenging this attack on civil liberties. "We hope to bring together the Merton Center, Pittsburgh Resistance to the G20, liberal organizations and Pitt students to call attention to the widespread violation of our rights--in particular, the egregious police attacks on Friday night," said Jonah McAllister-Erickson, an organizer with the Merton Center.

The center, along with Pitt student groups, has planned a demonstration in Schenley Plaza on October 1 to protest the occupation of the campus and the mass arrest in Oakland. It also plans to demand accountability for the unlawful arrests, file grievances with the police Civilian Review Board and get the City Council to hold a special hearing on violations of civil liberties.

The activists' legal team from the ACLU, National Lawyers Guild, and Center for Constitutional Rights has already assembled about 15 lawyers to provide pro-bono counsel for those facing charges. The legal team has filed lawsuits on behalf of groups like Seeds for Change and Three Rivers Climate Convergence, which were denied their rights to assemble--as well as a suit against the city for violating activists' and residents' democratic rights.

Further Reading

From the archives