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My Thursday in Pittsburgh

by Benjamin Arthur Schwab

I was in Pittsburgh on September 24th 2009. The G-20 was also in town and I took part in a peaceful demonstration in opposition to the G-20. The demonstrators wished to voice our opposition to the G-20 in a peaceful, responsible, respectful, and effective manner. A right to assembly is essential to a free people and part of that is a right to assemble in a public space to voice a mass opinion. If we had been allowed to continue as we wished, we would have marched to convention center downtown so that the G-20 could hear our voices. We would not have prevented the G-20 from meeting, we would not have hurt anybody, and the only rights that would have been violated would have been related to minor traffic delays surrounding our march. In any case, Pittsburgh officials disrupted more traffic than we did even if you don’t count the unnecessary disruption caused by the police action against us.

Pic: G20 Pittsburgh

The demonstration did fail to have a permit. It’s worth noting that the permitted march the following day required more than one court appearance to get a permit and even then the march was barley in sight of the convention center and only then when we crossed a bridge over a river the convention center overlooked. It is clear that seeking a permit would neither be guaranteed to succeeded nor respect the rights of the people.

We decided to exercise what are our inherent rights anyway. The Pittsburgh authorities apparently had other ideas. The march kicked off in a park called Arsenal Park in Lawrenceville: a neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The police blocked the planned exit from the park so we took an opposite exit and proceeded to try and march to the summit site. Pretty quickly we ran into a police line. We stopped facing the line and the police stated that the Chief of Police has declared our demonstration an unlawful assembly despite no violence to person or property, minimal disruption, and no provocation. The police warned us that they would use force, including weapons, if necessary in order to disperse us if we didn’t voluntarily disperse.

We decided that we have no reason to disperse and that in a democracy people have the right to peacefully and respectfully assemble on public space in order to get our message across. The police released pepper spray into the demonstration to disperse us. Seeing how the pepper spray was oppressive a block and a half away we did disperse but we reformed a few blocks over.

The demonstrators split up with some going to do a residential march and others to continue to try and go downtown. Time and time again when we turned to go downtown, the police were quickly there to meet us with the same warnings and time and time again we dispersed to reform nearby.

After a few tries to go downtown the group I was with decided to give up on marching to the convention center and do a residential march. Some of the residents we encountered jeered us and some of them ignored us but for the most part they seemed supportive. Given the tactics by the demonstrators and the police thus far, the demonstration has split into a few groups. The only violence by the demonstrators I observed at this time was overturned dumpsters, superficial damage to police property, and rocks and paint/stink balls thrown at armored police. Given that the police recently used a chemical weapon against us, the damage caused by the demonstrators doesn’t compare.

We continued to march through the Pittsburgh streets, peacefully and respectfully, and avoided the police lines. It was during this time when I overheard a reporter covering the protests from the vantage point of the protesters complain to his assistant that when he called his editor to tell him that what he was reporting was wrong, the editor hung up on him. Apparently his affiliate was reporting that the protesters were violent but he saw differently. The police, realizing that we weren’t going to start any serious violence, switched tactics. They decided to get the groups back together.

All of the demonstrators found ourselves herded into Friendship Park of all places. After a brief rest, the police started to surround the park with a tight armored perimeter. We decided to kick off the march again. Shortly after, the police, without warning, attacked the demonstrators a little behind the front of the column. Since I was near the front, I was in front of the attack and didn’t see it. I did stop and turn only to find the police readying weapons. I turned and started to walk away when the police opened fire with “non-lethal” firearms. I started running after I was shot in the rear.

After evading the perusing police I found myself separated from all of my comrades. I decided that I would likely have to cross a police line to get back with the rest of the demonstrators and seeing how that’s asking for trouble, I decided to leave for home. I did see rocks being thrown through windows but only after we were attacked, without provocation, by the police. While I don’t agree with that “violence,” no one in their right mind could possibly compare a few broken windows with bodily injury.

From what I saw, the police wanted violence and when the demonstrators showed ourselves to be peaceful and respectful, the police attacked. For the demonstrations I took part in on Thursday, the police were clearly the aggressors and with no reason other than to repress a peaceful public demonstration. The right to assemble is essential and part of that right is that groups of people, regardless of their message, can get that message out in a public space as long as the rights of others are being respected. We satisfied that criteria and the Pittsburgh authorities demonstrated that one needs to be careful of the police state that exists in America.

I have to mention one last thing because it was rather odd. At one point where there were lines of protesters facing a police line, behind and protected by the police line there were Penguins (Pittsburgh’s NHL team) fans with a banner showing support for their team. This reminded me that after a championship there are usually riots during which people die. It’s telling that it seems that the police take a more aggressive stance against a peaceful political protest about issues that directly impact the quality of life in the city then they do with respect to deadly riots celebrating a sports game.

Source: http://socialistwebzine.blogspot.com/2009/10/my-thursday-in-pittsburgh.html