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Reflections on G20 protests

I came into Pittsburgh, just out of college and coming off a summer in the labor movement. Disillusioned, with the lack of vision in labor, I was hoping to come out of Pittsburgh with a new hope for revolution, and a new outlook on how we in the social movements were going to get us there. Below are some of my observations.

Pic: Cartoon

I came into Pittsburgh, two weeks before the g20 meetings hoping to interview some folks about their thoughts on the g20 and to do some organizing on the colleges and in the high schools. I was excited, Pittsburgh was after all a city that in many ways is a result of the economic crisis. Foreclosures are horrible in the city, and it had shed 10% of its population consecutively for the last couple decades. It is also home to probably on of the largest anarchists populations in the country, with a well known group call (POG) the Pittsburgh Organizing Group. It is also the headquarters of the Steel Workers Union and the UE, (United Electrical Workers), two of the most militant unions in the country. The Steel Workers were a big part of the mobilizations against the World Trade Organization in 99 in Seattle, that was eventually shut down by a combination of protests and opposition from third world nations.

A combination of labor unions, environmental, student power and anti war groups had an opportunity to mobilize in a manor that had not been seen in years. When I arrived I was a little disappointed. There were 3 other members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who had moved to Pittsburgh to help organize the student base in the city, but there was little to no coordination between these organizers and the other groupings in the city. The city had also denied permits for a climate convergence camp, and the g20 resistance project (essentially an extension of POG) had not figured out mass housing. There was little home grown organizing on the college campuses. Another group from Montana called Seeds of Peace, came into town and set up shop at a old abandoned catholic church. Seeds of Peace, provided food throughout the week, a great service, but In my opinion they could have been utilized as organizers on the ground.(we should have asked them to help with organizing)

The media in the city drummed up a lot of talk of violent protesters, which should have been expected after European meetings were met with riots and fire bombings. The city was alight with talks of the coming riots, but upon interviewing a lot of folks on the street (and in a few bars) no one seemed to know what the g20 really was, or who the folks were who were coming to protest the event.

An important development occurred, that I think shifted the potential for major mass action in Pittsburgh. The Steel Workers decided to hold a rally with the Sierra club, instead of a march, and also joined the welcoming committee for the g20 delegates. This shift in politics I think puts to question whether labor has any intent in challenging the social and political paradigm of America. It also consolidates the environmentalists into a camp that increasingly looked to the politicians and to capital for the answers. In short these organizations opted to integrate into the social and political system, and ended their period of opposition to the economic and social system set up by those in power in the United States. In my opinion, as a result, we must not neglect or rather underrate, capitalisms capacity to use the workers struggle to rationalize exploitation. Today, as reflected by the autocratic behavior of the SEIU and the AFL-CIO, these organized autocracies exposes the farce of the union struggle for my of its leaders. It now serves (for many unions, with some notable exceptions) only to argue for salaries raises and jobs, and to basically make the mechanism of exploitation of man by man more rational.

The week of the g20 line up of events included a militant march of around 1000 people on Thursday and a state sanctioned march and rally of about 5000 on Friday. On both Thursday and Friday nights there were large disturbances in Oakland, the university district. These events deserve some note.

Thursday :

The peoples uprising march out of Arsenal park, was the highlight of the week, with a march of over 1000 radical leftists. I was impressed by the size of the protest, given that it was non-permitted march, in which was bound to end in confrontations with the state. Arsenal park apparently has some history as the location of some of the disturbances of the Pullman strikes. The march lead us through some pretty working class neighborhoods, I was actually shocked to see hundreds of black people cheering us on along the march. (The white in the neighborhood were split about 50/50 with support) upon coming to a busy intersection, riot police order dispersal, and then fired at least 3 canisters of teargas. (This may have been a pepper spry gas, in a canister) the group spilt up into at least 4 groups, all attempting different routes to the convention center. At one point near a gravel parking lot, about 20 riot cops ran into crowd and made an arrest. Rocks began to fly from the crowd which had split into two groups. Many of the rocks hit fellow protesters. The riot cops fired rubber bullets into the crowd. The crowd responded by running a block down the street and trashing a Boston Market, another store and a bank. Later the marchers head towards CMU’s campus where students had set up a Anti-G20 art space. The protest eventually broke up till that evening.

Oakland is south Pittsburgh, across the river. Where University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and a few smaller universities are situated. It’s also where some of the Steelers riots had broken out the year before. The delegates from the G20 were having dinner in Oakland on Thursday night, leading to a large presence of protesters and riot police. A crowed of over 1000 students converge on the main green of the university of Pittsburgh, with about 50 out of town protesters. After about 3 hours of chanting. The police call the assembly illegal, and began to teargas the crowd. Including many by-standards. The police seemed to see any college student as arrestable. They fired teargas inside of at least one dorm. Many U-Pitt students responded by yelling at the police, and throwing teargas canisters back at the police.

While this was occurring, a “bash back”(queer liberation) march made up mostly of black block participants lit fire to a dumpster and held a march down Forbes, one of the main drags through the city district. Over 10 store fronts, and a police way station were attacked. This action was then cited for justification of mass arrests the following night. This action turned many of the students at U Pitt against the protests. Although they were no more supportive of the police.


A long, fairly boring march from Oakland to the convention center area, around 4-5 thousands people marched on this day. People from the Tomas Merton center, the steelworkers, the International Socialist Organization and SDS spoke. The woman from CMU SDS called for the protesters to burn the banks in the city to the ground. The ISO speech was also warmly received by the black bloc, which surprised me, as both groups generally remain hostile to each other. The march ended without too much excitement, and with a very long walk back to Oakland.

That evening U-Pitt students and some radicals had called for an anti police brutality March on U Pitt’s campus. Around 300 people showed up. At 11 o clock the police ordered dispersals and preceded to encircled the area around the park. They fired teargas into a crowd of about 100 people who were encircled and then arrested them. Most were U-Pitt students who had come out of their dorms. 7 members of Athens SDS were arrested, and a memory card from a camera, as well as two laptops in a bag were stolen by the police and not returned to the SDS members upon getting out of jail.


Some developments within the radical left that came out of Pittsburgh that I think is worth noting.

SDS has long served as a sort of rallying point for anarchists and socialists alike. In prior anti war marches, SDS played a pivotal role in shaping elements in the black block and in mass organizing of young people at these marches. Leaders of the organization were prominent in organizing the spokescouncels, and in directing some actions during summits and mass mobilizations. This condition had changed by the time of the g20. While many in the crowd seemed to be current or former SDSers there was no SDS meet up during the week, and no SDS chanting. SDS seems to have lost its ability to act cohesively within the revolutionary left or to be a major actor. Environmentalism also played a much larger role in the organizing at the G20. Many young up and coming activists seemed to see the environment and mountain top removal as pivotal issues. This was not the case a year or two ago. These groups seemed interested in maintaining a somewhat radical analysis, with the primary intent being redirecting the economy away from fossil fuels, with little talk of transforming the whole of society.

Use of convergence culture was limited during the protests. While a live twitter and texting service was operational during the protests, few in the crowd had subscribed before hand, leaving splintered groups after the tear gassing of the crowds on Thursday. It was however useful in getting people scattered from earlier actions back to Friendship park later in the day. As we are now aware, those sending the twitter updates from a hotel, were arrested and charged with very serious criminal offenses. A clear escalation in state repression, similar to the actions taken in Iran.

Violence and the black block – This was one of the most confrontational demonstrations in recent US history. Rocks were thrown, over 30 businesses had their windows smashed in, and 10 police cars were sabotaged. Police came into the situation looking to kick some ass, and largely succeeded in kicking some. There was little direct confrontations, as the black bloc never attempted to hold ground or to set up barricades. The violence certainly will mean future meetings will require massive resources go into protecting these meetings. The violence in my opinion was counter productive to radicalizing more students and workers, and did little to cut into the profit margins of the ruling class.

Some questions we should all be asking ourselves coming out of this protest.

What is attainable at these actions?

In my opinion, they still serve as an important networking opportunity to meet with other radicals. And it gives us an excuse to show up in mass. However, we need to redefine our goals going into these protests, as its now clear these meetings are nearly impossible to shut down. Folks on the left need to realize that the state has the capacity to be dynamic, and has shifted strategies since Seattle to combat many protest tactics.

What is our message to society? I understand that the issues we oppose are hegemonic in nature, and encompass the totality of daily life, but we aren’t being clear to the outside world what we want, what our vision is for the future, without a concise message, we will be hard pressed to increase our spheres of influence in the society.

Organizing in a mob. Students at U-Pitt were pretty receptive to radicals who were dressed like other college students. They were not however receptive to youth dressed in black, or wearing bandanas. This is not an argument that these tactics should be thrown out in whole, but its about time we started teaching each other how to organize in a mob of nonaffiliated people. Dressing the part is a major element, as well as having a core group of 5-10 people with the same plan, willing to reach out into the broader crowd.

Theater for the future.

If there is anything I’ve learned from the Pittsburgh events, it is that theater is the intermediary between the revolutionary and the middle class. The state puts on a spectacular theater performance every day, and even asks the population to play parts in the play. These plays, while generally boring, do place the participants in a state of indifference, and more often than not nihilism. We need to put on shows that are more spectacular and less controllable than those in power could ever put on. Plays that inspire new plays, plays with unknown endings. Plays that cross boarders, and are broadcast across the world. The G20 was theater, staged on the capitalists terms. We ought to pick the time, location, actors and audience of the next ensemble performance.

Source: http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20091014232038545