The G20 Summit was held in Pittsburgh this weekend. As always with the G20 or the WTO protesters showed up. The protesters range from varying degrees of anarchists to the free Tibet people.
Here is Elizabeth's account:
The City of Pittsburgh as represented by its Police, and the Federal Government as represented by the National Guard and other federal law enforcement violated the First Amendment rights of hundreds of students and protestors during the G20 summit this past weekend. As a student and tax-paying citizen of this great city, of Pennsylvania, and of the United States of America, I demand accountability.
The following is an account of the flagrant denial of my freedom to assemble on the streets of Pittsburgh on Sept. 24, 2009.
Around 9:30 p.m., five friends and I set out to purchase alcohol in order to celebrate the coming of the G20 and enjoy the brief freedom of cancelled classes accompanying the summit’s stop in our South Oakland neighborhood. On our way to a the O, a local hot dog joint, we walked through the wake of destruction – earlier that evening someone (some said “a group of anarchists in black”) smashed the windows of several storefronts and set alight a dumpster along Forbes Ave. Sirens still screamed down the street by the time we got to the scene, so we walked a block up to Fifth Avenue to skirt any trouble still happening on the streets.
We reached our destination trouble-free just in time to see and hear a fire truck rumble up to the next block, where a crowd of onlookers gathered. The growing number of law enforcement vehicles, as well as the steadily growing crowd streaming toward the Cathedral of Learning, a landmark at the center of campus, persuaded us that this was no ordinary riot. Unruly and sometimes drunken student riots marred Pitt’s reputation in the past, but the destruction of local businesses and city property after the Steelers 2009 Superbowl victory led to a severe University-enforced crackdown on student violence. Students were forewarned that similar actions during the G20 would not be tolerated, and could be grounds for immediate dismissal.
That in mind, we walked up Forbes to the Bigelow Boulevard intersection. A line of police in riot gear cut off all through traffic. Dozens of law enforcement vehicles choked the street behind them, peppering the air with sirens. Helicopters searched the area, awash in blue and red light, with intense spotlights. Soon after we crossed Bigelow, a disembodied voice announced: “By order of the Pittsburgh Chief of Police, I declare this an unlawful assembly. If you do not leave the immediate vicinity, you will be subject to police action.” The voice repeated itself over the bullhorn as the lines of policemen donned gas masks.
The first canister of OC gas fired caused a wave of panic within the crowd, and pushed us back across the street to the student Union lawn. As we moved back, still more police vehicles arrived. Black SWAT trucks beetled towards us. Teams of black-clad helmeted men swarmed out to surround undercover policemen making arrests across the street. Budget rent-a-trucks full of National Guardsmen stopped in the middle of Forbes. They exited the rent-a-van to kneel in the road and strap on gas masks. As we watched from the Union lawn, a contingent of mounted police raced across Bigelow to disperse a crowd gathered in the street in front of the Cathedral.
The massive police presence now gathered began slowly but steadily pushing the crowd back down Forbes, intermittently throwing gas canisters. Once each white cloud of noxious vapor dissipated, part , but not all, of the crowd surged forward again. These waves of moment occurred over and over. Some people fled, coughing. Others took up their previous positions on the sidewalk or in the street as soon as the air was clear. High frequency sound cannons punctuated the scene throughout the night
A few friends went up into a pedestrian bridge connecting an academic building to the residence halls across the street to get a better vantage point of both sides. Two friends and I decided to stay at street level. We stuck to the sidewalks and avoided the SWAT teams, who earlier had menaced us away from the steps up to David Lawrence Hall by pouring out of their trucks batons in hand. Another friend arrived; he had been working on Russian homework and came out to see what the fuck was going on. Two more, freshly off work at a Quiznos that had been vandalized that night, later joined us in the street.
As the riot squads pressed forward, we took up a new watchpost on the green in front of Barco Law Building. By this time, a larger crowd of students had gathered and began chanting “Let’s go Pitt” in the middle of the street. A small group of protestors and media, numbering no more than 15-20 people, stood at the head of the crowd, chanting: “Hey! Fuck you! Take off your riot suits!” They kept a respectful distance, as none came within 8-10 ft. of the police. One cameraman was threatened by an officer for kneeling in between the crowd and the riot squad in order to get a picture of the police, but immediately backed up as soon as he was told to do so. The rest of the crowd behind them consisted of curious students who were already out and about, going to and from work, the bars, parties, or the library.
The police drove students out of the pedestrian bridge as the line of protesters and police came in sight of our vantage point in front of Barco. Police trapped some students in a stairwell and let off a canister of gas in the confusion. My two friends who had been watching up there had fortunately already gone home to escape the chaos. Jeff, Carly, Andy, Brad, Patrice, and I stayed to watch. After the bridge was cleared, police threw another canister of gas into the crowd gathered in front of Barco. It exploded, and the six of us leapt off the concrete ledge and ran down a side street to escape the night’s signature white cloud enveloping the sidewalk. One man tripped or was tackled as he jumped, and smashed his head on the ledge. The police pinned him to the ground while he bled profusely.
The crowd thinned considerably after this last gassing, splintering off into side streets. Citizen medics yelled “Is anybody hurt? Does anyone need medical attention?” as we backed down Bouquet. From them I learned how to avoid the gas: “Don’t swallow when you inhale it, and spit once you get away.” To them both students and protesters owe many thanks, as no ambulances joined the flotillas of law enforcement vehicles at the scene.
No more than 30 of us stood in a parking lot down the street from Forbes. The police squads continued their advance down Forbes. Jeff went home, disgusted and coughing. The rest of us hurried up the street parallel to the police to catch glimpses of the riot squad sweeping past. Carly, Andy, and I decided to walk up the next block to get a closer look. We were half way up Atwood Street when the police reached the corner. They stopped advancing, so did we. One broke off from the line and pretended to throw a canister of gas at us. When we didn’t immediately run back, he approached the fire men stationed there on the corner with their truck. In a split second they closed their doors. In another, yet another white cloud enveloped the street. We ran. We coughed. We hurried down to Meyran, Semple, and McKee Streets only to see the same scene three more times. On McKee we stopped across the street from a gas station. One man filled his car’s tank, indifferent to the police in riot gear surrounding the station. A news vehicle raced to the scene after a girl was tackled; we couldn’t tell if the police or another assailant had done it. Just after this two more of our group left for home. Moments later another line of police swept down the side street parallel to Forbes, the route we had just abandoned. They advanced across the empty parking lot behind the gas station. We went the other way, down a back alley, and swung back up to Forbes from behind the CVS.
The four of us left stood in front of the “temporarily closed” CVS and talked with the store’s employees. A woman wearing a bandana to conceal the lower half of her face rode up on a bike. She asked if any of us were having trouble getting back home. They had pushed everyone down the street, against the proper flow of traffic and would not let anyone walk back down the avenue. Police had also been patrolling Fifth and side streets in order to dispel any remainders of the original crowd. One guy said yes, and she went to scout Fifth to see if it was safe for him to walk back. We offered him our couch, but he set off alone to ask if he’d be able to cross Forbes and take another route to bed.
In the parking lot of CVS a group of people defiantly danced to music blaring from their car stereo. Five minutes later, another SWAT vehicle lumbered up in front of the store. I decided I’d had enough, it was time to go home. I talked for a while with my roommate and friends about what we’d seen. Patrice got a ride home from my roommate, and Andy texted me “Home safe” not long after she and I started reporting the night’s events. Sitting there, I realized I was exhausted. I left them and went downstairs. After the crowd that night, being alone felt strange. I kept my back to the wall, and laid awake in bed for a long while in the dark.
When I woke up the next morning for work, I was livid. I still am, two days later. My rights, my friends’ rights, and my fellow students’ rights were grossly violated and our well-being jeopardized by the law enforcement sworn to protect us. The volunteer street medics exhibited more “Accountability, Integrity, and Respect” than the police force paid to follow that motto. I have the right to assemble on public sidewalks and on private property owned by the University I pay to attend. The students who live in dorms adjacent to Forbes Avenue have the right to look out their windows without being subjected to noxious gas and screaming sound cannon. Friday’s peaceful protesters retain their freedom of speech and assembly past 10 p.m. despite the city’s awarding them a time-limited permit. The anarchists who gathered in Lawrenceville Thursday afternoon and the crowd of students and protestors in Oakland that same night differed on only one point: intent. Yet police denied both groups their freedom of assembly indiscriminately.
Free speech does not come in zones. The First Amendment protects all of it, every hateful peaceful accusatory laudatory inflammatory biased unbiased praising or cursing word of it. The First Amendment protects the anarchists, the capitalists, the communists, the pacifists, the students, the business owners, even the racists in our country. In Pittsburgh, this Amendment was flagrantly flouted by the City government, who tried to set up “free speech zones” to contain protestors and denied permits to all but two groups. It was stomped upon by the police who forcibly dispersed the many peaceful members of the public who chose to watch or participate in protests outside of these zones. While I recognize that the visit of world leaders warrants extra security precautions, I am appalled that those happy few were over-protected to the detriment of hundreds of American citizens. They control global economic policy, so their human rights are more important than mine? I disagree, and am afraid I must protest.
I protest the violations of the First Amendment that occurred here in the name of national security. I protest the violent actions of a minority of protestors, and the violent reaction of the police toward people exercising their freedoms of speech, press, and assembly. I protest that in a nation such as ours, founded on the idea of “certain, inalienable rights,” that some protesters and the police chose to alienate one another’s rights. Police do not have the right to harass citizens assembled peacefully, and citizens do not have the right to harass police assembled to protect their freedoms. I may say whatever I like to an officer, and he to me, as long as we do no physical harm to one another. I am willing to comply with the police within reason. The declaration of unlawful assembly, the denial of permits to protestors, and the very idea of legislated “free speech zones” are all unreasonable, and in my opinion, illegal.
I demand the City and the University be held accountable for these violations. I implore the student body to join me in demanding that the integrity of these institutions be upheld. I do not respect anyone, police or protestor, who chose to violate another person’s rights by acting violently this weekend. I laud the street medics, journalists, and firemen for their exemplary conduct under duress.
I would like to thank the riot police for treading on my freedoms with their bootheels. Without you, I would still believe in a self-regulating government attuned to the rights and needs of the people that support it. Now I know I must demand my First Amendment rights, lest they be taken from me again. Don’t tread on me! I’ll bite back to the fullest extent of the law.
WHAT HAPPENED ON FRIDAY NIGHT?
The following is an account from an anonymous Pitt student who attended the protest in Schenley Plaza Friday, September 25th. The gathering, a peaceful crowd of a few hundred students, media, and community members was held in response to the violence perpetrated against Pitt student activists and Pitt students the preceding Thursday by the police.
Violence perpetrated against student organizers and uninvolved students is not a singular event or a symptom of increased police presence due to an event like the G20. Police violence occurs in many communities across the country and throughout the world every day. It is a sign of the privilege of the educated class that the media and community pay attention and express their outrage about our being abused when low income communities, people of color, and other marginalized groups with less privilege are attacked or harassed everyday. The police state is not just this week, it is all the time, and students need to start looking around and raising your voices everyday to protest the violence of the state.
A Firsthand Account by a Pitt student
By 10:00, a group of a few hundred people had formed and the perimeter stretched to 3 sides and started getting thicker. Helicopters were overhead, and someone said they'd heard snipers were on the Hillman Library. Riot police outnumbered protesters at least 5 to 1 at this point, and they looked like they didn't know what to do. Groups of people sat playing Duck Duck Goose and laughing or, like us, stood around tensely waiting for something to happen.
Eventually, the riot police surrounded the plaza. Local filmmakers roved around interviewing people. Some protesters shouted into megaphones, trying to engage the cops in a dialogue and when that didn't work, mocking them. The police started closing in on us, forcing us into a corner and out of the plaza - we ended up with them in a perimeter facing an empty lawn. They formed a blockade between us and Bigelow Boulevard - at this point we were on Forbes Avenue in front of the Cathedral lawn. We were also blocked at Bellefield, and were essentially trapped on the street. People started panicking and running at this point. As the police moved in, we backed up onto the Cathedral lawn. There were about 40 of us backed into a corner.
We headed up towards Fifth Avenue on the opposite side of the Cathedral, but the police there told us to go back the way we came, grabbing us by our shoulders and pushing us back. When we expressed confusion, they threw a canister of tear gas at us so we backed up quickly. They started closing in on us on the lawn, beating their shields with their batons in unison. Even though we asked over and over which way they wanted us to go, because we wanted to leave peacefully, they refused to answer.
Eventually they ordered all 40 of us to lay face down on the ground. They told us we would all be taken into custody, and the officers came around using zip ties to handcuff everyone. We were separated and marched to a series of police cars and vans along Fifth Avenue. Their system there was incredibly disorganized and the officers were crude. "You know, I'm kind of disappointed," one remarked. "I was hoping I would get to beat you guys down, but you guys were pretty peaceful." They searched and confiscated our belongings and took down all our information - most of us were being charged with failure to disperse - and tossed us all in some vans to wait. After a while, they pushed us up against the side of a bigger bus, patted us down, and loaded us on the buses.
Apparently there were too many of us to process properly at the jail, so we ended up driving to SCI Pittsburgh. We sat outside the penitentiary for maybe half an hour or an hour. Outside, we could see dozens of National Guard and riot police officers swarming around. Someone noticed that somebody else's hands were turning blue from the zip ties, so after a few attempts we got hold of the officer in front, who told him to "wiggle them around.” Several people requested to use the bathroom, which was ignored. Eventually, they started letting us out one at a time.
The one who took me into custody put real handcuffs on me, cut off my zip tie cuffs, and patted me down. When she brought me inside, there were temporary partitions set up everywhere. I had my picture taken and was fingerprinted, then taken to wait to give my medical information, "in case you go to prison." Afterward we were put in chairs and told to sit quietly, with National Guard guys watching us. One of them seemed slightly sympathetic; he made sure we all got water and food. "Please don't talk," he told us, "when you talk one of us has to come over here, and that means that it slows down the process." When we asked where we were going, he told us, "I don't know where you're going, or whether you'll be charged. For now, you're just waiting till they decide what they're going to do with you." So we waited. And waited. Aaaand waited.
More people kept coming in, and we discreetly asked them what had happened. One guy was shirtless with welts all over his back; after seeing the protest on the news, he'd ridden his scooter into Oakland. When he got there, police told him to turn around. He did, and they shot what he assumed was paintball guns full of pepper at his back. He was covered in huge welts and shell-shocked. He refused medical attention from the police and sat staring blankly at the wall. The guy sitting next to me had been walking home, and they'd snatched him off the street.
Eventually they started calling names. They brought us out into the courtyard, where we sat and could talk quietly. We overheard the officers saying that we'd all be released. Each of us had a police officer on our arm, and we went in batches of 4 or 5. They walked us over to a van, still cuffed, and we waited to reclaim our stuff. The cops walking us out harassed us about protesting, to which we responded less than enthusiastically. When we got our stuff, we were told not to go through it until we were off the premises, and escorted to the sidewalk in front of the police station. We were uncuffed and told to leave, and to “stay in groups, this isn‘t a nice part of town.” There was a legal team waiting with food and rides for us. We were all miles away from home and the place we were arrested, but we were lucky to be let out so early; some people are still in custody now.
Welcome to surreality.
Questions? Comments? Email email@example.com, visit http://bit.ly/DD75i and join the Facebook group "Pittsburgh's G20: a Police State in Oakland" If you have police harassment or repression to report, call the ACLU G20 hotline : (412) 562-5015
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