Abigail Salisbury, JURIST's Executive Director, observed events in downtown Pittsburgh on the first day of the G-20 Summit...
I was able to get a press pass to the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and after going through security at Mellon Arena on Thursday morning, I was taken by shuttle to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, the site of the summit itself. Upon arrival, I was struck by the utter lack of activity. Small clusters of journalists hung around the international media hall, but few seemed to be producing much content. There was even a bit of meta-news when I was interviewed by a pair of reporters who were putting together a story on other reporters' views of activist journalism and various journalistic styles. After wandering around the Convention Center for a while, I decided to see what was going on outside the secured area and so I ventured outside to see what was happening on the streets.
Given all the pre-G-20 preparations and admonitions (along with a good degree of fear mongering, to be frank), I was puzzled by the nearly complete lack of activity on the streets of downtown Pittsburgh, which had the air of a dystopian film centering around some sort of society in which nearly every citizen is a uniformed police officer, leaving no civilians for them to police. The action picked up a little shortly after 2 pm, however, when I happened upon a group of four ACLU Legal Observers hanging around about two-dozen Ethiopian protesters at Liberty and Seventh Avenues. I was quite surprised to find that the protest in progress centered around some of the same issues discussed in a JURIST Forum article I wrote last year when working in Ethiopia.
I tapped on a protester's shoulder and asked whether their posters, which called for the US to stop funding the regime of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, were related to H.R. 2003, the proposed US legislation which made non-essential aid to Ethiopia contingent on the attainment of certain human rights goals. He said that I should talk to one of the organizers, who by some strange coincidence ended up recognizing me from the JURIST Forum article.
As I mentioned, there was an abundance of police officers outfitted with riot gear in the area, and they wasted no time in deploying a unit of perhaps twenty officers to the scene. More police then arrived to enclose the area on the other side. The situation became tense for a while when one young protester took his sign right up to the front line of the police formation. The officer in charge called for the others to slowly advance on the protesters, batons at the ready, in what reminded me of a fencing drill more than any sort of attack. The area was full of onlookers and media, who mostly kept to the sidewalks and stayed behind a sort of imaginary line established by individual roaming officers' implied comfort zones. The protest broke up after about thirty minutes, at which point a group of about six faux-Rastafarians took advantage of the Ethiopians' presence to unfurl a banner advocating for marijuana legalization at the "G-420" summit. Their ironic protest stayed on the street corner until they saw a large group of Tibetan ethnic nationalists coming by, and they brought up the rear of their march toward the Convention Center.
The "Free Tibet" protest was much larger than the Ethiopian one, and had come down Fifth and then Liberty Avenues in a quickly-moving march accompanied by dozens of police officers at all times. They crossed crowd-control cement barriers and were stopped at 3:15 pm at Smithfield Street, within sight of the Convention Center fencing, where they continued their admonitions of China and celebration of the Dalai Lama. Most of their chanting focused on criticisms of Hu Jintao, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. ACLU Legal Observers were once again on site, and the tension between police and protesters seemed to escalate for a moment when the participants stayed in place for over thirty minutes and police seemed ready to break up the event.
No altercations occurred, but committed onlookers refused to abandon the scene. I felt as if we were picnickers stationed near Manassas, hoping to see something exciting. As the protest seemed to stretch on forever (it was really only a couple of hours), there were definite rumblings from the still-sizable crowd, and I heard some stray comments amounting to wishes that someone would get beaten so there would be a decent show to watch. A few others criticized the overly-large police presence in the city and praised the protesters for continuing to chant in the officers' faces. Ultimately, excitement waned and most onlookers and media headed off in search of other stories. I wandered around downtown for another hour or so before heading back to Oakland, where inquisitive university students were gathered, hoping to catch a glimpse of heads of state as they made their way to Phipps Conservatory for their "working dinner" later that evening. I later heard that police used OC vapor to rapidly put down an unsanctioned protest organized by a self-proclaimed group of anarchists in Lawrenceville, an event attended by some curious JURIST student staffers who will provide additional commentary in the days to come.
Photo Credits: Abigail Salisbury