Christian Ehret, Pitt Law '11, observed a G-20 Resistance Project protest held by self-proclaimed anarchists in Pittsburgh on Thursday...
I ventured down to the G-20 Resistance gathering in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Thursday afternoon with the sole intention of finding out what motivated people to be there. I was rather pessimistic, and expected inarticulate, uninformed statements about the broad state of the world economy and the evils of capitalism. I had made my mind up before even going: people were planning to protest for the sake of protesting. A few blocks from the park, I thought my hypothesis of hypocrisy was confirmed when I watched several people put down their signs and pull their bandannas off to go into an Exxon-Mobil mini-mart to purchase snacks and bottled water.
Arsenal park was teeming with skinny black jeans and bandannas. I immediately noticed that the media nearly outnumbered the protesters. There were television cameras everywhere and I soon found that it was nearly impossible to take a picture of signs or banners without having several reporters or photographers standing in the way. Legal observers from the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild, along with curious locals, added to the imbalance between participants and onlookers.
Seeking more information on my theory about the protesters, I began asking people why they were there. Many responded that it was merely "something to see," while others supported particular issues. The Service Employees International Union had a strong presence with signs regarding healthcare and the effect of the economic crisis on working families. Some attendees gave me generic answers regarding what they perceived as the failure of capitalism and free trade that I feel were taken almost verbatim from the signs and handbills of others. Two young Filipinos brandishing a flag expressed strong feelings that their country should be represented at the summit. A preacher in a white suit seemed to be stealing attention away from the others, speaking incoherently into a megaphone as television cameras and journalists swarmed around him. "Peacelujah!" he yelled. While I desperately tried to interpret his seemingly prophetical bursts of speech, he spoke emphatically about everything from right-wing televangelists to the fact that "our time has come" and "some of us will die" in fighting for what's right. "Earthelujah!"
As the disorganized crowd flowed toward the 40th Street exit of the park, a line of police officers in riot gear blocked the way. At first I felt bad for the officers, who must have been terribly overheated and were being harangued by the crowd. "You're not the patriots here, I served!" one man yelled at them. My sympathies subsided, however, after a police officer screamed in my face as my foot touched the street: "You're not allowed in the street, get off the [expletive deleted] street!" Nothing good could arise if this level of hostility existed before any march even began. The crowd shifted to the other side of the park, where a make-shift parade began and a very opportunistic but risk-taking ice cream truck operator likely made a small fortune. The march began going up 39th Street and made a right on Liberty Avenue, blocking one of the busiest roads in the area.
A police blockade was set-up around 28th and Liberty with a loud broadcasted message:
By the order of the City if Pittsburgh chief of police, I hereby declare this to be an unlawful assembly. I order all those assembled to immediately disperse. You must leave the immediate vicinity. If you remain in this immediate vicinity, you will be in violation of the Pennsylvania crimes code, no matter what your purpose is. You must leave. If you do not disperse, you may be arrested and or subjected to other police action. Other police action may include actual physical removal, the use of riot control agents and or the use of less than lethal munition which could cause risk of injury to those who remain.Following this message, the unorganized mass of people spread out into the hilly streets of Lawrenceville in no particular direction. A group of protesters pushed a dumpster down an incline toward another police blockade. Seconds later, a fog of OC vapor skin-irritant enveloped the area and my coverage for JURIST came to an abrupt end.
Those who suffered the most were the Lawrenceville residents who watched the crowd from their front doors, unable to leave their homes. "I want nothing to do with this," one man told me, turning around to go back inside his house and lock the door. "I'm not sure what they're even protesting about," another resident told me. "I know it's the G-20, but what exactly about it are they protesting?" I started to respond to his question before realizing that, based on the variety of signs I read and the people I spoke with, I was unable to provide an answer.
As I walked back to my car, I reread the police statement that I had jotted down in my notebook. Everyone must leave, no matter what their purpose? I wondered about those who were not blocking any right-of-ways, including the legal observers and reporters. Aside from those interfering with the flow of traffic, which was more interrupted by the police presence than anything else, did we not have the right to walk on the sidewalk? To peacefully assemble? I went to the protest with preconceived notions about the demonstrators and left only questioning the actions of the city. The substance of the protesters' messages, or lack-thereof in some cases, seem remarkably less important than their right to express them. If the Resistance Project was denied permits for their protest, while other groups were granted such permits, how else could they exercise their rights? Was this not, as Justice Holmes once put it, "a marketplace of ideas?"
Discussed in this post:
Service Employees International Union
Photo Credits: Christian Ehret