G-20 EXTRA ~ Anarchists in Pittsburgh
G-20 EXTRA ~ Anarchists in Pittsburgh

Ingrid Burke, Pitt Law '11, Lynsie Clott, and Aaron Freudenthal attended licensed and unlicensed protests primarily organized by self-proclaimed anarchist groups during the G-20 Summit….

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"
-Beatrice Hall, Friends of Voltaire

The City of Pittsburgh undertook an enormous security burden by agreeing to host the G-20 summit. For two days, the heads of the EU and the 19 wealthiest nations were in the city. Regardless of the popularity each might enjoy both domestically and internationally, each has their share of enemies by virtue of policies they've inherited or implemented. It was clear from the start that the city and federal security forces would be expected to take any measures necessary to ensure the well-being of the officials specifically and Pittsburgh in general.

In the days leading up to the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, many interest groups took advantage of the opportunity to draw attention to their various causes. I had the chance to learn about several of these groups by attending events and speaking with organizers. Some of these experiences were very informative, but of all the groups I spent time with, one made an unforgettable impact: the anarchists.

To be honest, they were the group I had been least interested in covering. Before last week, the thought of anarchy evoked in my mind images of angst-ridden preteens with overly simplistic conceptions of society and governance. After two experiences among the anarchists, my sentiments changed. My personal views are diametrically opposed to those of the anarchists, but I can't deny that their presence in Pittsburgh shed light on the free speech issues underlying several of the measures taken by Pittsburgh officials. In order to tell the anarchists' story in the context of these issues, I've enlisted the help of a couple of insiders: social movement researchers Lynsie Clott and Aaron Freudenthal.


The G-20 summit is notorious for attracting the condemnation of protesters. Based on concerns of this nature, the City of Pittsburgh was very conservative in granting licenses to interest groups that wished to engage in various forms of public demonstration. This conservatism led to a lawsuit initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) against the City. The suit culminated in the granting of a license to advocacy group Code Pink to set up a tent city demonstration in Pittsburgh's Point State Park, but stopped short of granting a permit to another advocacy group, the Thomas Merton Center, or granting permission to camp in public parks during the summit. The city's refusal of licenses has provoked a great deal of criticism with regard to the protection of protesters' free speech.

Thursday: the unlicensed protest, by Aaron and Lynsie

A group of anarchists organized the Arsenal Park march on Thursday, the first day of the summit. Historically there has been contention between anti-capitalist groups and the state, thus it was not surprising when this march was not granted a permit by the city. Despite their lack of a license, the anarchists organized themselves and reached out to other political interest groups in order to contribute to their cause. This mass action created a feeling of solidarity within the grassroots community, but the resulting hodgepodge of messages was confusing to onlookers. This confusion was perpetuated by video clips on the evening news as it is difficult for anyone to delineate their political motivations in a sound bite.

After personally engaging in direct action with anarchist and other anti-capitalist organizations for several years, we have gained a better understanding of their philosophies. We hope to humanize these people by sharing our experiences, despite our personal feelings about their tactics. Anarchists and anti-capitalist groups today are mostly made up of young and educated middle- to upper-class individuals with a passion for becoming the voice for disenfranchised and disadvantaged people worldwide. While they are angry with the current economic and political climate set by the political elites, they refuse to abandon their principles of non-violence. This is why they oppose the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They feel that direct action and free speech are the only effective democratic processes because the state's role in capitalism is to protect the interest of the "haves" at the cost of the "have nots." Activists point to instances when our government was willing to deploy brutal police forces in order to restrain citizens' rights to free speech, while it also turned a blind eye to white collar crimes. This belief is echoed in the protester's chant, "This is what a police state looks like!"

Those who watched the news coverage of the G-20 resistance march received a slanted view of the real events. Our story from the front lines is very different than that portrayed in the news. The actions of the protesters we witnessed were not filled with violence and destruction, but rather with solidarity, compassion, and commitment. Prior to the protest, Arsenal Park became a community gathering place. One masked anarchist wearing goggles ran around offering fellow protesters sandwiches and water. Groups of friends painted each other faces, while others danced or played music. Members peacefully linked arms and watched as a mother taught her young daughter how to use a discarded car bumper as a drum.

Upon their arrival at Arsenal Park, the riot-gear-clad police confronted the protesters by blockading one side of the park, but protesters circumvented police by shifting over a couple of blocks. Soon, instructional chants such as, "Slow it down, tighten it up" were used. The police then shot pepper spray into the crowd, splitting up the group. "Masks up, goggles on," began to echo from the cloud of gas shortly thereafter. We witnessed protesters running to the aid of anyone who had fallen and was choking or in need of an eye flush. Dumpsters were pulled into streets to obstruct sonic cannons. While some rogue individuals engaged in the destruction of property, the majority of protesters condemned their actions and attempted to prevent further damage, as de
monstrated by one runaway dumpster headed towards a parked car. Five individuals placed themselves between the dumpster and the car in order to protect it. We witnessed National Guard personnel in unmarked vehicles randomly grabbing individuals and hauling them away. No Miranda rights! They simply disappeared. Many protesters complained about being chased for hours and corralled into suburban areas.

More locals' daily routines were disrupted by the inconvenience of the G20 summit, blockades, overly zealous police, and military than by a few hundred protesters. In fact, near the Children's Hospital an ambulance needed to get by the protesters. We were able to clear a path faster than most cars do for an ambulance. The protesters' message was directed at the G-20 summit and at particular businesses downtown, not at locals or small businesses. In an attempt to placate Lawrenceville and Bloomfield neighbors, protesters chanted, "We love Pittsburgh, not the G-20."

We have developed respect for these interest groups, who have a dedication to justice, peace, equality, and community. No one can expect to understand or even begin to empathize with these protesters when most citizens have little knowledge of what the G-20 is or what it is capable of doing. If the G-20 leaders were more forthcoming and people educated themselves about the summit, the anarchists' actions might seem less reckless.

Friday, by Ingrid

I was apprehensive about going to the licensed protest on Friday. I'd missed Thursday's activities and had only news reports and frantic text messages from friends to influence me. Not wishing to explain an arrest to the state bar association's Character and Fitness evaluators two years down the line, I planned to get a few good pictures and then get out of there. Lynsie then convinced me to join the anarchists who had dominated the middle section of the crowd that filled Fifth Avenue. As we approached, she explained that the scarf wrapped around every anarchist's face could be utilized as a makeshift gas mask. Similarly, goggles were strapped on in order to preserve eyesight in such instances. I'd always assumed both were basically popular for their capacity to make just about anyone look tough.

During our march downtown, I was surprised by the sense of community amongst the anarchists. A number of people handed out water and snacks. Cheers such as, "You're sexy, you're cute, take off that riot suit!" and "Get out of your uniforms and into the streets!" conveyed the sense that these people were idealists rather than mere troublemakers. They truly believe in the utopia that they fight for, and envision a world without bureaucracies where individuals flourish in the context of small communities and where social imbalances and injustice are things of the past. They want to include everyone in this world, even the uniformed men waving night sticks at them from the sidelines.

While I don't share their views, I do respect the fact that they have a vision that they're willing to fight for. Most of the people who were marching that afternoon did so without inflicting harm on anyone or anything. In some respects, these people are doing a favor to everyone out there with ideals, or even more broadly – anyone unwilling to commit to a future spent blindly following the orders sent from whatever administration is in power. Free speech comes at a price, and we each must accept that right as enjoyed by our ideological adversaries. Regardless of our political stances, the anarchists who came from afar to disrupt the G-20 did so despite an ordinance aimed at silencing free speech in the name of security. And while the ordinance as well as their actions are debatable, in the end they risked a great deal to advocate for a constitutionally-protected right, a fight that works to the benefit of all citizens.

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