I decided to venture forth last Friday, September 25, for the day of the scheduled height of G-20 activity — both sanctioned and otherwise. Like much of downtown Pittsburgh, the Bayer Center offices were closed, and I was unsure how difficult it might be to get in. We are located in the Regional Enterprise Tower in what was designated as a restricted access zone. In addition, our lobby was the media welcome center.
As it turned out, access to my office was shockingly easy. My wife dropped me off on her way to her office on the North Side, and we were able to get to within about 2 blocks of the building. Other than a slightly circuitous walk from there,
it was no problem at all — in fact, due to a lack of traffic, it was easier than on a normal work day. I’m sure if I had to worry about parking or took a rerouted bus, it would have been a little trickier — but not much.
Upon reaching the city around 10 a.m., what I found was some limited access, some evidence of security — most strikingly in the form of mounted police whose powerful steeds completely blocked off Grant Street —
and a decided lack of people. Businesses were closed, some windows were boarded up (no apparent logic as to who boarded up and who didn’t), and just no people. It was downright eerie. I walked in the middle of the streets. Pittsburgh on a Friday morning was emptier than a western ghost town selling tickets to tourists (maybe we should have tried that).
I spent some time in the office, then headed out around noon for what turned out to be a 4-hour hike.
As I walked deeper into town, there was one overwhelming impression — force. The more I walked, the more intense it became. Cops on every corner, Pittsburgh police, then state police, Erie police, Indianapolis police… they were brought in from all over. And soon it wasn’t just regular police. More
mounted police, cops on motorcycles, SWAT units, humvees, and various forms of riot gear — shoulder pads and knee pads and sticks and helmets and shotguns and body armor and utility belts that would make Batman salivate. They looked like a cross between Darth Vader’s Storm Troopers and the Michelin Man. And let me tell you, when you see these guys up close, they are intimidating.
Police in force, and police in numbers. Riot-garbed security in groups of 100, shoulder to shoulder, moving in formation and leaving no doubts.
Eventually, I made my way as close to the Convention Center — the meeting place for the G-20 — as I could get. I did this by passing through a security checkpoint, then walking a few blocks along Penn Avenue. On my right were businesses, including some stores and restaurants that stayed open, although I can’t imagine they were happy about that decision. On my left was the
10-foot steel fence, running unbroken along the curb and caging me in as completely as it caged in the roadway that was a feeder to the Convention Center.
I wandered down to the Point where a tent city was supposed to have been erected. It was totally vacant. Not a tent, not a sign, not a protester in sight. Just a large lawn. Where was everybody?
It got to be time that the main body of protesters should have been reaching downtown from the start of their march in Oakland, so I headed out in search of them. I found them at the City-County Building where they had gathered for some speeches and music. After listening for a little while, I left to find a place on Fifth Avenue to watch their ensuing parade.
I use the word parade deliberately, for, to me, that’s largely what it was. There was almost a partying, paradelike atmosphere as they passed by. I found myself just past Macy’s (appropriate for a parade) at, coincidentally, my regular bus stop. 5,000 or so of them passed — drummers and costumed dancers, anarchists and
socialists, those concerned with climate change and capitalism, freedom for Tibet and jobs for everyone, advocates for the Falun Gong (these were the most quietly elegant among the marchers) and for the Pittsburgh Penguins (where were the Steelers fans?). It was a complete cacophony of issues. And it left me feeling frustrated and a bit perplexed.
This was not 250,000 people gathered to end the war in Vietnam. This was not 1,000,000 indignant human beings demanding civil rights for all. It was a mishmash, a general objection to, well,
just about anything that might be institutionalized or established. To the extent that there was a unifying theme, it was the black-garbed, bandanna-faced anarchists, followed by the socialists. Amazing to me, even the Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America (who knew?) found their way to Pittsburgh.
“Down with everything! Up with anything else!” was the message of the streets. This is not to diminish the fact that there were many passionate, principled, committed people in this crowd. But with no focus, what were they accomplishing? Who, that mattered, was really listening… or, for that matter, could even if they wanted to? When there is so much noise — both figurative and literal — how can your voice be heard? This was protesting in the internet age, when all voices are equally loud and fragmentation of micro-interests is global. The protesting equivalent of Twitter – tweating by marching.
On the flip side, I found the whole experience to be rather inspirational. This was truly democracy at work.
Corny as this may be, I am proud to live in a country where this kind of dissent is possible. This was also a remarkably harmonious event. The protesters were self-controlled and peaceful, the security phalanxes were restrained. Were there problems in some of the outlying neighborhoods, notably in Oakland where student density is high? Sure. But, given the scale of the event, they were minor. Were mistakes made? Of course.
With so much hype and so many people, mistakes are inevitable. Yes, I know that Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann will have much to complain about. Yes, I know that the Thomas Merton Center alleges mistreatment of protesters and, I’m sure, there are police who are outraged by things that were “tolerated.” Both the NRA and the ACLU may feel the need to weigh in. But, let me tell you, I was here, and it was remarkable.
Some have suggested that the show of force was excessive. Well, maybe, but I think the proof is in the pudding. Pittsburgh did not
end up like Seattle. Pittsburgh did not end up like London. And we did not end up like Kent State. I respect and admire the restraint of the police. I respect and admire the restraint of the protesters. When a protester marched down Fifth Avenue jabbing his finger at the face of each cop he passed, hissing, “Fascist! Nazi!”, the police remained stoic. When the young man riding his bike down Fifth Avenue did not move off the street as quickly as the police wanted and they grabbed his arm and he fell over, the crowd groused, but that was all. No one was harmed, the cops weren’t rushed, the young man was fine, bricks didn’t fly. And the marchers continued to march.
I was a skeptic, but I’m impressed. I think we accomplished something for Pittsburgh (a city I appreciate more and more the longer that I live here). My hat is off to the protesters for how they behaved. My hat is off to the police for how they behaved. And my hat is off to the planners of this event for a remarkable job.