The Crackdown on Pittsburgh

During the days of the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, PA, our citizenry witnessed an astounding spectacle and display of military might in the city we love and call home. To the dismay of many, our pedestrian friendly, getting-to-be-attractive downtown was turned into a military base resembling that more likely to be seen in third-world nations run by murderous dictators.

Oakland, one of the more attractive neighborhoods for visitors, students, and residents, became a running battlefield dominated by armored police forces carrying offensive weapons that turned our streets into a cheap imitation of Baghdad.

This is speculation, but my hunch is that many of those “robo-cops” had a pent-up urge to use their fancy weaponry and, finding little excuse to do so on the largely peaceful marches of the 24th and 25th, found a simpler target on any living being who happened to be hanging around the University of Pittsburgh/Oakland area Thursday and especially Friday night, the 25th. It should be especially disturbing to all of us that this included accredited journalists prominently wearing press passes who, like others, were arrested and had cameras smashed so as to destroy evidence of wrong-doing by police.

We have to ask who bears responsibility for this gross over-reaction that put almost 200 people in jail, most in violation of their constitutional right to assemble, and who should bear the blame. It’s easy to blame the individual armored police in the streets, and they do, in fact, deserve blame.

But the larger blame and responsibility lies with our City Council and Mayor, the County Commissioner (now declaring for Governor), University of Pittsburgh administration, and the Obama administration, which insisted that the Secret Service had the right to run our city during G-20. It is not just constitutional rights that were violated. There were crimes committed, assaults made, citizens beaten, neighborhoods and university buildings gassed with complete abandon and recklessness.

People were seized unjustly, beaten, faces slammed into concrete walls and sidewalks while waiting for buses. Many of those arrested were held overnight on buses and females being detained had to listen to sexually derogatory comments from police along with the obvious sexual threat given in the comment “maybe we should take the hot ones off the bus”. Scary? You betcha. And this comes from those who are allegedly there to protect our democratic rights.

Sorry, it doesn’t compute. Democratic rights were trampled, constitutional rights were ignored, and there were far more criminal acts committed by police than by protestors.

But here all we have heard from Pittsburgh City Police Chief Nate Harper is that the police did a fine job. These sentiments have been repeatedly echoed by Mayor Ravenstahl, Allegheny County Commissioner Onorato, and Univ of Pittsburgh Chancellor Nordenberg.

One kept hoping that as the melee/police riot developed, someone in one of those administrations would have had the moral courage to shout “STOP!” or to at least take to the media the next day with a denouncement of the debacle. But no, ALL of our elected officials chose not only to sit on their hands but to issue public statements applauding the police for their “professional behavior”, just as most did during the battle for permits to stage the protests, assuming the position of blind mice. This is moral cowardice at best, criminal complicity at worst, and deserves punishment.

Outrages committed by the “peacekeepers” in uniform have now been denounced by many citizens, organizations, newspapers, columnists, and the union representing print journalists. But denouncement is not enough. Recently, in London, criminal charges were filed against a police officer due to acts committed against G20 protesters there. The same should be done here.

There is no doubt in most minds that there will be massive lawsuits filed both individually and by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights in an attempt to rescue our city and nation from this horrible display of naked aggression and military power against unarmed people. I am also certain that the Pittsburgh Citizens Police Review Board will, after investigation, issue a scathing report about police mis-conduct.

But much more must be done if we are to put the lid on this behavior and to rescue our city from losing its welcoming reputation and gaining one that says “go away”. First, NONE of the officials involved who displayed such moral cowardice deserve our support and should be, frankly, hounded out of office and replaced by citizens that have some respect for citizens’ rights. Second, the possibility of filing criminal charges and/or civil lawsuits for damages against all who allowed the commission of these crimes, from individual officers to those in elected and appointed office should be explored.

If it is a crime to break windows, it is no less a crime to break heads. And those responsible need to be brought to justice in criminal and/or civil courts.

Anything less means further subversion of democracy and a further slide into the erosion of democratic rights for all of us.

MEL PACKER is a Physician Assistant in Emergency Medicine, decades long peace and justice activist, one of the organizers of the anti-G20 activities primarily with the Thomas Merton Center Anti-War Committee and the Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project. He lives in Pittsburgh.