Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rally at Pitt campus tomorrow

Posted By on Wed, Sep 30, 2009 at 3:17 PM

A "Oakland Unites for First Amendment Rights" rally has been scheduled tomorrow on the corner of Forbes and Bigelow. This is the approximate location of where the Battle of Oakland began on Friday night. You can see the flyer for yourself here, but it's scheduled to kick off at 5:30 p.m., and activities will include petition signing, reconciling, and peacefully dispersing. How sad that the college kids are the ones acting like the grown-ups. 

The rally is being hosted by Pitt's ACLU, the Black Action Society, the Merton Center, the anti-violence group One HOOD, and some others as well. 

"We need to know who gave unconstitutional orders to the police and why," Pitt ACLU President Genevieve Redd said in an accompanying statement. 

Students have also launced a Web site, www.WhatHappenedAtPitt.com, for people to discuss and post information on the G-20 and post-G20 incidents. It's worth a look.

As a side note, I'd just point out that -- what with the profusion of Youtube videos and all -- this may really be the first crowd-sourced media event in city history. We've had bloggers for awhile now, of course, and on a couple occasions they've broken stories. But those were individuals, working in relative isolation. What's happening here seems like a more open-source phenomenon ... perhaps the first grassroots citizen-journalism model we've seen in town. Unless someone can think of another? 

Pittsburgh newspaper union issues statement on Oakland arrests

Posted By on Wed, Sep 30, 2009 at 7:56 AM

Last night, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh -- the union for newsroom employees at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- sent out a statement saying it was "deeply disturbed" by police actions in Oakland last Friday night. It calls for a "full independent investigation" into the night's events, and asks for charges to be dropped against those who were caught up in the police dragnet.

Among those arrested was a Guild member, P-G reporter Sadie Gurman (though the statement doesn't mention her by name).

The statement is printed below.

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents reporters, photographers, copy editors and artists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is deeply disturbed by the indiscriminate and inappropriate arrests of more than 100 protesters, bystanders and journalists on the night of Friday, Sept. 25 in Oakland.

Most disturbing is that many of those arrested were attempting to lawfully exercise their First Amendment rights of peaceful assembly and of press freedom, rights that are essential to the survival of democracy. Others were bystanders who found themselves caught between lines of police ordering them to disperse and then blocking their dispersal until they were arrested.

We recognize that the police, especially in situations such as this, have an extremely difficult job. But that fact does not give anyone the right to disregard the First Amendment.

The Newspaper Guild calls on the City of Pittsburgh to drop all charges against those who were lawfully exercising their rights as citizens and journalists, and those who were nonviolently attempting to comply with police orders but were taken to jail anyway.

Further, we call on the city to launch a full and independent investigation into the events that led to these arrests to ensure that such a debacle does not happen again in the name of law enforcement.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sustainable farmers blossom AFTER G-20

Posted By on Tue, Sep 29, 2009 at 1:20 PM

Some visiting activists who kept a low profile during the G-20 will have their say publicly after all.

The Permaculture Demonstration Bus is a Montana-based outfit whose Skills for the New Millenium Tour (www.permibus.org) has been circling the nation since February 2008. Organizers Delyla Wilson and Stan Wilson demonstrate sustainable-living skills, including on-board gardening and composting. There's also a photo display about large-scale sustainable farming practices.

The bus hit town last Tuesday, but the Wilsons say they were subject to police surveillance that began minutes after the converted school bus pulled into its local host's North Point Breeze driveway. Last year, before the Republican National Convention, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, they say, police impounded the bus for several days but never gave a good reason or charged them with a crime.

In Pittsburgh, neighbors told them a helicopter hovered over the Point Breeze property for more than an hour the night the bus arrived. (They were not staying on the bus at the time.) And that night and the two nights following, police cars sat within sight of the bus on the street for long periods.

Wanting to avoid another impoundment, the Wilsons kept the bus parked for the whole G-20, though they did participate in some protest marches. (Delyla Wilson is a street medic for activists.)

But the Wilsons say you can tour the bus this Wed., Sept. 30. It will be parked on the main green of the Carnegie Mellon campus from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tours are free.

Let the G-20 political opportunism begin! (updated)

Posted By on Tue, Sep 29, 2009 at 5:41 AM

I note that in an earlier blog post here, someone posted a link to this Youtube video last night. It's a 30-second spot -- with fairly polished production values -- that accuses mayoral candidate Dok Harris of spending the G-20 at a high-end spa in Bedford. It ends with a faux campaign logo that reads "Dok W. Bush for Bedford ... Go to the Spa!"

The same Youtube account -- "Dok W. Bush" -- has a couple video segments that mock some of Harris' campaign appearances. And then a 10-second spot that cryptically asks "Who is Alejandro Sparras? And what does he have to do with Dok Harris? Find out soon."

Sounds ominous, but a few seconds of googling suggests that "Alejandro Sparras" is Harris' role-playing persona. You may recall that Harris' fondess for role-playing games earned him the attention of blogger Matt Hogue a few months ago, and in fact while the video was posted on Youtube just seven hours ago as I write this (a bit before 7 a.m.), Hogue's blog already has the Bedford video on his site. Hogue, of course, supports Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and his blog was also the first stop for videos attacking rival Patrick Dowd in the spring primary this year.

I'll get the Harris camp's response to the Bedford allegation as soon as I can. (They appear to be aware of the attacks: "Dok W. Harris" complains of efforts by the Harris camp to take down other videos, and the same commenter who posted on this blog yesterday originally linked to a video that has been taken down "due to a copyright claim by Harris for Pittsburgh.")

In the meantime, I fully admit this is speculation, but this just feels like an attack by Team Ravenstahl. The maximal snarkiness ... the high-end production ... the early appearance on Hogue's site ... it all fits.

UPDATE: Spoke with Harris this morning about the video. He acknowledges that, yes, he was at the Bedford spa during the G-20. Like a lot of Pittsburghers, he says, he realized that G-20 Pittsburgh was not going to be a place where he could get much done ... so he scheduled a break for himself months ago. 

" I live on Fifth Avenue, not far from our offices [in Oakland]. I was right in the epicenter of where things were going down. While being trapped in my apartment is a good idea, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to interface with anyone [druing the summit]." Harris has raised questions about Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's willingness to host the summit: "We have thousands of police defending a ghost town, and a child on the North Side is killed on his couch." But once the summit came to town, "What am I going to do? Throw a rock?"

So Harris says he used some membership-reward points on his credit card and went to the spa. The plan was to "do some research and debate prep, and relax before October wacky season starts and I'm getting only a couple hours of sleep a night.

"I did not, however, get a massage," Harris adds, "and I'm sorry I didn't." 

And who might have authored the video? "I don't know, but Karl Rove is unemployed right now," Harris says. "I'm waiting to see the next one: 'Dok Harris is fat. He's no good at sports. He was involved in theater.' I think you're going to hear a lot about what a nerd I am. And I am an enormous nerd." The "Alejandro Sparras" character, he says, dates back to the late 1990s.

"On a certain level, I'm kind of flattered to be the number-one threat in this campaign," Harris adds. "And 'Dok W. Bush' is pretty funny."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mayoral candidates respond to G-20 concerns

Posted By on Mon, Sep 28, 2009 at 1:41 PM

Let's see if I can post this before Bram does. It's a statement from mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin about how the city handled security during the G-20 summit ... and after. Among other things it reflects, I think, the politically dicey nature of this stuff. Those in the blogosphere who are predicting this will be a political disaster for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, in fact, ought to keep a couple points in mind. 

Even if the police DID overreact to security threats, even if they DID go overboard in their handling of protesters and students ... there are plenty of constituencies in town where that wouldn't exactly hurt the mayor. One of the areas where Acklin is running hardest, actulaly, is in the city's South Hills ... which more than a few cops call home. 

Besides, Luke Ravenstahl just held a press conference today defending the city's performance -- even boasting that the city had "sent a message" to out-of-town anarchists. In attendance, and showing support for the mayor, were luminaries like the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the Allegheny Conference, and US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. More on this later.

UPDATE: The campaign of Dok Harris has also issued a statement prior to a press conference later in the week. Building off an earlier campaign gambit -- in which Harris launched a Web site for people to grouse about the dislocations caused by the G-20 -- the release argues that "Pittsburgh spent $18 million last week to protedt a ghost town, and then forgot about our neighborhoods. We spent $18 million to keep foreign dignitaris safe on our streets, but in a North Side neighborhood near where I grew up, a 5-year-old boy was murdered, sleeping in his own home ... We have to wonder what our leader's priorities are when this continues." 

Anyway, with that, Acklin's statement:

I would first like to thank all of the uniformed men and women who came to Pittsburgh last week to help keep us safe during the G-20 conference. I come from a family of public safety workers, and my brother, who is a state trooper, was among the thousands of police officers who came to Pittsburgh to provide security last week. I would also like to thank President Obama for showcasing our city. The positive attention that was brought to our city is an asset for us all, and I am hopeful that we can convert that attention into good-paying jobs for our workers.

In two areas, however, I have concerns about decisions that will have a lasting impact on our city's affairs. First, the decision to shut down the downtown business district was incredibly short-sighted. I spoke against this plan last week when it was first announced, and after speaking with Pittsburgh business leaders last week, over the weekend, and again today, I am convinced that the economic damage done to our local business community was both unfair and unnecessary. The G20 could have been an incredible opportunity for local small businesses and employees who are struggling in this economy, but effectively shuttering downtown only made matters worse for all of them. Those two (or three) days of lost income could, and should, have been avoided.

There have also been some questions raised about deployment, especially in Oakland, of the police force last week. I want to say unequivocally that our uniformed men and women performed admirably last week, and they have my full support. However, there is a growing concern in our community that leadership on Grant Street made some tactical decisions that were not conducive to protecting the public's safety.

If I were Mayor, I would launch a blue ribbon commission to audit all aspects of the city's performance during the G20, so that we may learn from this experience, and to make sure we are ready the next time Pittsburgh has a chance to step up on the world stage.

Never mind civil liberties -- did police squander a PR opportunity?

Posted By on Mon, Sep 28, 2009 at 7:46 AM

Going into the G-20, there was a lot of concern that anarchists might ruin a once-in-a-lifetime photo op. The "Black Bloc," civic leaders feared, might  give the city a black eye while global leaders looked on.

It didn't turn out that way. But it's still possible the POLICE might smudge the city's G-20 halo ... largely as a result of confrontations with students in Oakland on Friday night. Just as the city has sent a message to global leaders during the G20, it's also sent a message to lefty groups and people all over the world. THAT message has been bouncing around via e-mail and social media, and it is much less upbeat.

For example, a group opposed to police suveillance tactics directed me to this site, with more Oakland footage. Another lefty group, World Can't Wait, has posted its own critiques, and is circulating a petition that demands, among other things, a "thorough investigation of methods employed by law enforcement, and directed by Homeland Security and Chief of Police, including the crowd control methods and mass arrests."

Antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan is making her own appeal. And Alternet, a story-sharing site dedicated to left-of-center views, has a brief blog post of its own with video. 

ADDED: Oh, and I almost forgot this dispatch, from Democracy Now

And this is just a smattering of the stuff bouncing around outside town. It doesn't count the numerous e-mails coming in from locals and parents of college students ("I was afraid that my son, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, would be at risk of trauma due to the violence surrounding the G20 ... I listened and watched in horror as University of Pittsburgh studented describ[ed] and recorded the horrible behavior of the police officers.")

Not that I expect our business leaders to take the champagne off the ice or anything. Hell, if you're a business leader looking for a place to locate a new factory, you might LIKE the idea that Pittsburgh is a city willing to push around college kids and demonstrators when they get uppity. 

Then again, think of the bad press! Even The New York Times -- who previously had been content to tell us how great, like, Brillobox is -- has noted the events. And I get the feeling local media is going to view the next Bureau of Police press release with a bit more caution, given that Post-Gazette reporter Sadie Gurman was among those taken into custody by police. 

So with any luck, we'll soon be seeing the tourism office and the Allegheny Conference out in the streets opposing the tactics -- and demanding liberty, justice, and better PR for all. 

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pitt students hold march; world doesn't end

Posted By on Sun, Sep 27, 2009 at 11:46 PM

Despite dire warnings and hype from the hysterical mainstream media, tonight's "Go Pitt! Fuck the Police" rally proceeded with little incident.

More than 75 students showed up at Schenley Plaza, site of a confrontation with police in which more than 100 were arrested last night. Tonight, however, the students played with a hackeysack and talked easily. A score of police were scattered around the plaza -- with a fire department pumper truck parked nearby, and another a couple blocks away, near Soldiers and Sailors. But the officers kept their distance, and none of the high-tech hardware used on previous nights was visible.

Eventually, the students began marching up Forbes to the chant "No justice/no peace/Fuck the police." (There were a series of other chants as well, none of which were particularly respectful of the police bureau.) By the time they reached Pitt's Law Department, about two blocks away, they were joined by at least a half-dozen undercover police. The cops' presence was detected almost instantaneously. They were built like police, for one thing. One was wearing leather gloves, and could be seen fingering a gas canister. And one of them was wearing a Penn State hat. That's not even trying, fellas.

Perhaps the high point of the whole march, in fact, came when the demonstrators circled back around 5th Avenue, standing near Soldiers and Sailors. They began chanting "hey hey, ho ho, undercovers in the back have got to go," jeering at two of the most obvious officers, as if in a primitive shaming ritual. 

The only moment of tension came when the protesters returned to the law building, where a tiny police substation is tucked away beneath a staircase. As the protesters chanted, police in riot gear emerged from Pitt Police vans and looked menacing. But the protesters soon departed and returned to Schenley Plaza, where the evening resumed the somewhat festive air it had before the march. The police eventually left, and a handful of protesters pledged to march to Allegheny County Jail, where some students from the previous day's events are still being held

Not surprisingly, several demonstrators had been involved in the previous days' altercations with police. They had several theories about what took place, but my wife just yelled at me for typing so late at night. So for now, I'll just say this: One problem is that the G-20 security strategy -- police showing up in overwhelming numbers, with lots of scary equipment -- may have backfired here. Instead of intimidating people into going home, it drew out the curious ... who ended up being caught in the ensuing chaos. 

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The view from the OTHER side of the face shield

Posted By on Sat, Sep 26, 2009 at 5:25 PM

Earlier today, I posted the demonstrators' account of last night's altercation with police in Oakland. What follows is the Bureau of Police account, released a short time ago. But before I paste it , I'll just draw your attention to the release's assertion that university police sent out a warning message "informing [students] of a pending G20 planned disturbance tonight; to be careful and exercise good judgment." As I noted in an update to my previous post, the same warning has gone out this afternoon. 

Oakland (Schenley Plaza) Disturbance

On Friday, September 25th, 2009 at approximately 8:45PM, Mobile Field Force Units were notified that a large crowd was beginning to converge on the Schenley Plaza in Oakland.

Through Intelligence it was learned that an un-sanctioned and un-permitted assembly was being planned in the Schenley Plaza area of Oakland. Notification of this un-sanctioned and un-permitted assembly was being distributed and monitored via Twitter and other social networking sites and a flyer was posted and distributed in various areas that indicated the actual meeting point to be Schenley Plaza at 10:00PM.

Further information was received throughout the day that individuals were purchasing numerous BIC lighters and asking if lighter fluid could be purchased. There is nothing to link the purchase of lighters to any activity, however the concerns of the PBP was heightened by the request for lighter fluid.

Because of the prior night's activity in Oakland, Mobile Field Force (MFF) presence was assembled at the ready to act swiftly and effectively to remove any violators conducting themselves in an unlawful manner. It was reported by the MFF stationed in Schenley Plaza that the crowd was becoming defiant and throwing things at the officers. Additional Mobile Field Forces were summoned.

At 7:20PM, Chief Delaney of the University of Pittsburgh Police sent two Emergency Notification System alerts (ENS) reaching out to the 51,000 Pitt students informing them of a pending G20 planned disturbance tonight; to be careful and exercise good judgment.

The second notification was sent at 10:04PM advising students that conditions of the activity may be deteriorating and students are advised to remain in residence.

The MFF Commander gave the Order to Disperse at 10:42PM. Orders for dispersal were given numerous times. The sound emitted from the LRAD (Long Range Accoustical Device) along with smoke was deployed in efforts to disperse the disorderly crowd, estimated at 1000. All who did not comply with the lawful order to disperse were taken into custody and arrested. A total of 110 individuals were transported to the SCI (State Correctional Institution) for processing.

There were no reported injuries to demonstrators and no property damage was reported during this incident.

Two police officers were treated by EMS for minor injury: one for a dislocated shoulder and one for heat exhaustion.

Information of those arrested is not available at this time.

Well, no doubt THIS will turn out well ...

Posted By on Sat, Sep 26, 2009 at 1:50 PM

Another confrontation with police seems almost inevitable tonight in Oakland. A "Go Pitt! Fuck the Police!" rally against brutality is scheduled for tonight at 10 p.m. in Schenley Plaza. A rally last night -- scheduled for the same time and location -- resulted in more than 100 arrests, including that of a perfectly pleasant Post-Gazette reporter. 

You'll find the Facebook invite here. Pitt's advice -- which boils down to "do what the police tell you and watch your ass" -- can be found here.

For the time being, I'm just trying to wrap my head around the concept of a "Go Pitt! Fuck the Police!" rally. Which seems to be about identifying with authoritarian institutions while simultaneously defying them. Is some sort of alliance between anarchists and fratboys in the making?

ADDED: Anyway, here's the press release from rally organizers:

Police Brutally Attack Oakland Students and Residents

For the past two nights, Oakland has remained in a state of siege. Pittsburghers gathering to protest police brutality last night, along with the crowd of spectators they attracted, were greeted once more by uncontrolled police violence. As the smoke clears and locals prepare for another night of protest, many questions remain as to how police violence was allowed to go on unchecked and what the University of Pittsburgh will do to protect its students.

Numbers continue to pour in as the aftermath from the past two nights is tallied. According to legal observers, between 60 and 70 were arrested Thursday night; 110 more were arrested Friday. Many of those detained were students. Eight remain in jail from Thursday along with half of Friday's arrestees.

Says media spokesperson Jesse Ericson, "On Thursday night, police surrounded and attacked a dance party in Schenley Plaza. Last night, locals and students gathered again to demonstrate against the random violence and terror we saw the night before, only to see the situation become far worse. The police force has gone off the deep end. After their failure to contain and control groups who successfully held the streets for hours on Thursday, the police are retaliating on young people who are unprepared and unequipped to deal with police brutality. Last night we saw open war on anyone unlucky enough to live in Oakland. After the dorms were locked down, many students had nowhere to disperse to, leaving them at the mercy of riot cops with batons, gas and rubber bullets".

Individual reports of indiscriminate violence are coming in from the hundreds on scene last night. Says Noah Williams, "I was on Forbes Avenue when I saw a young college student coming around the corner with blood all over his face. He'd been shot with a rubber bullet about one inch beneath his eye. A little farther up and he'd be dead now. He was just walking by Towers". Video of this incident can be found at http://www.ireport.com/docs/DOC-333876, but it was by no means the only one. Tear gas and pepper spray were used heavily on the campus area between Fifth and Forbes. Rubber bullets were shot arbitrarily into trapped crowds. In one of last night's most disturbing events, police assembled with an arrested student and posed for a photo after forcing him to his knees. Footage is available at http://www.ireport.com/docs/DOC-333880. As one police officer declared, "This is almost like marshal law" (http://www.ireport.com/docs/DOC-333897).

In response to continued physical and legal repression, locals and students will once again convene at Schenley Plaza tonight at 10:00 pm to speak out against police brutality.

ALSO ADDED: Pitt has sent out an automated warning message to university members signed up for its alert system. The message says: 

"Saturday night disturbance possible at Schenley Plaza. Please use good judgment and be careful."

Bright Lights, Small City

Posted By on Sat, Sep 26, 2009 at 12:13 PM

Looking back on it, Pittsburgh's G-20 summit may be most noticeable for what didn't happen.

Inside the convention center, of course, what didn't happen was any meaningful progress on environmental causes. As Time magazine put it, while G-20 leaders made some noise about climate change, "greens said little of substance was actually achieved." 

Outside, in the streets of Pittsburgh, the dreaded anarchists also didn't live up to their media billing as depraved fiends. As the Post-Gazette rightly notes, there were no reports of human feces being flung around. No super-soakers filled with urine. No PVC pipe, or "sleeping dragons" designed to anchor protesters to buildings. Police might have had an easier time of it if the protesters had stayed in one place. But none of these tactics -- which media accounts worried about for weeks -- appears to have been used. 

There were some smashed windows, some Dumpsters shoved over, and an estimated $50,000 worth of vandalism. But everyone expected that, and the percentage of protesters involved in that activity seems ridiculously small. Police say that almost half the vandalism was done by just one protester (whose name I won't bother to mention since it will only give him the attention he craves). 

It's also worth noting that, according to a Bureau of Police press release sent out last night, not a single officer was injured by protesters. (The only injuries suffered by police were due to heat exhaustion, an allergic reaction, and a police officer being struck by a police-fired rubber bullet.)

Let's put that in some perspective. During the Super Bowl celebrations-slash-riots that took place earlier this year, a police report of damages found the following -- just in Oakland alone:

-- a police officer with a broken arm

-- bottles thrown at officers

-- a toppled car

-- a handful of fires set

-- a bus stop vandalized

In other words, when the dreaded hordes of anarchists descended on Pittsburgh, they did less damage than the college students who were "just having a good time."

As you'd expect, the police are claiming that the relative quiet is because of their efforts. "Law enforcement officers were well trained, prepared and on-the-ready to respond swiftly and effectively in the removal of those responsible for the disorder," the release crows.

But the protesters deserve some credit too. Or if not exactly "credit," at least a recognition that they are not the subhuman monsters they were portrayed as.

As we first reported via Twitter during the Thursday demonstrations, even when some protesters resorted to hurling rocks at police, others began loudly denouncing the tactic. (You can hear for yourself in our video clip of the confrontation.) 

Still, the rocks were thrown, and one reason officers weren't hurt was the creepy Robocop armor they were wearing. Conversely, there are plenty of complaints about police overreacting in Oakland, last night especially. (Interestingly, the most questionable police actions seem to have taken place just before the summit began -- when groups like Seeds of Peace complained of harassment -- and just after it ended.) The ACLU and legal observers are raising questions about police tactics. ("In a week when we need freedom of speech more than ever, free speech died in Pittsburgh this week," thundered the ACLU's Vic Walczak.) The G20 summit is over, but questions about police conduct may last a long time to come. 

Even so, amidst the chaos, there were moments of kindness on both sides.

City Councilor Patrick Dowd told me about a couple protesters who offered bandanas to his children, to protect them from tear gas released in the area. And Charlie McCollester, a history professor and longtime local progressive, told me of a only-in-Pittsburgh moment he witnessed during the unpermitted march: An officer was watching a protester carrying sandwiches for other demonstrators. And when the protester accidentally dropped the food, the officer picked up a sandwich and handed it back. As it turned out, McCollester said, the two of them knew each other. 

Pittsburgh has always had the rap of being a place where nothing much happens. That's often unfair, but it was true enough during the summit itself. And it isn't always a bad thing.

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