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Saturday, September 26, 2009

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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