"I'm here and I don't intend to leave until Sept. 30 at noon," said Mike Butler at 6 p.m. on Sept. 5, after his first 24 hours of fasting in front of Oakland's military recruiting station.
As of Sept. 10, as City Paper went to press, Butler and others from the Pittsburgh Organizing Group picketing the station had continued their 26-day protest against the war in Iraq, and the presence of military recruiters in the community, even though their one-day city permit expired as Butler spoke. They are maintaining a 24-hour presence next to the recruiting station, with Butler staying mostly seated in an unused door front next to the station while picketers with signs and pamphlets stand nearby.
These picketers are also experiencing, they maintain, 24-hour police attention that targets them selectively compared to other potential sidewalk-blockers, from panhandlers to sandwich boards erected by the very businesses the city says the picketers shouldn't obstruct.
By day five of the event, dubbed "End War Fast," Butler had been joined by another water-only faster, Tristan of the Hill District (who goes by a first name only). Alex Bradley, one POG organizer, says others will join the fast and the pickets will continue, along with other scheduled events involving participants from outside POG, such as a Sept. 11 candlelight vigil.
Recruiting is "one of the most grotesque symbols of militarism in our communities," said POG member Marie Skoczylas, speaking at the opening of the picket. "We will be demonstrating our outrage and sorrow, not only by fasting but by marching, mourning and reflecting."
September was chosen, notes POG member Patrick Young, because Congress was scheduled to receive an influential war report from Gen. David Petraeus, the lead U.S. commander in Iraq, and to debate yet another war-funding bill. "We're going to see politicians jumping on and off the war bandwagon, depending on the political viability of supporting the war," he says.
Butler, standing with a water bottle on the Forbes Avenue sidewalk on this fifth fasting day -- Sept. 8 -- looked pale and a little bleary. "After three days, ketosis sets in," he said. "It's where your body starts burning fat for lack of caloric intake. You stop being hungry and get a second wind -- which is a very weird feeling. I lose my train of thought at times. For the most part I haven't been standing." After walking two blocks to a Pitt computer lab to update POG's Web site about the fast (www.organizepittsburgh.org/fast), he said, "I definitely needed to sit for a while."
Sitting, and especially lying down, have been contentious issues between protesters, the city and police from the beginning. The single street-level doorway to the second-floor military recruiting center is flanked by Qdoba, McDonald's, FedEx Kinko's and Rite Aid. After more than 60 protests over the past two years, some business managers were visibly and vocally upset with the picketers' presence; one non-uniformed McDonald's employee tried to shout down Alex Bradley during a speech at the end of the first day of fasting, saying "You can't block my store. I'm telling you, move." And POG members say that the city, after verbally assuring the group that it would get its 26-day permit for a campout and fast, issued only a 24-hour permit.
The city's letter, addressed to Butler on Aug. 29 from Assistant City Solicitor Stephanie G. Spaulding, said, "the City could not issue a permit for the full period of time requested [because of] concerns of the City regarding its duties of coordination of the uses of the public right of way." These included "the issues of hygiene due to the lack of publicly available facilities on a 24-hour basis, the substantial expense to the City of long-term 24-hour police presence, obstruction of the sidewalk in a busy, narrowed, pedestrian traffic corridor, and the long-term obstruction of businesses in a commercial corridor."
Bradley and Butler note that they have protested dozens of times in the past without keeping pedestrians from passing, and that they have made arrangements with local residents for bathroom facilities. "The only truthful part of the refusal seems to be that the city doesn't want us to have an impact on the local businesses ...," says POG's Sept. 8 statement. "Our 'obstruction' of the local recruitment business would be due to the negative attention we would bring to the day-to-day business of recruiting others to kill and be killed. That 'obstruction' is a result of education and media attention around public speech. Our innate rights to free speech ... cannot be legislated away nor dismissed by dubious claims that the speech might actually work, and therefore obstruct the war machine."
Spaulding referred calls about the city's permit decision to the city's communications office, which did not return a call by press time.
The city's letter also noted that the permit "does NOT include the placement of chairs on the sidewalk; the erection of tents; the placement of signs, tarpaulins or banners on City property; or the obstruction of the other half of the sidewalk or of the entrances to the adjacent places of business."
The city then erected two freestanding chain-link fences, restricting protesters to the outer half of the sidewalk for the length of its permit. During these first 24 hours of the protest, the fences seemed only to confuse passersby and obstruct them more than a normal line of people might.
When the permit expired, Butler sat on a folding chair, atop his sleeping bag, and was ignored by police as they tried to shoo the other protesters away.
By Sept. 8, Butler and picketer De'anna Caligiuri had each been cited for remaining on the sidewalk -- Butler while seated at 5:10 p.m. on Sept. 7, and Caligiuri while sleeping there the same day. Her citation notes that she was "obstructing public passage of pedestrian traffic" -- at 3:40 a.m. She was briefly jailed and released.
Several protesters term the constant police presence "harassment." Butler says the police have given him conflicting instructions about whether he can sit, lie down or remain standing, and that he has been told to expect a summons in the mail for refusing to move during a second police encounter. Meanwhile, during the days of protest, police have ignored a young couple sprawled with their dog on the sidewalk in front of the Rite Aid; busker Bill Dorsey, sitting in the same spot; and Qdoba's free-standing sandwich board, which on Sept. 8 was blocking the middle of the restaurant-front sidewalk, proving more of an obstruction to pedestrians than the five protesters clustered with Butler at 6 p.m.
Zone 4 city police Commander Kathy Degler did not respond to a request for comment by press time, but police paperwork notes that she has witnessed at least one of these citations.
The public, Butler says, has been very supportive. Indeed, during three random visits to the fasting site across a week, most passersby who acknowledged the protest honked in support. Butler has received donations of water and cash.
"There are occasionally some catcalls but they're not significant compared to the amount of support we're receiving," Butler says. After more than 60 protests on the same spot of ground, he adds, "people know why we're out here."