Members of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group aren't strangers to confrontations with police: The group often demonstrates outside military recruitment centers and at antiwar protests. But Noah Willumsen says he was surprised by an April 3 altercation on Shadyside's Ellsworth Avenue, where he alleges he was choked by a police sergeant, William Vollberg.
The picketers' target was the Marines recruiting center on Ellsworth -- part of POG's two-year-old anti-recruitment campaign. Willumsen, of Bloomfield, says the event attracted about 25 sign-holding demonstrators. "None of us were expecting anything to happen," he says. "I don't want to say it was boring, but it was pretty slow."
But police were photographing demonstrators, protesters say, and trouble began when POG's Alex Bradley raised his borrowed camera to photograph an officer.
Vollberg, Bradley says, responded by violently shoving him about 10 yards from the scene.
Another picketer, Brian DiPippa of Bloomfield, says he saw Bradley being "non-resistant, with his hands held up." Bradley was not charged.
Standing across the street, Willumsen says picketers crossed over and "started to tell [Vollberg] to stop and say, 'What is going on?'" The group included a 16-year-old who had joined POG for the first time. According to Willumsen, Vollberg began yelling at this minor, then arrested him.
"The officer grabbed him by the arm, wrenched it around, pulled it up behind his back and smacked him against the wall," Willumsen says. "Hard enough to hear his head hit the brick."
That's when Willumsen took out his own camera phone. "Vollberg backhanded it out of my hand," Willumsen says, then "put his hands around my throat. ... With his hands firmly around my throat -- there were fingerprints on my throat for an hour -- he pushed me back a good dozen steps to the cop car, pushed me up against it, and cuffed the kid and I. My neck still hurts."
Willumsen was cited for failure of disorderly persons to disperse, and obstruction of administration of law. He says he may file a complaint with the Citizen Police Review Board. "The incident is under investigation," says the agency's director, Beth Pittinger. "The process needs time to work."
Vollberg could not be reached for comment at his Zone 4 police station, and Police Chief Nate Harper "is not going to comment on it," says police spokesperson Diane Richard. "No charges have been brought against the officer." Richard says the minor, whom she did not name, was charged with disorderly conduct
Two witnesses who weren't part of the protest largely confirm Willumsen's account. M. Davis, who asked that her full first name not be printed, says she was driving home to Edgewood around 7 p.m. when traffic slowed outside the protest. Davis says that when a protester tried to take a camera-phone photo of Vollberg arresting someone, she saw Vollberg "grab the young man by the throat, walk with him and throw him on the car and put the handcuffs on him." She saw nothing to invite such a response, she says: "The only thing I saw was this officer just lunge at this young man.
"As big as this officer was, as thin as this young man was, it was like somebody had a chicken by the throat," she says. "It was not a nice sight to see."
Davis says the other eight or so officers took no action against the picketers, or interceded with Vollberg. Davis says they gave her Vollberg's name after she asked for his badge number.
Another passerby, who gave her business card to picketers in case they needed her testimony, corroborated Davis' story but did not wish to be quoted.
The picketers remained on Ellsworth until about 8:15. Around 3:45 a.m. that morning, according to police, the recruiting station's front and side windows were broken and its door smashed.
"There really is no connection" between the protest and the vandalism, says DiPippa. "I didn't break the [glass], and I don't know anyone who did."
Police spokesperson Richard says there have been no arrests for the vandalism. The police report, she adds, notes that other recruiting stations have been vandalized in the hours following POG pickets. But it also says the Ellsworth station's front window was broken last month, prior to any POG protest.
POG plans to return to Ellsworth on April 14 at 6 p.m. Two days before, members plan to hold a vigil outside Vollberg's home at 7:30 p.m.
Will Willumsen be there?
Says the picketer: "Oh yeah."