Even veteran activists were surprised on May 3 when all charges were dropped against anti-war protesters who had blockaded a Defense Department-supported facility in Lawrenceville on March 2.
Perhaps more surprising was the praise they received from the bench.
"On a personal level, I want to thank you for doing your part in ending this war," District Justice Gene Ricciardi told the 13 defendants. After noting that their actions must have consequences, he called their protest a "courageous decision."
Members of Pittsburgh Organizing Group, joined by activists from other cities, had blocked access to Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center by chaining themselves arm to arm inside PVC pipes covered by tar, chicken wire and tape. Those lying across the back entrance, who were cut out of their pipes by local EMS workers, were charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing traffic and possession of an instrument of crime -- the PVC devices.
In exchange for the dismissed charges, each defendant was given 25 hours of community service. Attorney Mike Healey said he had tried a plea bargain during an earlier City Court appearance, but was stymied by apparent federal interest in actions by POG. "We understood, because of pressure from unnamed federal agencies, that [it] didn't go through" on March 9, he said. Now, "that issue has been favorably resolved."
Mike Manko, spokesperson for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, did not respond to a request for comment about the plea bargain.
The case's resolution was also helped, Healey added, because "this was a totally peaceful demonstration. There wasn't a single incident between an officer and a demonstrator."
"I thought they'd drag it out and keep [POG] debilitated for a while," said arrestee Ryan Williams, a POG member who has participated in many pickets against military recruitment and other actions during POG's anti-war campaign, which began more than two years ago.
"I'm happy with the result," said one of the POG organizers, Alex Bradley. "I think [the punishment] is consistent with what we did. ... Regardless of how it turned out, it wasn't going to change how we do these actions in the future."