Pipe Dreams | Blogh

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pipe Dreams

Posted By on Thu, Sep 17, 2009 at 12:48 PM

Fans of this blog -- I know you're out there; I can hear the librarians telling you to gather up your belongings  -- may recall this post from yesterday.

In it, I quoted an assertion made by public safety director Michael Huss, who told City Council that police "can tell the difference between a plumber and a protester."

But can they? 

Huss was seeking new crowd-control powers during the G-20. City police want the power to charge people for carrying things like PVC pipe -- everyday items protesters sometimes use to prevent being dispersed by police. The catch is that possessing the items isn't illegal in itself: It's only a crime if you're carrying with them for the purpose of disrupting police activity. Hence Huss's assurances that police wouldn't confuse honest working folk from nefarious protesters.

But we now have new evidence to suggest police might not be so good at mindreading after all.

WPXI-TV is reporting that the police are apparently befuddled by the purpose of "a 60-foot-long section of PVC pipe in Lawrenceville ... similar to those used by protesters."

Crack investigators that they are, police noticed that the words "RedZone Robotics" were stamped on the pipe. That seems like a clue to me, and sure enough, WPXI reports that

RedZone Vice President Ken Wolf [said] the same pipe was hauled away two weeks ago, so the company spray-painted its name on it. He said the pipe ... is used to test robots and inspect sewer pipes.

But of course, accepting plausible explanations from reputable local firms could be just what the protesters want us to do. (And ask yourself: Why "Red" Zone, hmmm?)

Indeed, while police returned the pipe to the company, WPXI says:

Pittsburgh police said they have no indication that RedZone had anything to do with a possible protest, but they continue to investigate.

Presumably, this means they've got the pipe under surveillance. 

I'm not trying to be naive. It's pretty obvious that there will be civil disobedience going on -- the protesters are telling us they plan "to disrupt the G-20 summit." Quite possibly some protesters will use PVC pipe, though I'd be much surprised if they were carrying 60-foot lengths of it. Hard to keep those under your shirt.

But as the RedZone incident suggests, it's not easy to determine intentions -- even when the police have all day to do it. How simple will it be to do so in the heat of the moment of a summit protest? 

It's a good bet there will be some bad actors in town to "protest" next week. But assuming the worst can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, the managers of our office building are freaking out because "[o]ver the past two weeks several individuals have been spotted videotaping and/or photographing the building and loading dock at various times." At least one of those photographers, though, was a CP staffer. (Rest assured: I have my eye on her.) 

In any event, council only gave the police half of the powers they wanted ... and even those will only be in effect until the end of the month. I think that's a good thing. To borrow from Brendan Behan, I have never seen a situation so dismal that giving the police new, untested powers couldn't make it worse.