Police Misstate | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Police Misstate

So here we are at last, after months of G-20 hype and speculation about how many anarchists were coming to fling turds at police. But the G-20 has been and gone now, and the only fecal matter I've seen came out of either a) the back end of a state trooper's horse, or b) the mouth of a fearmongering TV reporter. 

Yes, a handful of protesters threw rocks at police. A couple have been charged with doing an estimated $50,000 of vandalism, mostly in the form of smashed windows.

But to put that toll in perspective, consider the "celebrations" that took place after the Steelers won the Super Bowl this year. In Oakland alone, multiple fires were set, a car was toppled, a bus stop was leveled, and revelers threw beer bottles at police. In other words, those angry anarchists did less damage than a bunch of drunks "having a good time." 

Or to put it another way: That $50,000 in damages will, almost certainly, be dwarfed by the legal bills our vaunted security measures will incur. 

The trouble really started the night of Sept. 25, when all this was supposed to be over. But by 8:45 Friday evening, police say, a "large crowd" had gathered in Oakland's Schenley Plaza -- an extension of demonstrations that had reached Oakland the night before. The police rolled in, with high-tech security gear like newfangled "sound cannon" in tow. 

Police say some in the crowd began throwing things, a charge stridently denied by students I've talked to. In any case, a little before 11 p.m., the police were deploying smoke, tear gas, and beanbag projectiles. Students tried to flee, but had little sense of where to go. Some were prevented from entering their dorms; others were prevented from leaving. More than 100 people were arrested. Among them were student journalists at the University of Pittsburgh and Sadie Gurman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

What happened? We probably won't know until the depositions are taken. (Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is promising an investigation, as is an independent police-review board.) Some people will blame the students, who -- as the Super Bowl riots suggest -- can be a flash mob waiting to happen. But maybe the bigger issue is this: The students were the only Pittsburghers who didn't know they were supposed to be afraid. 

The rest of us pay attention to officials and the evening news. So we boarded up Downtown, and then worked from home anyway. The overwhelming displays of police force -- the concrete barriers and phalanxes of police in Robocop-meets-Teenage-Mutant-Ninja riot gear -- kept many of us home. But according to students I've talked to, those spectacles actually brought the students out. As The New York Times put it, "Some students said their curiosity was piqued by a university message warning them to stay off the streets." What could be more typical? 

For two days, meanwhile, the police had been on their best behavior, confronting angry protesters and a global media ready to second-guess their every move. By Friday night, we still had the high-security trappings of the G-20 -- the high-tech gear, the police forces from across the country -- but none of the purpose. The dignitaries were gone, but they left their police-state apparatus behind, with nothing to function on. 

There was nothing to secure, nothing left to protest except the security. The presence of students attracted police, and the legions of police attracted more students. The police were ready to go home; the students insisted they were home. In an atmosphere of hormones and hype, something was bound to happen.

Ironically, the confrontation was the biggest story of the week, but outside the local press, it got the least amount of attention. By Friday night, Pittsburgh had served its purpose. We'd provided a scenic backdrop for the world leaders, and for reporters seeking a "success story" in troubled economic times. They'd been force-fed hors d'oeuvres and upbeat narratives from the Allegheny Conference, and they were full. Riots in Pittsburgh? That was yesterday. What happened in Pittsburgh was going to stay in Pittsburgh. Just like it usually has.

Which is a lucky thing for the city's boosters. A lid was kept on the city for days on end ... and by the time the lid blew off, the world was looking elsewhere. 

They came, they saw ... and they left us to clean up the mess.