Police Psychic | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Police Psychic

City police are asking for the power to arrest G-20 protesters based on their suspected intent to commit a crime -- and Pittsburgh City Council seems intent on letting them.

One proposed law would cost protesters up to $300 or 30 days in jail for wearing "a mask, hood or other device or means of hiding, concealing or covering any portion of the face ... with the specific intent to hide one's identity during the commission of unlawful activity." 

The other would add the same punishment for possession of "pipe[s] or containers filled with or wrapped in weighted material such as concrete" if that material were being used "for the purpose of defeating lawful removal" of protesters. The measure also applies to "handcuffs, chains, carabiners, padlocks, or other locking devices" that protesters might use to prevent police from forcing them to disperse. 

The legislation would also penalize possession of a number of "noxious substances," from human waste to rotten eggs, as well as "manufactured gasses," filtered gas masks, projectile launchers and 37 specific firearms.

Activists are worried that the laws would allow police to arrest based on the protesters' alleged intent. "It sounds like they are trying to outlaw 'thought crimes,'" says Pete Shell, of the Thomas Merton Center, who is helping to organize what will likely be the largest march against the international summit on Sept. 25.

At an Aug. 28 city council hearing, officials repeatedly questioned the bills' premises -- while essentially pledging to pass them.

"We're trying to be preventive and proactive -- that's what this ordinance is about," explained Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper. Masks would keep security cameras from identifying people later, he added.

On the other hand, Councilor Patrick Dowd argued during the hearing, some protesters may don gas masks to highlight G-20 leaders' lack of attention to environmental degradation. "I don't even have to be in the act of committing a crime to be given this summary offense?" Dowd asked. "I don't have to throw the rock? I don't have to be doing anything?"

"That's right," replied assistant city solicitor Yvonne Hilton.

So "How do I defend myself?" Dowd later asked. "What do I say: 'I didn't commit a crime, but I can't prove to you that I didn't intend to commit a crime?'"

City Councilor Darlene Harris had similar concerns: What about those wearing face coverings like a Muslim woman's burka?

"You're absolutely allowed to wear a burka," Hilton answered. "Now, if you're wearing a burka with the intent to commit an unlawful activity ..."

"How do you know?" Harris said.

"It would be up to the officer," Hilton replied.

 "Intent is something that a police officer in every situation is trained to consider," argued assistant city solicitor John Doherty. Police routinely ask, "Who are you? Where are you going? Who else is going with you? Is it likely that a person like you ... should be in the place where you are? What are they carrying? Is it a noxious substance?"

Several councilors asked why the laws do not expire once the visiting G-20 finance ministers, and the large crowd of protesters likely to follow, leave town. Hilton labeled the laws "a tool needed ... not only for the purposes of the G-20." 

But whatever their misgivings, councilors seemed willing to oblige the police with new powers. After Councilor Bruce Kraus pushed for changes to the bill, he added the caveat: "Not that I don't want to see a bill like this passed ..." 

Local protest leaders have long asserted that international events are often used as a way to bring in new weaponry and penalties affecting local citizens long after the event's end. 

The proposed legislation "presents a grave threat to all citizens who then could be stopped any time on almost any pretext if they were carrying any object that appeared might someday be used to commit some unnamed crime," says Mel Packer, of the Pittsburgh G-20 Resistance Project, which includes anarchists -- a group likely targeted by such legislation.

Ironically, the most dangerous items banned under the proposed law -- 37 assault-type guns -- are the only things city council may not be allowed to prohibit. In 1994, a state court precluded cities from passing local gun laws.

Lawyers for local protest groups, who may end up suing to overturn the laws, could not be reached for comment by press time.

Both bills will be debated again at a public hearing on Wed., Sept. 2, at 1:30 p.m. in city council chambers. 

"Does anyone honestly believe that the police treat everyone the same now irrespective of race, class, appearance?" asked Alex Bradley, of the local anarchist Pittsburgh Organizing Group. "If this passes, it's going to lead to more conflict in the streets and in the courts."

After all, Bradley asks, "Should people start applying this same pre-emptive principle and defend themselves from the individual police that might be coming toward them to abridge their rights?"