Settlement reached between city and antiwar demonstrators | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Settlement reached between city and antiwar demonstrators

But issue not resolved, both sides say

Pittsburgh Organizing Group and the City of Pittsburgh reached an agreement on Sept. 20 that will keep Oakland's 24-hour anti-war protesters within two marked sections of sidewalk along Forbes Avenue.

And that will keep city police officers from citing any more protesters for "obstructing passageways" while sitting or lying there during the rest of their nearly month-long fast and picket. But it hasn't completely resolved the issue, lawyers from both sides say.

On Sept. 24, Hill District resident Laney Trautman was in her eighth day of a juice-only fast, sitting on the sidewalk cattycorner to the neighborhood's main military recruiting center. A member of POG, Trautman and fellow protester Sheila Hubbard, a University of Pittsburgh student, said the lengthy event was continuing to draw notice, but now rarely from the police.

"In the day they don't stop by, they don't tell us to move," Trautman says. "The nights I have been here [since the agreement] have been calm." The two sat within a chalk rectangle in front of FedEx Kinko's, one of two designated protest areas. One end was marked with a cardboard "Honk For Peace" sign propped up by a water bottle.

"People are in no way obstructing the sidewalk," says POG lawyer Mike Healey, of the Downtown firm Healey and Hornack, who filed the suit alongside the local ACLU. "There's nothing illegal about sitting or even lying on a sidewalk, as long as you're not obstructing pedestrians or any doors. And particularly so in a free-speech context."

"We feel like we worked out something that's best for all concerned," says Michael Kennedy, assistant city solicitor, about the order, which lasts through Sept. 30. "The city had to balance the needs of local businesses as best we could, the safety of pedestrians as best we could, and the rights" of POG protesters. But, he adds, "the issue has not been resolved."

Indeed, says Healey, even though he too is pleased with the agreement, it has likely only delayed POG's lawsuit over the right to conduct such sidewalk protests without being cited or arrested.

POG's lawsuit raised two issues. The first was whether POG, or anyone else, could sit or lie on the sidewalk without automatically being considered an obstruction. The second issue was a restraining order to stop the police from continually ticketing and citing POG members during this protest. However, the first issue is still unresolved pertaining to future protests.

The agreement was arrived at on Sept. 20, the 17th day of POG's 26-day protest. The suit was filed on behalf of five protesters, including Mike Butler, who undertook a water-only fast beginning on Sept. 4, the start of the protest. Butler and De'anna Caligiuri, both POG members living in Bloomfield, have been cited (and, in Caligiuri's case, briefly jailed) several times each during the protest. According to Butler, they were also given confusing and conflicting information by various police about the legality of sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk during their 24-hour-a-day event.

What will happen to the citations already issued is still unclear. According to the order: "The parties agree to meet and discuss the City's prosecution of the citations and summonses issued to the Plaintiffs between September 4 and September 18," which means the citations and summonses remain unresolved at press time.

The lawsuit alleges that "City police officers' misunderstanding and misapplication" of the state's passageway obstruction law caused them to cite protesters inappropriately. Healey says the restraining order was also sought on behalf of other picketers "who plan on engaging in the same conduct but have not been cited and would rather not be cited." Butler has ceased his fast after 17 days due to excessive weight loss, according to Trautman, but at least two other POG members have been part of the fast during its first three weeks, along with Trautman. Hubbard says she plans to begin fasting on Sept. 26.

Ed Bortz, while not a POG member, has stood with the protesters for many days, carrying a sign or handing out pamphlets. He says the lengthy protest and the fast show "a level of commitment not seen before" among local anti-war forces. Over the past two years, POG has undertaken more than 60 pickets of the recruiting station, along with other protests there that have included other anti-war groups, but a fast "brings to the public a commitment by the peace movement that we're going to persist until the war stops."

Hubbard would seem to agree. "Over the weekend we had two cases of people who came out to see us -- families from Highland Park and [elsewhere] in the city. We're definitely getting our message out there. I think the longevity of the action is making the difference."