Before the March: Police and Punks | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Before the March: Police and Punks

According to the people on Beelen Street in the Hill District, the March 20 march and rally against the war in Iraq went just fine. It's what happened at their house the night before that sticks in their craw.


About 10:15 p.m. on March 19, the residents of the last house on the woody dead end of this isolated street heard dogs barking outside. Grace Keller looked out his window and saw a handful of police squad cars and K9 units. Keller, a member of Three Rivers Action Medics, had spent part of the day preparing medical supplies for Saturday's protest march; within minutes he and three houseguests had been escorted outside, where they were patted down and questioned by Pittsburgh police. Other officers, without producing a warrant, searched the main house and the two apartments located in a separate building behind it. Police told them they were looking for bombs.


Out of sight down the street, Keller's neighbor and fellow activist Ron Douglas videotaped an officer who, citing "safety concerns," told Douglas and a friend they couldn't go see what was happening. Half an hour later, the cops were done -- but not, Keller and friends say, before asking them what they were going to be doing at the next day's march. Also, says Keller, "They told me they were calling the house inspector."


Keller, a long-haired, soft-spoken 20-year-old, doesn't expect to see eye-to-eye with police. But he doesn't appreciate what he calls continual harassment. On March 19, no fewer than 13 police vehicles (as documented by Douglas) came to Beelen. Less than a month earlier, on Feb. 22, Keller says, the police had made another nighttime visit -- he calls it a "raid" -- at his house, that time because police saw some deer parts nailed to a door and "claimed we were a satanic cult." And police vehicles -- squad cars and undercover units both -- regularly roost on the street, which curves up a hillside overlooking the Monongahela River near where Forbes Avenue meets the Birmingham Bridge. "The cops sit out here and whenever we do something they consider weird they consider it license to break into the house," says Keller.


Beelen might be labeled a punk street. Douglas and four friends moved there in fall 2001, and its handful of houses is now home to a dozen or more young adults. Some are in school, and some hold day jobs. Keller is among those who, by virtue of mutual aid and some scavenging, live a near-cashless existence. They also donate their time to causes, including fair housing, striking union janitors and the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, which serves free vegetarian meals to the homeless.


Keller's house is known as the "street medic house" because he and one roommate are among the 10 or more members of TRAM, created last year by the Thomas Merton Center to provide on-site medical care to protesters. "I think what they do is really important," says Merton Center Executive Director Tim Vining. "They're on the edge, they're slightly different," he adds. "We consider them part of the family."


Keller's legal first name is Luke; he is also known as "Grandma." He says he was homeless before coming to Pittsburgh and settling six months ago in the empty, filthy, dilapidated house at Beelen's end. According to Keller, he gained the permission of a neighbor whom he says watches the house for the absentee owner, moved in and cleaned up, patching plaster, painting walls and installing furniture. The interior is tidy, if chilly -- Keller didn't feel safe turning on the gas, and instead uses a homemade wood-burning stove in the basement. "I love this house," says Keller. "When I saw this house, it's my dream house."


Police have not been so comfortable about certain manifestations of the Beelen lifestyle. On March 19, says Zone 2 Cmdr. William Bochter, a patrolling officer reported seeing people pour kerosene into a thermos and smelling kerosene through the open doors and windows of Keller's house, sparking concern of a fire hazard. In part, a large number of cars responded in case the area had to be evacuated, Bochter says. And the warrantless search, he says, was legal because of possible imminent danger to the community.


Keller says he and friends were just checking a kerosene tank intended to heat a tent at the next day's protest. And the only thing being poured into the thermoses was water, to clean them for protester use. Skeptics might question the need for any evacuation: A single neighbor across Beelen is the only house for hundreds of yards in any direction.


Likewise, Keller says, innocent intentions were misconstrued after he butchered a roadkill deer for food and, on impulse, nailed its legs to the basement door facing Beelen (right beneath the banner that reads "Health and Housing are Human Rights"). Bochter says a patrolling officer on Feb. 22 saw those legs along with an animal pelt on the street and a cooler filled with blood and an animal head. He says the unusual nature of the call justified the four or five cars that responded.


Bochter says occupants gave officers permission to search the premises, and that police searched the rear building after finding it open; Keller says the police barged in and broke a lock on the rear structure.


While he can't address individual encounters, Bochter says that regular patrols of Beelen should be part of a normal shift, and that officers should have "some interaction" with residents. "We certainly support their right to live the way they want to live," he says.


Keller doubts it. He says he's complained to the local ACLU regarding the Feb. 22 incident, and is considering lodging complaints about March 19 and other incidents as "activist profiling." He's also a little more nervous. After welcoming a recent visitor inside, Keller steps past him. "I hate locking the door," he says, "but we gotta do it now."

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