Demonstrating Peace | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Demonstrating Peace

Counter-recruitment activists follow fracas with large, arrest-free picket, as police keep their distance

One week after the Aug. 20 confrontation between protesters and police in front of Oakland's military recruiting office, the bi-weekly picket in the same Forbes Avenue spot drew more participants than ever.


"It's been a big shot in the arm to the anti-war and counter-recruitment movements nationally," said organizer Alex Bradley of Pittsburgh Organizing Group about public reaction to police use of tasers, pepper spray and a police dog against some participants in the Aug. 20 rally and march. "You have no idea of the amount of e-mails we've gotten from across the United States" asking about starting or expanding counter-recruitment groups. "They've been looking to what goes on here, because we've been doing it larger, longer and more direct than other places."


POG has been picketing the recuitment center for months, usually drawing only a dozen or so protesters. But on Aug. 20, a full-blown rally and march drew about 100 people and, for the first time, strong reactions by police.


On Aug. 27, picketers lined the edge of the sidewalk between Oakland and Atwood streets. The event drew everyone from Keystone Oaks High School freshman Jessie Papas of Dormont, who was concerned that recruiters had already entered her middle school, to protest veteran Anne Feeney, who said she is "absolutely ashamed to see that sort of police violence" on Aug. 20.


"I see it all the time everywhere else," Feeney says. "It was shocking to see life-long friends being treated like that." But she is confident these protests are worthwhile: "I would bet that there are a lot of people who live in Oakland who don't know that place is up there," she said, indicating the recruitment center behind her. "They've kept such a low profile. Now everyone knows where this place is."


The recruitment center, which was open for its regularly scheduled Saturday hours when the picketing started at 11:15, was locked shortly after noon.


Among the protesters stood City Councilor Doug Shields and his family, flashing the peace sign, while Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. observed from across the street. McNeilly was joined for a time by Kathy Kraus, manager of the Office of Municipal Investigations, the internal police investigative unit.


On Aug. 20, four protesters were arrested on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to riot. Two others were cited and released.


"We want the charges to be dropped -- that's our number-one goal," said POG organizer Nathan Shaffer. However, he added, police reaction was "an indication that we're being effective. If we didn't have a message that was troubling to the government, then we wouldn't have seen the response that we did on Saturday."


POG is "not encouraging or discouraging people to file complaints" with either OMI or the independent Citizen Police Review Board, said Bradley, since they are not confident of either office's effectiveness.


But Beth Pittinger, head of the Citizen Police Review Board, said her office has already heard from 10 people concerning police use of force on Aug. 20, and at least five had complaints "in process" for "use of excessive force and conduct unbecoming" a police officer. She would not say whether any of those detained by police were among the complainants.


The board is also reviewing videos and photos from a variety of sources, as well as examining the original accusation that started the Aug. 20 arrests: A Fox News cameraman told police he had been struck while filming POG members taping a sign across the front of the recruitment center. "They were in a compressed situation," Pittinger noted. "A lot of people were getting butted around. We're looking at that too. How much of that was incidental?"


While the board will consider individual complaints over the next two to three months, "our main concern is the policy or lack thereof for nonviolent crowd control," Pittinger said. "The officers on the scene did not seem to be following a structured guideline for managing what was a nonviolent demonstration. [The police were] totally out of character from what we've seen. You're relying on a lot of discretionary judgment at the ground level. That's not fair to the cops, that's not fair to the demonstrators, and that's not fair to the innocent bystanders."


The board, she said, is "looking to establish some sort of partnership so all the parties involved could know what the rules are."


Without clearer police procedures, she added, "that presents a very serious economic liability," opening the city to lawsuits over a police incident.


"It would be premature to say anything" official about Aug. 20 police actions before their internal review, said Police Chief McNeilly. While police do have policies on the use of tasers and the other weapons employed the previous weekend, he added, "It's impossible to think of every possible occurrence and make a policy on it.


"Pretty much things are being handled today the same way" as they were on Aug. 20, McNeilly said, although on Aug. 27 police on motorcycles, bicycles and foot stayed on the other side of the street, on nearby corners or behind University of Pittsburgh buildings. On Aug. 20, nearly a dozen police vehicles, some with sirens blaring, filled half of Forbes Avenue in front of protesters.


McNeilly blamed last week's confrontations on "people who will come and take advantage of" otherwise civil demonstrations "just ... to fill their own agenda."


City Councilor Doug Shields (D-Squirrel Hill) called the Aug. 20 police actions "an anomaly. I don't think the city was prepared, as it is today. I'm very pleased the way the police are handling this crowd response today."


Shields says he is reviewing other cities' policies toward the use of tasers, pepper spray and dogs, as well as other techniques, such as motorcycle or horse "push lines," used for civil disturbance or riot -- neither of which described the rally of Aug. 20, he said.


"I don't think [tasers] should have been" used, he added. But, he reports he told POG leaders, "If you're going to organize demonstrations, you have to bear some of the responsibility for what happens. You want to make sure you're not putting [participants] in harm's way." Along with Pittinger, he hopes to see a POG liaison with both city officials and police.


As Shields talked, his wife, Bridget, 21-year-old son, Elliot, and 19-year-old daughter, Liza, stood in the picket line. Passing motorists responded often to Bridget's "Honk for Peace" sign. Liza had written "Do I look threatening?" on her white T-shirt in response to the events of Aug. 20, but picketers this time never seemed in danger from police.


The demonstration also attracted little vocal opposition from passersby. About the most provocative thing demonstrators tried was handing out donuts. "Bob" from "Bakers Against Brutality" paraded with a tray of pastries strung from his neck, offering them to police officers.


"We in the baking community have had the solution for decades," he opined. "Donuts, not dogs. Tasty treats, not tasers."


Mostly, the protesters' message was more straightforward. Bob Damewood's sign said simply "Matthew 25:40" ("Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me"). "The war was sold to the American public as a bunch of lies," said Damewood, a nonprofit community development lawyer from Mount Lebanon. "It's important that we hold our government accountable."


His wife, Siew, who works for Mercy Behavioral Health, stood with a "Healthcare NOT Warfare" sign. "There's been a lot of cutbacks in the funding" for health care locally, she says. "A million dollars out here, a million dollars out there, because all the money is sent over to Iraq."


David Meieran, another POG organizer, sees the growing demonstrations as "part of a burgeoning resurgence of the anti-war movement ... all building toward a huge national mobilization" -- a march on Washington, D.C. on Sat., Sept. 24, coupled with activist trainings and what is advertised as "civil disobedience, direct action [and] lobbying" over the next two days, sponsored by United For Peace and Justice. POG is helping to organize three 55-seat buses leaving from the University of Pittsburgh for the Sept. 24 rally.


On Sept. 11-12, Meieran reports, the "Bring Them Home Now" tour of anti-war activists will be stopping in Pittsburgh on its way from Crawford, Texas, to the Washington march. The bus will originate from Camp Casey, where Cindy Sheehan has been staking out President George W. Bush's vacation home for several weeks, requesting that he discuss her son's death in the Iraq War. Sheehan's group, Gold Star Families for Peace, and other anti-war organizations are sponsoring the tour.


Meanwhile, says POG's Bradley, this fall the group will once again leaflet students at city and suburban schools and will begin targeting the use of Junior ROTC programs, which employ fake guns and marching drills. The JROTC program serves as the military's most effective gateway to enlistment, Bradley says.


And the group will seek a city school-board resolution that places new restrictions on military recruiters' access to schools, despite strictures in the federal No Child Left Behind education act that gives military recruiters entrée to schools equal to college recruiters. Bradley hopes the resolution resembles an ordinance set for vote in September by the Seattle school district, which would restrict recruiters to certain parts of schools, require them to wear their uniforms, disallow private meetings at schools between students and recruiters and allow groups promoting alternatives to the military to enter schools, according to the Seattle Times. Recruiters who don't follow the new rules could be temporarily banned from Seattle schools.


"This is going to continue," Bradley said as the Aug. 27 demonstration broke up without incident. "This place will be shut down again. I guarantee that."

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