Disorder in the Court | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Disorder in the Court

After more than 30 hearings for those arrested during last month's G-20 summit, one thing came through loud and clear: The new tool police hoped would make crowd dispersal easier -- a mobile PA system capable of broadcasting at painfully loud volumes -- actually made things more confusing.

The hearings also demonstrated that local officials will continue to paint protest as a criminal offense. 

Most of the city court hearings which took place on Oct. 21 and 23 concerned mass arrests made on the Cathedral of Learning lawn in Oakland on Sept. 25 -- hours after the international summit had ended. Among those arrested were numerous students at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

In 20 hours of testimony before four district justices, repeated stories of confusion and entrapment in Oakland caused judges to acquit more defendants and withdraw more charges. Two CMU students arrested at the Cathedral actually had their charges dismissed because, in their desperation to leave, they dialed 911 as police closed in -- calling the cops on the cops. 

In most cases, charges of failure to disperse and disorderly conduct were reduced to a summary charge, as multiple police officers were unable to say they had seen their arrestees do anything other than stand still awaiting police orders. Nor, thanks to the mass-arrest technique, could most officers even identify those they arrested. 


Pittsburgh Police Lt. Clarence E. Trapp, an assistant operations commander that night, testified that police were trying to prevent a repeat of the previous evening, when vandals struck Oakland's business district. "The plan was to, if need be, disperse, not to arrest," Trapp testified. 

Originally, he added, the plan was for police to move in at 11 p.m., when the park closes. But police decided to disperse the crowd of 300 before that, when Trapp began receiving reports of plastic bottles and other unnamed objects being thrown.

The plaza was already surrounded on three sides by police in riot gear by about 10:30, and Trapp brought in more. Police also received "intel" he said, about "people in the woodline" near the plaza who "had planned to attack the rear of police lines," although nothing else came of that.

To disperse the demonstration, police used a new crowd-control tool: the Long Range Acoustical Device (LRAD), a truck-mounted PA system capable of broadcasting loud messages or piercing signals. 

Police moved a LRAD to Forbes at Schenley Drive and broadcast their first dispersal order at 10:42 p.m. "You must leave the immediate vicinity," the message ordered. A second LRAD was stationed on the opposite side of the square, at Schenley and Roberto Clemente drives. 

Police are unclear when the messages stopped. But LRAD-trained police testified that its warning could be heard at least a quarter-mile away, and were used to clear multiple streets that night. SWAT detective William Friburger, who was on the streets that night, said the LRAD "was very clear from a mile away."

Defense attorneys said most of those arrested had no idea how to obey a dispersal order that never stopped and could be heard throughout much of the area.

"A quarter-mile away is a lot of Oakland," defense lawyer Chuck Pascal said. "How is a person supposed to discern that they were supposed to disperse [from new places] if all they were doing was hearing the same announcement over and over again?"

In any case, Trapp testified that at 10:59 p.m., police began forcing the crowds onto Forbes. There, the crowd lingered, although Forbes was not blocked toward Squirrel Hill, he maintained. Arrests were ordered by Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson at 11:07 p.m.

Trapp twice told the court that the Cathedral lawn was a legitimate route for people's dispersal -- as long as they didn't stop. He was unsure when police began their encirclement of those on the lawn. It ended at 12:07 a.m.

Defendants testified that they often found themselves trapped by a moving phalanx of police. And when they asked for instructions on where to go, they testified, they were often given conflicting orders or none at all. Friburger admitted later that police gave "probably a hundred different answers" when asked where to go.

District Judge Kevin Cooper, meanwhile, repeatedly made protesting itself part of the equation. He quizzed defendants about whether they had attended any G-20 demonstrations, or had worn masks to the Sept. 25 gathering. Defendants who answered yes received larger fines.

"Yes or no, were you involved in the G-20 protests?" Assistant District Attorney Paul Barkus quizzed one defendant who had participated in a legally permitted march hours before the Oakland arrests.

"You had your computer so you could communicate with other people in the march?" he asked another defendant out of the blue -- a defendant who had never testified about any protest participation.

Minnesota independent filmmaker Melissa Hill was critical of Cooper, from whom she received a high fine for her Oakland arrest: "He ... appeared irritated that I had mentioned I was tear-gassed the day before -- in Lawrenceville at the unpermitted march -- as if being tear-gassed meant you were guilty of something," she said afterward. 

According to the district attorney's office, there were 175 cases set for court those two days. Of those, 87 people agreed to perform community service to have their charges dismissed, and 16 had their charges withdrawn. Nine people pled guilty and 20 were found guilty of summary charges. There were also 20 postponements, 15 cases headed for trial, and 8 defendants who simply didn't show up.

A handful of hearings concerned more serious allegations. All but one defendant with felony assault charges learned they will be facing future trials; among them, Lauren Wasson, now famous as the "bike girl" WPXI-TV filmed throwing her bicycle after police pushed her from behind during a Sept. 24 confrontation, and Kalan Sherrard, whose cow-costumed drumming was featured on The Daily Show. The lone exception was Christopher Nelms, who has long denied any assault, and to whom the DA offered community service in exchange for dropped charges.


Several people who received larger fines are already planning appeals. They include Jason Munley, who says he was shot in the back 10 times by police with pepper balls on Fifth Avenue, after he rode his scooter parallel to police lines and stopped on their orders. Police maintain he was riding at their line.

"The decisions were completely arbitrary," said Anna Rasshivkina, arrested on the Cathedral lawn and fined $200 by Judge Cooper, which she will appeal. 

Ironically, the only protest organizer with a hearing, Pete Shell of the Thomas Merton Center, actually had his Cathedral lawn arrest case dismissed.

Looking at the many cases already dropped from the courts, Shell says, "I believe that there are good bases for civil suits. ... [T]he police failed to provide any specific evidence or perpetrators to back up their claim of bottles being thrown in Schenley Plaza or in the Cathedral Lawn.

"Without any evidence of disorderly conduct," Shell concluded, "the declaration of the gathering in Schenley Plaza as being unlawful was false and the dispersal order was wrong."

Comments (0)
Comments are closed.