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click to enlarge footage from G-20 confrontations with police, as seen in Keith deVries' documentary 'democracy 101'
  • footage from G-20 confrontations with police, as seen in Keith deVries' documentary 'democracy 101'

A little less than a year ago, Keith DeVries was nearly arrested twice in two weeks. Last Sept. 25, the University of Pittsburgh student was among 100 people caught up in a police dragnet in front of the Cathedral of Learning. On Oct. 6, he and other Pitt students were ousted after disrupting the gubernatorial campaign kickoff of Dan Onorato, whom they blamed for heavy-handed police tactics during the G-20.

Today, DeVries is a graduate doing election-season work for Democrats ... including Dan Onorato. Who, DeVries says, is still a better candidate than Republican Tom Corbett. "I do OK" at making the case for Onorato, he says.

But the aspiring filmmaker hasn't forgotten the G-20, and it's almost impossible to watch his 25-minute documentary, "Democracy 101," without wincing at the memories it dredges up. There are the Pitt students trapped inside a pedestrian bridge, as police march in phalanxes below ... there is the officer in riot gear deploying pepper spray (as students protest "Yo! Dude!" ) ... and there is the fading footage of DeVries on the Cathedral lawn.

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The film has been shown in college classrooms, DeVries says, where it's been seen by students who weren't involved in G-20 events. "They were outraged -- but not to the point of taking action."

That may sum up the mood on campus today, a year after G-20.

The G-20 events did spur some students to become more politically active. Pitt junior Eva Resnick-Day escaped arrest, though she had to walk to Shadyside to avoid police, and says she dodged clouds of pepper spray along the way. She recalls the G-20 as "a huge, awful event that changed my view of how the system was run." While she'd been active in environmental issues before, she says, she began working on other causes as well.

She and others credit G-20 with building a network of student activists whose impact was felt last spring, when unionized employees of Pitt's dining halls went on strike. "It was a lot of familiar faces" from G-20 events, she says.

"People were out blocking Forbes Avenue and Bouquet Street" for the cafeteria workers, DeVries recalls. "I'd never seen anything like that in my five years at school."

"I certainly did see a pick-up in student activism after the G-20," agrees Pete Shell, a veteran activist with the Thomas Merton Center. He cites the creation of "What Happened at Pitt," the student group who staged the Onorato protest, and notes that a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society -- an activist group with roots in the 1960s -- started at Pitt last fall.

Lefties weren't the only students the G-20 provoked. For Giles Howard, the event confirmed an emerging libertarian viewpoint. "I was fairly pro-police in the run-up to the G-20, but that certainly changed. There needs to be accountability for what happened." To Howard, police behavior "brought government into students' lives" -- and not in a good way. But Howard, who founded a collegiate libertarian think-tank called the Publius Foundation, has also been critical of groups like the SDS, and activists who, he says "try to hijack a message when they aren't representative."

Many students showed a willingness to put the event behind them early on. "It's always hard to talk about students in terms of activism," says Sudipta Devanath, a member of Pitt's Student Governing Body at the time. She notes that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl proposed a controversial "tuition tax" on students just two months after the G-20:  "A lot of energy shifted there," she says. Devanath and others have, in fact, recently launched a "Student Civic Engagement Campaign" to get students more involved in local politics.

But that engagement may extend only to events that disrupt campus life. Even during the cafeteria campaign, Resnick-Day says, "If you tried to hand students literature, they'd say, 'Tell them to stop striking.'

"The G-20 was forgotten pretty quickly," she adds. "I have friends who are just like, 'Stop talking about this. It's over.'"


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