Hearings Delayed | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Hearings Delayed 

click to enlarge Chris Nelms, wearing a New York jersey and sombrero, says he will fight his aggravated assault charge. - CHARLIE DEITCH
  • Charlie Deitch
  • Chris Nelms, wearing a New York jersey and sombrero, says he will fight his aggravated assault charge.

Groups who protested the G-20 last month are matching authorities' cries of "unlawful assembly" with accusations of "unlawful arrest."

Most hearings for G-20 arrestees have been postponed until late October, but activist groups who protested the summit Sept. 24 and 25 have begun an organizing effort to seek accountability for police actions city and county officials, as well as those in charge of this event at the federal level.

They are joined by Pitt students, who made up the bulk of those detained after the summit had concluded. 

The groups held a peaceful rally on the Pitt campus Oct. 1. (For audio of their testimony on the CP Web site, see http://tinyurl.com/ycu862l.) At press time, they had also set a first community meeting for Oct. 6, and a protest the same night to be held at Dan Onorato's gubernatorial candidacy announcement on the South Side. The groups blame Onorato and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for the huge police presence and mostly empty Downtown that marked the summit here. They also fault local officials for delaying and denying protest permits, and for harassing activist groups, including the Seeds of Peace free kitchen that fed protesters.

Local activists are also preparing the ground for a possible civil-rights lawsuit, perhaps in federal court, likely for such allegations as false arrest and excessive force. Those efforts, however, will depend on having a critical mass of arrestees who are not found guilty and who don't plead to reduced charges. Even when taking a plea bargain, "Essentially you're admitting you're guilty," says Pittsburgh American Civil Liberties Union attorney Sara Rose -- and that admission would effectively preclude a federal civil-rights trial from finding that an arrest had been wrongful.

(Rose represented City Paper earlier this year during an effort to open up records in the divorce proceeding of Richard Mellon Scaife.) 

Several of the 191 arrestees have already pled guilty to reduced charges in exchange for a fine, or agreed to community service so that charges were dropped. In some cases, those offering pleas were out-of-town activists who did not wish to return for court dates. 

The University of Pittsburgh is also currently reviewing some of the 51 Pitt students among the arrestees in order to recommend to the city whether charges should be dropped. Pitt spokesman John Fedele was not able to offer a current tally of students who requested such a review, nor the number Pitt would recommend for leniency.

But most arrestees' hearings were postponed to Oct. 21, Oct. 23 or Oct. 28. And many remain defiant.

"I didn't think we were going to defeat global capitalism," said Christopher Nelms of Bloomfield, about his own arrest during the unpermitted march Sept. 24. "But I thought it was important to register my disapproval with shutting down the city for half a dozen people from out of town to eat caviar and drink wine."

David Japenga
  • David Japenga

Nelms says he hadn't organized with the Pittsburgh G-20 Resistance Project, which set the Sept. 24 march in motion. Nelms -- who stood out from the crowd a bit in a New York sports jersey and sombrero -- says he walked up to the assembled police at Smallman and 24th streets and asked, "What would you do if I tried to walk past the line?" 

The answer he got was "Put your hands up," plus charges of aggravated assault, failure to disperse and obstructing a highway. He was seen calmly listening to police after his arrest.

"The whole giant police presence doesn't defuse the situation; it escalates it," he contends.

Those set to return for their hearings also include Cornell student Malcolm Sanborn-Hum, who was arrested on Enfield Street off Baum Boulevard while objecting to the sudden disappearance of another protester, who was shoved into an unmarked brown sedan by a pair of men in camo fatigues and driven away.

It was briefly thought by Internet pundits to be a hoax, after film of the event circulated widely. But it happened right next to marked police vehicles and uniformed officers, who did not intervene. The car's exit was also guarded by a uniformed officer, and Pittsburgh police have since acknowledged that the maneuver was performed by a Tactical Response Team.

"I've been to a lot of protests and I've never seen anything like that," said Sanborn-Hum. "I think that pushed a lot of us over the edge."

The man shoved into the car was identified by fellow detainees and defense attorneys as Kyle Gilgen, a North Carolina resident who appeared in court from jail. He was accused of breaking the window of a BMW/Mini dealership on Baum and was held for trial. 

Also facing trial will be David Japenga, the California man accused of breaking multiple windows in Oakland on Sept. 24.

Perhaps the most prominent current arrestees, however, may never have set foot Downtown or in Oakland. Two New York men were reportedly arrested in a Kennedy Township hotel room on Sept. 24 and accused of hindering prosecution. The two had allegedly used Twitter and other electronic communications to alert Resistance Project protesters of police whereabouts.

The pair were reportedly part of Tin Can Comms Collective, which the Resistance announced on Sept. 19 were set "to help with the communication infrastructure for the Anti-G-20 protests." 

Queried about the arrests, Resistance member Alex Bradley responded that the group will not have "any official comment" during this legal matter. He did point out, however, that President Obama asked Twitter to continue aiding Iranian protesters this fall.

"One minute they're like, wow, Iranian people are awesome in using Twitter to facilitate 'illegally' gathering and informing each other about state movements," Bradley wrote, in an e-mail. But "Pittsburgh people are dangerous, violent criminals for trying to do the same."



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