High Anxiety | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

High Anxiety 

click to enlarge CHRIS POTTER
  • Chris Potter

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. But in the run-up to the G-20, it's the police who seem to be acting up, with the protesters complaining about their behavior.

As this issue goes to press, the G-20 economic summit is still two days away. But already there have been flashpoints between city police and protesters:

-- On Sun. Sept. 20, police spent hours scouring a Hill District grassroots farming effort. The police called the investigation "a precautionary measure" for the summit. It resulted in the removal of 100 tires from a lot -- owned by the city -- next door. Neighbors say the tires have been there for more than a year. 

-- Officers have harried a Montana-based group, the Seeds of Peace Collective, who wanted to feed protesters from a mobile kitchen. That activity has already prompted an ACLU lawsuit.

-- Police also improperly redirected a Sept. 20 march legally permitted to travel to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, where the G-20 meetings will be held.  

"Shit's already happening," said Alecia Ott, a member of the G-20 Resistance Project at a meeting in the group's Greenfield headquarters. 

"Be safe," urged Ott, who is on the Project's legal working group. Though her team pledged to track arrestees this week and connect them with lawyers, "we are not committed to a bail fund, free lawyers or collecting your legal forms" to help family and friends locate arrestees. 

The meeting, attended by local anarchists and roughly 40 visiting anti-authoritarians, was closed to other media. Still, about the most incendiary statement made was a quintessentially Pittsburgh insult on one participant's T-shirt: "The G-20 Is Full of Jagoffs." 

Based on events so far, that perspective may not change anytime soon. 

click to enlarge CHRIS POTTER
  • Chris Potter

Seeds of Peace had been in town a week when police attention cranked up on Sat., Sept. 19, at about 1:30 in the afternoon. One of their vehicles, a brightly painted former school bus used for kitchen equipment and food transport, was impounded from its spot on Melwood Street when the bus's owner, Michael Bowersox, was not immediately on hand. Bowersox returned to find the bus missing.

"It wasn't until probably 5 p.m. [when] they acknowledged that they had it," Bowersox said of his vehicle. The group later recovered the bus -- at a cost of $200 for towing fees. During a subsequent visit by City Paper, the bus was crowded with pots and barrels. It smelled like overripe vegetables -- thanks to the police-enforced delay in unloading groceries, said Seeds member Max Granger.

And that was just the beginning. 

Having been removed from a public street, Seeds of Peace found a landlord to house its bus on private property: a warehouse facility on Sassafras Street, in Lawrenceville. But Bob Johnson, who sublets the space, told City Paper that police visited the site repeatedly. Roughly 20 police "came wanting to search for weapons," he says. While they had no warrant, he said, officers insisted it was a "national-security issue." Johnson eventually gave police access to the site: A half-hour search turned up nothing. "It was all rather civil," Johnson says. 

But the police "continued to come back," says Seeds of Peace member Katy Kelly. And Johnson says city officials threatened to cite the owner $1,000 a day for code violations unless the vehicles were removed. 

"The intimidation and harassment was getting pretty intense," says Johnson.

The ACLU filed suit on behalf of Seeds and other groups the following Monday. "City of Pittsburgh police have engaged in a pattern of illegal searches, vehicle seizures, raids and detentions of Seeds of Peace members," the lawsuit charges. 

In fact, police continued harrying the group after the suit was filed. 

Once the group left the Sassafras Street location, it headed for another private lot, in Larimer. But as media and bystanders looked on, the police conducted an impromptu roadside safety inspection near Larimer Avenue. Afterward, Seeds of Peace was told that its driver lacked the correct license for driving a bus. 

"Seeds of Peace has 24 hours to locate a suitable driver," said a statement from the group. While a sister organization is still preparing to serve meals, "the Seeds of Peace bus is parked and out of commission for cooking food." 

City officials have largely declined comment on the controversy surrounding Seeds of Peace, citing the ACLU lawsuit (a hearing on which was taking place in federal court as this issue went to press). "We're confident in the work our police have done," said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl at a Sept. 22 press conference. "I'm not going to comment on cases throughout the week [but] I think they acted appropriately."

click to enlarge CHRIS POTTER
  • Chris Potter

Meanwhile, over in the Hill District, Landslide Community Farm also received a police visit. For about six hours on Sunday, between 40 and 50 officers prowled the grounds of the urban garden on Beelen Street. 

"Some police officers mentioned this may be connected to the G-20 protests," said Jesse Perry, a full-time volunteer at the site. Landslide is not organizing any G-20 protests nor housing protesters, he said: "We are busy with our own projects."

Perry said officers searched the farm's trash and porches. They also spent a lot of time on farm grounds and in the surrounding woods, which Landslide members had cleared of trash, including many tires, about two years previously. Tires present a special disposal problem: Landslide members had since recycled some into a retaining wall, and put a tarp over others, which have remained on city land ever since.

"Suddenly yesterday, it became a problem," Perry said. 

Eventually, a city Department of Public Works crew arrived and began removing tires from the site, located at the corner of Beelen and Mohawk. 

A police press release issued Sept. 21 said the tire removal was intended "to ensure the safety of peaceful protesters and public safety personnel" during the summit. In a follow-up statement, police Sgt. Lavonnie Bickerstaff added that protesters who are "prone to incite violence or civil disobedience use tires as projectiles and to start fires during demonstrations." 

click to enlarge CHRIS POTTER
  • Chris Potter

Meanwhile, at the actual demonstrations, all was peaceful -- though there was plenty of in-your-face police surveillance and a permit challenge or two. 

Tent cities intended to be ongoing G-20 demonstrations received extra police attention as they set up camp on the morning of Mon., Sept. 21.

Along the Schenley Park Oval, eight motorcycle officers passed slowly by a trio of tents -- which comprised the Three Rivers Climate Convergence at that early hour. The Convergence focuses on demonstrating non-market solutions to the world's environmental issues. (Among the projects taking place: a Rolling Sunlight solar-panel truck built by Greenpeace to "demonstrat[e] the mobility of renewable energy," explained Jillian Costigan, a Greenpeace representative. The truck will power camp activities.)

The motorcycles had been circling all morning, said organizer Naomi Archer. They soon parked, but next an unmarked police van took a turn near the camp.

In Point State Park, meanwhile, a Women's Tent City was also up and running, with a mostly female circle of activists talking over issues while sitting in lawn chairs. The site also held tents devoted to anti-war groups like CodePink and Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, as well as several from the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as the Green Party. 

Albert Petrarca, of Highland Park, was there to man one of the tents -- and to chastise a police officer for photographing discussion participants. Petrarca shook his head at the money allocated by the city and county for security: "Twenty million dollars spent on taking pictures of people talking about the issues of the world!" he said.

City police frequently shoot footage of protesters during demonstrations, and they did so again at dueling marches on Sept. 20 -- one of which had its permit challenged by police on the spot. 

Bailout the People, a New York-based socialist group, held a Sept. 20 rally and march for jobs in the Hill District, from Monumental Baptist Church to Freedom Corner. About 300 people danced and chanted to demand increased employment, an end to home foreclosures and health care for all. The rally drew contingents from as far away as Miami: Some are staying in 15 tents and holding workshops on church grounds throughout the week.

One march participant, Carmen Gray, of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign in Cleveland, compared the event to a course of antibiotics for society. "They say, 'Take it till it's done.' We're letting them know that there are some things that are getting better, but it's far from done," Gray said. "We're going to march until it's done, not until you feel better."

On the sidelines was Betty Kindle, of Penn Hills, who had come straight from church to see the demonstration. "I think it's great," Kindle said. "I know a lot of people who are working multiple jobs to support their families." With better jobs, she said, "Maybe they will have more time to spend with their families, which affects a lot of other things."

The day's other march, by the spiritual group G-6 Billion, was supposed to trek from a church on Smithfield Street, down the road beneath the convention center, and finish with a rally on Fort Duquesne Boulevard.

That's what the group's permit said, anyway -- a permit it had negotiated with the city, and sued to obtain in federal court.  

But "[w]e got to the passageway under the convention center, and there was a cordon of police," reports Petrarca, who was part of this march. Although the route had been approved, "They made us march around the convention center."

"Three and a half months" for the city to prepare for these events, Petrarca marveled. "It's a pattern of harassment."

Police apologized for the disruption, and as this issue went to press, there were tentative signs that problems were being worked out. The officer in charge at the G-6 Billion event, Sgt. Sean Duffy, was on hand for an early morning Sept. 22 environmental protest of PNC Bank. (Demonstrators faulted the bank for financing coal companies.) At the outset, nearly a dozen police stood by with batons in hand, nearly outnumbering the protesters. But Duffy welcomed the group, and told them, "We're staying over there" -- across the street. He also exchanged pleasantries with ACLU observers. But he added that he wasn't happy about criticisms of police following the G-6 Billion march.

"It was an honest mistake," Duffy said. 


Chris Potter and Chris Young contributed to this report. Check City Paper's Web site, www.pghcitypaper.com, for frequent updates on G-20 activities.


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