More Postcards From the Edge | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

More Postcards From the Edge

Not much is a secret to the Secret Service, but Pittsburgh's street grid apparently confused even them. As Bill O'Driscoll rode a media-only bus to the convention center, he overheard a Secret Service agent and the driver trying to suss out the convoluted route through Downtown streets. 

"You know this town better than I do," said the agent. 

"This is Grant Street," the driver said a minute later. "Maybe that was William Penn Place there, I don't know." 

In fairness, anarchists experienced similar problems: During the unpermitted Sept. 24 march, CP reporters witnessed a handful of occasions where local activists had to offer directions to out-of-town marchers. On 39th Street, in fact, a sizable number of marchers turned the wrong way onto Liberty, and began heading away from Downtown. "You're going the wrong way!" shouted another contingent, and the march turned back.

Only in Pittsburgh -- and only during the G-20: A pedicab, being peddled by a white Pittsburgher, totes an Asian passenger toward the media center housed in the Mellon Arena. As the street rises uphill toward the arena, the pedicab driver struggles with the weight of the sizable amount of luggage stowed behind him. Eventually, the passenger jumps out -- and begins pushing the cab from behind.

Not surprisingly, when the world's leaders came to Pittsburgh, they encountered a mix of global protest and homer sentiment. Footage of a "Let's Go Pens" banner at a protest, accompanied by a "protester" wielding a faux Stanley Cup, has been making the rounds on the Internet. But that's just one example of how in Pittsburgh, even the demonstrators don't want to miss the game. City Councilor Bill Peduto reported hearing a "Here We Go Steelers" chant during a Sept. 24 march. In the permitted march the following day, CP spotted at least two marchers twirling Terrible Towels. And even a Sept. 26 march in Oakland -- held by 60 people upset at earlier confrontations with police -- was billed as a "Go Pitt! Fuck the police!" rally. The somewhat incongruous chant "We love Pittsburgh! Fuck the police!" echoed along Fifth Avenue.

As far as we can tell, no Pirates boosters took part in the G-20 activities. Perhaps there was some consensus in the streets after all.

There were plenty of confrontations between protesters and police during the G-20, but this being Pittsburgh, there were some "say 'hi!' to your mom for me" encounters, too. 

History professor (and longtime progressive) Charlie McCollester stood near a line of police awaiting protesters shortly before police began breaking up an unpermitted march with tear gas and other riot-control gear in Lawrenceville. One officer recognized a protester walking past, carrying an armload of sandwiches for his comrades. The officer observed to his colleagues that the demonstrator was "a nice kid." And when the protester accidentally dropped the sandwiches, McCollester says, the officer helped pick them up.

Albert Petrarca's image may never be as familiar as that of the Chinese dissident staring down a tank in Tiananmen Square. On the other hand, that dissident probably isn't being treated to free lunch these days.

A veteran demonstrator, Petrarca was photographed sitting in the street in front of a SWAT vehicle, his arms upraised in a victory salute. He was arrested, but was back out for protests on Sept. 25 and 26. At the latter, an employee of the Bloomfield Sandwich Shop approached Petrarca and told him that the shop -- a favorite of counterculture set -- was very impressed by Petrarca's commitment. So impressed, in fact, that Petrarca could eat there for free whenever he liked.  

Petrarca said that while the free-food-for-life offer was too generous, "I might take you up on a sandwich and a drink." 

If nothing else, the G-20 created a unique opportunity for, say, Italian newspaper reporters to witness Falun Gong demonstrators protesting in the shadow of Mellon Arena. But one of our favorite moments inside the convention center itself occurred in the summit's media room, a cavernous space with a row of mini-soundstages and dozens of long black tables with Web hookups and little white-shaded lamps. That was Thursday, when one of the room's big screens carrying silent video projections of cable-news channels aired an ad by the Coalition for the Future of the American Worker. Thus were the assembled journos of the world ... treated to the viewpoint of an organization whose mission is to warn: "15 Million Americans Are Out Of Work. So Why Is Our Government Still Bringing In 1.5 Million Foreign Workers A Year?"

For some, the Sept. 24 unpermitted march in Lawrenceville was an assault on law and order. For others, it was a chance to voice full-throated opposition to global elites. For City Councilor Patrick Dowd, it was a chance to teach his three eldest children a civics lesson. 

Dowd, a former high school history teacher, wanted Mackenzie (12), Will (10), and Quinn (7) to see a real protest. "I was curious too," he admits. So they headed to Arsenal Park and followed the march at a distance. 

Dowd has high praise for police, especially Commander George Trosky, who Dowd says "showed amazing restraint." (Such praise is notable: During a primary battle last spring, Dowd faulted Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for promoting Trosky and other officers with allegations of domestic violence in their past.) Dowd gives some credit to protesters too: A couple of them offered to give masks to Dowd's children once police deployed tear gas.

What did his kids make of the day's adventures? "They're already part of family lore," says Dowd.

So much plywood got used to board up buildings that Construction Junction has issued an appeal for donations. ("Plywood is a much-coveted item ... and we hardly ever get it," the nonprofit building-materials recycler says in a blast e-mail.) We did see at least one local company trying to cash in on G-20 -- a South Side company distributing fliers offering a discount on glass replacement -- but many others just tried to hide. A Smithfield Street fur store erased its logo from its own windows, for example. And on Sixth Avenue, the venerable law firm of Reed Smith removed the nameplates from its front door, leaving outlines traced on the stone. Why? Let's put it this way: The last time an out-of-town anarchist attracted attention by visiting Pittsburgh, it was Alexander Berkman -- and he came here to shoot one of Reed Smith's clients: Henry C. Frick. 

Whatever else the protests were fought over, they were battles of perception. After the Lawrenceville march had broken up, and anarchists scattered as far away as the campus of Carnegie Mellon University, one activist turned to our Bill O'Driscoll and said, "Don't portray us too bad."

"We don't believe in mindless destruction," another added. 

"It's mindful destruction," agreed the first.

Can it be that, in all the window-smashing that took place in Oakland, one building that didn't get vandalized was CMU's Software Engineering Institute?

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