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October 7, 2009

Protests at the G20

Scott Stockdale

Protesters(Pittsburgh, September 26, 2009) After a peaceful protest march through downtown Pittsburgh, Friday afternoon, mayhem erupted Friday night, in the Oakland District of Pittsburgh.

Around 10:30 p.m. Friday, when a noisy crowd of about 400 on the University of Pittsburgh campus, spilled out onto Forbes Avenue, police said the protesters were blocking traffic, so they gave the order to disperse.

As they'd done the night before, police used a loudspeaker and a shrill-sounding, Long-Range Acoustic Device, rubber bullets and OC spray, in their efforts to disperse the crowd.

While many people complied, a number of people said they were hemmed in by another group of police officers coming west on Forbes Ave.

Nathan Lanzendorfer, 23, of Mt. Lebanon, has a bruise the size of a softball, on his back: the result of one of four rubber bullets police hit him with. And he still doesn't know why?

“It was all students and no protesters. It looked like any other Friday night in Oakland, but with more people,” Mr. Lanzendorfer said.

The mistake he made was going to Oakland, out of curiosity, to see the protests. He said it was shortly before midnight, when he was caught on Forbes Ave., with police firing OC gas from two directions.

After he got hit with rubber bullets on his right leg and left arm, he began to run, and was then hit with two more rubber bullets, one on his right arm and one on his lower back.

“I never heard any warning to leave the area – all four (rubber bullet) shots were within five seconds,” he said, “All the wounds are on my back. If I was opposing (the police) at all you'd think I'd have a front wound.”

When a woman rode her bicycle toward Pittsburgh Deputy Police Chief Paul Donaldson and turned away at the last second, and was in the process of doing it again, he gave the order to make arrests.

A group of about 100 people, who had made their way to the Cathedral of Learning lawn, at the University of Pittsburgh, were encircled by police.

Sadie Gurman, 24, a reporter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and at least two news photographers, were among those arrested.

Ms. Gurman said she had to jump over bushes on the Cathedral lawn to get out of the way of police. “I thought I was okay there, but the cops jumped over the bushes too,” she said.

She said police ordered the people on the lawn to lie down on the ground. “Some of the girls were hugging each other and crying, saying to police, 'Tell us how to get out of here peacefully. We don't want to be here but you've trapped us.'”

She estimated about 30 people were put in police vehicles. She was released about 10 hours after her arrest.

Tracy Hickey, an 18-year-old freshman, said she'd been observing the protest as on off-duty ACLU legal observer. When she realized that many of the people being ordered to disperse had nowhere to go, Ms. Hickey said she opened the door of her dormitory and ushered a crowd of screaming students in; and then police arrested her.

Friday night, students received telephone calls and text messages from the University of Pittsburgh, telling them to stay away from the plaza, out of fear of a repeat of Thursday night's confrontation, where police used rubber bullets, OC spray and a Long-Range Acoustic device on protesters and students alike; and actually, anyone who found himself or herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Another protester, Peter Shell, co-chair of the Thomas Merton Center's anti-war committee, said that when he tried to leave the Cathedral lawn, he was surrounded and arrested.

“We tried going left; we tried going right; we tried going forward,” Mr. Shell said. “We wanted to disperse but they didn't let us disperse.”

Molly Shea, a 22-year-old senior, at Ohio State, said she was studying at Kiva Coffee Shop until about 10:45 p.m.; then she went to the Cathedral Lawn looking for friends, and she soon realized she was surrounded by police.

She was arrested and put on a police wagon and then a bus, for about 5 hours, without water or a washroom break, although she said many of the girls were asking for both.

She said one of the police officers was “taking a lot of pride” in taking mug shots next to female detainees and some officers frequently used profanities specifically derogatory to women.

“They were making jokes about 'getting the hot ones out' when they were moving us around from paddy wagon to paddy wagon.”

She was released Saturday morning, after spending 10 hours in custody, she said. 

In his 1968, Pulitzer Prize winning book The Armies of the Night, about the 1967 march on the Pentagon, in Washington D.C., during the Vietnam War, Norman Mailer said this march marked a turning point in American history because it was the first time police started beating up women demonstrators.

Indeed, historians may well use police response to the Pittsburgh G20 Summit protests, as a yardstick to measure some of the progress American society has made since the 1960's.

After serving as a medic in Iraq in 2005, Army Sgt. Jeff Bartos, 24, came to Pittsburgh from New Britain, Connecticut, to provide medical assistance; and that's what he was doing when he got arrested, Friday night.

A member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Mr. Bartos said he was helping treat a reporter who'd been exposed to O C gas, near Schendley Plaza in Oakland, when he realized he was surrounded by police.

He said he was corralled with about 40 protesters, some “random college kids”, including one girl who was jogging through the park, and was trapped and arrested.

Mr. Bartos was charged with disorderly conduct and released about 6 p.m. Saturday.

Jordan Romanus, 22, who lives in South Oakland, about a 15-minute walk from the campus, was also arrested on the Cathedral lawn, Friday night, and released around 12:30 p.m. Saturday. He said police kept the detainees handcuffed all night.

“My wrists are really sore. I didn't get any sleep. They made us sit in chairs. They (the handcuffs) were on really tight. One kid's hand was bleeding by the end.”

At the Friday afternoon protest march, I noticed that police officers were equipped with what looked like plastic handcuffs – long, thin pieces of plastic, that had loopholes to fasten them securely.

On Saturday, Police said getting through two intense days of dealing with protesters without permits, broken windows at businesses, some peaceful marches and the possibility of terrorist acts, with only 83 arrests, no serious injuries and no security breaches, is an impressive accomplishment.

At a news conference Saturday, Pittsburgh Police Chief Nathan Harper said the people arrested in Oakland Friday night had plenty of time to leave the area before police moved on the crowd. Chief Harper said there will be a standard review of the operation and the tactics used.

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto. 

Photo by Joanna Gray, a freelance photo journalist based in Toronto.

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