Police at the G20: How Are Locals Faring?

Posted by Brentin Mock

Yesterday, Pittsburgh native Liana Maneese was trying to get to a meeting in East Liberty for an organization called GET Larimer (short for Green Environmental Tourism). The organization is composed of thirtysomething, sustainable-economy-minded business owners, social innovators, engineers and real estate developers who are working together to transform Larimer-one of Pittsburgh's most blighted neighborhoods. Through revitalization efforts like urban gardening and solar-panel powering, GET is turning lifelong residents into entrepreneurs and shareholders of new neighborhood businesses. Their first event, which is being held today, was on the agenda for the meeting. Maneese was sidetracked.

On her way to the meeting, she was derailed by the hundreds of riot-geared police who inconvenienced not just protesters, but also locals trying to get around town. "Regular, everyday, normal people were kinda turned into protesters by the police just because we didn't know what was going on," says Maneese. "I felt like, if this is how they're treating us, how are the people who are actually fighting for human rights being treated?" 

Those people, some cloaked in black bandannas, many more unmasked, were met with tear gas, loud orders, rubber pellets, batons and handcuffs. In other instances, though, where police easily could have escalated tensions with protester, they opted not to. Still, the presence of the 6,000-plus armed law enforcement in town is taking its toll on locals.

It's been widely reported how many cops there are in town, and the feeling among locals is that they are outnumbered: "15 to 1," says Maneese-an overestimation, but an evocative one. And of course, while we hear about the protesters the most, it's these "regular" people just trying to get to and from work that outnumber the people smashing windows. (Those doing property destruction, meanwhile, are assumed to be out-of-towners, as window-damage has occurred at places like Pamela's, a local favorite for breakfast.)

The question that begs answering is whether this many police were needed to begin with. Where did the number come from? City councilman Bill Peduto tells me that this number was pitched by members of the mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration, who told City Council they expected more than 10,000 protesters for the G20. An additional 1,000 police officers from beyond Pittsburgh borders were deputized as a result, along with a total public safety budget of $18 million. Peduto insists, however, that for the most part, police are striking the right balance of ensuring safety and protecting people's civil liberties and people's rights to protest. There were scenarios where the police could have made matters worse, he says, but didn't, choosing instead to just observe and contain.

"What I like about the police presence is that they didn't shut it all down," Peduto tells GOOD. "There were were places where people had no permit for their protests, but police allowed it to happen anyway. Police could have given orders to disperse and it would have been within their right to do so, but if they did, there would have been a huge negative reaction."  

However, Peduto admits to there being "emotional factors" involved in seeing armies in riot gear and tanks. For some, it creates feelings of security, certainly, while others find it oppressive. Local activist Paradise Gray, member of rap group X-Clan and a founding member of ONE HOOD, a local anti-violence group, says the police numbers were uncalled for.

"It's like trying to kill ants with a sledgehammer," says Gray. "It's not just the sheer number of police, but also the National Guard, the Coast Guard [positioned in Pittsburgh's rivers], the Secret Service, and all of the hardcore equipment they have. I saw some seriously militarized officers with full automatic weapons, shotguns-it was like they were ready for war."

Gray works with at-risk youth who are actually accustomed to seeing weapons in their communities, but when he talked with some of them about what they were seeing around town, he said they were intimidated and confused about what was going on. The city did not, says Gray, prepare locals for what was about to unfold.

"The city did no community outreach," says Gray. "They did two things instead: They demonized protesters, and they talked about G20 in vague ways, telling us the President [Obama] is coming with heads of state, but they didn't educate people on what the G20 actually is, and what they are coming here to discuss, or how the people should respond."

Some protest organizations, especially those intent on engaging in aggressive direct action, also failed to prepare communities for what they would be embarking upon for G20. Mikhail Pappas, a community organizer who works in Pennsylvania State Senator Jim Ferlo's office, tells GOOD there were many opportunities missed to communicate between protesters, citizens, city and G20 leaders.

"I don't agree with riot culture and some of the tactics in terms of direct action," says Pappas. "I prefer more creative and inspiring direct action that involves art." (See yesterday's post for an example of more peaceful public engagement.)

The GET Larimer project is a great example of one of the DIY creative ventures that Pittsburgh is offering during this time of international attention. Justin Strong-vice president of the group, and also founder and co-owner of the Shadow Lounge, one of Pittsburgh's hippest music and art destinations-is hoping the police and protest presence doesn't obscure the work being done for the greater good.

"You have to take the intangible value of the national and international attention we're getting from G20 and leverage that," says Strong. "Businesses may not be doing as much sales now, but we have to take one for the team, and in the long-run the G20 presence may benefit the region. You work with what you got. You have to find the pluses that present themselves before you just complain. Things will never be perfect."

Guest blogger Brentin Mock is a regular GOOD contributor who is sending us dispatches from Pittsburgh's G20 Summit. 

Images courtesy of Paradise Gray