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September 27, 2009

At the G20 "No one can be free unless we're all free"

Scott Stockdale

Scott Stockdale(Pittsburgh, September 26, 2009) The Pittsburgh G20 protesters were scheduled to pass through the downtown about 12:30, yesterday (Friday) but we waited what seemed like forever, for them to arrive.

While sitting in a MacDonald's, I heard a woman on a cell phone giving progress reports.

I was sure she must have been from one of the major news organizations. It turns out she was a supervisor for McDonalds, who didn't want to give her name.

She said protesters had broken all the windows Thursday night at the McDonalds location, on Forbes Ave., near the University of Pittsburgh. "It was college kids, not protesters," she said. "We've got all our heavy-hitters out today."

And this was the tip of the iceberg.

The local paper estimated protestors numbered 1,000, Thursday night, and it listed police and National Guard numbers at 6,000+, but no one would say exactly how many 6,000+ meant.

I heard unconfirmed reports that authorities spent $18 million for security at the G20 Summit.

From my vantage point at the corner of Fifth Ave. and Wood Street, I saw Humvee military vehicles, and what looked like an armoured car, with Swat written on it, police on horseback, and platoons of National Guards, State Police and Pittsburgh Police lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, along Fifth Ave.

All of them had riot shields, shin and arm pads, helmets with plexiglass shields covering wire mesh, and a number of them carried what looked to me like machine guns.

I couldn't help but think if something broke out, I had nowhere to go, sandwiched in this crowd, on a narrow street, lined with police on both sides.

The protesters began assembling as early as 10 a.m in Schenley Park, near Carnegie Mellon and Pittsburgh Universities, on the east side of Pittsburgh, to protest what they called police brutality.

Like the night before at Phipps Conservatory, where the G20 leaders had dinner, many university students were interspersed with the protesters.

Tom Judd, 24, of Rode Island, a member of Students for a Democratic society, said he's been to numerous demonstrations but he's never seen a police presence like this.

Many police, dressed in riot gear surrounded the park and ordered the protesters to disperse. Police then fired cans of OC vapor -similar to pepper spray - and rubber bullets to help break up the crowd.

An undisclosed number of people were arrested. The night before, outside the gates to Phipps Conservatory, a number of protesters said they'd heard loud, shrill sirens, probably similar to the ones I'd seen the Israeli military use against Palestinian protesters, in documentaries.

Organizers for the People's March to the G20 had to go to federal court, months before the G20, to get permits for their rallies in Oakland and downtown Pittsburgh.

During his address at the City-County Building, protest organizer Pete Shell said the authorities cracked down on legal, peaceful demonstrations this week. However, Pittsburgh Police officials disagreed.

"They had the opportunity to express their First Amendment rights and we had the opportunity to keep them safe while they did," city police Assistant Chief William Bochter said.

After hearing speakers and singers from the Raging Grannies, United Steelworkers of America and Free Tibet protesters, marchers headed downtown, arriving about 2 pm, where they were again held up for about an hour.

About 2:30 pm a group of Ethiopian immigrants marched by carrying banners and shouting, "Stop supporting genocide in Ethiopia. Stop supporting criminal dictatorships in Africa. No one can be free unless we're all free."

In an earlier interview, on Liberty Ave., Ethiopian organizer Soloman Getaneh, from Columbus, Ohio, said demonstrators in his group had come from Washington D.C., New York, Maryland and the mid-western United States to protest the presence of Ethiopian Prime Minister Melese Zenawi at the G20.

"He's a dictator and a tyrant who has constantly violated human rights and democratic rights for the past 18 years," Mr. Getaneh said. "We are also protesting against Barack Obama for inviting such a tyrant responsible for genocide against the Ethiopian Gambila, Ogaden and Oromo people. He (Prime Minister Zenawi) should be tried in the ICC (International Criminal Court), not going to the G20 Summit."

A number of protesters handed out pamphlets supporting various causes such as the legalization of marijuana and environmental protection, and I saw several people with camcorders, some of whom appeared to be from television networks.

Finally, after waiting on the crowded sidewalk on Fifth Avenue for two and a half hours, the protesters hit the heart of the downtown at 3 pm. 

A lone protester in a mask, whose's sign had a picture of Martin Luther King and the words "His dream includes the right to a job" sat down in the middle of the road. He was soon followed by a group carrying signs that read "Free Tibet Now" and "Stop the killing in Tibet."

A group of protesters with signs reading "Reject the profitability of war. Peace begins with you," were accompanied by several young men beating drums and then a group of Falun Gong supporters with signs reading "Chinese Communist regime murders and tortures Falun Dafa" marched, while police officers on bicycles rode past them.

I was surprised by how young some of the women protesting for Falun Gong looked and that most of the Falun Gong protesters were women.

Another protester, dressed in a seal's outfit, from head to toe, and covered in what appeared to be red dye, got down on the road and began dragging himself along, holding a sign that read, "Canada, stop the bloody seal slaughter."

By 3:30 pm the marchers had passed, immediately followed by row upon row of police in riot gear, then police on horseback and then police in cruisers, with a fire truck close behind.

Spontaneous applause erupted from the spectators on the sidewalk, whom I was amongst, as soon as the police appeared at the end of the march.

I was surprised to find that overwhelmingly - I would guess about 90% - of the people I talked to before and after the march favored the police, not the protesters.

I can recall few people I talked to who criticized the police. H. John Roberts, a lawyer from Milwaukee, in his 60's, said he was in Chicago (the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention in 1968). "They're (police) a bunch of jack-booted thugs," Mr. Roberts said. "Who was it that said that, George Wallace?" "I don't know,' I said, but he ought'a know."

Cindy Sheehan, an anti-war protester who camped near then-President Bush's Texas ranch after her son was killed in Iraq, was also critical of the police. "I was telling the cops, 'You're facing the wrong way,' " she said, "The wars were wrong under Bush and they're wrong under Obama."

At the end of the march downtown, I asked a police officer for directions to get a bus, because they'd all been rerouted.

"Is that the end of the march?" I asked. "We hope so," he responded. "Pretty peaceful," I said. "That's the way we want it," he responded.

As he was making a number of inquiries on the telephone trying to find the location of my bus stop, he paused and said, "Thank you for your patience."

At some point I noticed his badge, "Police Chief Nathan Harper." After he gave me directions, I said, "Are you the chief of police?" "In the flesh he," he responded.

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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