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Protesters' arrests end police peace

Sunday, March 23, 2003

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For an event organized to protest the establishment and its policies, Thursday evening's anti-war march started with a remarkable spirit of cooperation.

Pittsburgh police Lt. Gary Byers and Tim Vining, the executive director of the Thomas Merton Center, met at Grant Street and Liberty Avenue in front of the William S. Moorhead Federal Building, Downtown, in a scene resembling a pre-game coin flip.

 
 
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Byers suggested that the marchers stay to the sidewalks and not risk arrest. Vining said that wasn't possible, that the marchers wanted to protest the war with Iraq by using direct, nonviolent action -- a "snake march" through rush-hour traffic.

Byers said he understood, but that his officers would do what they had to do. Vining said he understood that, too. The men shook hands and went their separate ways.

Since late January, when the Merton Center and the Pittsburgh Organizing Group sponsored the Regional Convergence Against the War, a large anti-war demonstration, police and protesters had treated each other with respect.

That ended Thursday night, when a protest that had proceeded peacefully for two hours ended with police in riot gear arresting 122 people.

All avenues of communication between the groups were cut on William Penn Place, when police ordered protesters to disperse. When they didn't leave quickly enough, they were thrown to the ground and handcuffed.

In some cases, demonstrators who tried to leave had nowhere to go because police blocked the way; they were arrested. Others who had stayed on the sidewalk, as police had ordered, were also taken into custody. In other instances, police arrested people who had stopped simply to look for their friends.

Acting Police Chief Charles Moffatt, who was briefed Friday by officers who were on the scene, said police had no choice but to act the way they did because of three differences from previous marches -- time, tenor and defiance.

"I think a lot of people here wanted to do a lot more than they had in the past," he said, explaining that rather than winding down peacefully, Thursday's march "was growing more hostile."

March organizers disputed that characterization. They believe police targeted younger protesters and sought out the younger organizers, specifically.

"The difference was there was more emotion on the side of the people marching," said Craig Stevens, a long-time activist who marched that night. "And the police officers seemed to lose patience in a way that once they lost it, they went from seemingly neutral and doing their job to charging in full speed."

Importance of timing

Thursday's march was substantially different than war protests that preceded it -- and not only because the war had begun.

It started at the federal building, where the police presence had been increased because of homeland security concerns.

It began at 5 p.m. as darkness was coming, automatically changing the mood as the march continued.

It occurred during rush hour Downtown, not on a weekend afternoon in the more residential neighborhoods of previous peace events -- the South Side, Oakland and Shadyside.

Additionally, with between 500 and 700 participants, the march was the largest yet in which organizers had not obtained a city parade permit, making the march technically illegal if participants left the sidewalk.

But because none of the previous events had resulted in arrests, there was no early indication that things would turn out differently Thursday.

After a brief rally, the protesters moved into the streets. The leaders of the march -- mostly college students, some self-described anarchists -- were surprised that so much of the rally crowd joined in.

The protesters stayed together for the first hour of the march, around the Golden Triangle. But when the front-row marchers turned off Grant Street and up Sixth Avenue toward Mellon Arena rather than returning to the federal building, as many of the middle-of-the-pack marchers had expected, things began to go awry.

The leaders headed out the Bigelow Boulevard ramp below the arena. Alex Bradley, one of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group leaders, said they planned to march to Bloomfield to take the anti-war message to as many neighborhoods as possible.

Many in the middle of the pack -- some of whom didn't want to end up on a highway, some of whom wanted to finish near where they had parked their cars -- held back.

After a few minutes of confusion, the march turned itself around and wound back to the federal building. Bradley said the original leaders felt they had lost control over the direction, even when they returned to the front.

Some marchers dropped out, but a substantial number continued for a second lap, this time down Smithfield Street. When they crossed the Smithfield Street Bridge, it took what some protesters, in retrospect, are calling a bad turn -- left onto East Carson Street.

"That's when I started to get scared," said Stephen Donahue, a member of the Merton Center. "I knew we were walking into a blind alley."

Anger boils up

The crowd became more unruly. Upset that a motorist had attempted to ram a slow-moving protester, some protesters tried to pull the license plate off his car and inflict other damage. Newspaper boxes were thrown onto the Smithfield Street Bridge, something Bradley thinks of as symbolic action, not property destruction.

The boxes were returned to the sidewalks by protesters farther back in the crowd.

It was on Carson Street that police began to order marchers off the street and onto the sidewalk.

"We know people have the right to protest, to march, to say things," said Moffatt, the acting police chief. "I think where some people went wrong is that they were infringing on other people's rights. They were walking into traffic, they were ignoring officers' orders. They just would not disperse."

Some protesters understood the police action on the South Side. "They were just trying to corner people," said Edith Wilson, the parent of two grown daughters who has marched against the war so often that she has a pulled muscle in her leg. "Which is OK from their point of view. That's a tactic."

By the time the march headed back across the Smithfield Street Bridge, fewer than half the original protesters remained. Most of them stayed on the sidewalk, as ordered.

At some point after that, though, police began to repeat their warnings that continued disobedience would result in arrest.

"I did hear some kids saying things to the cops that I thought, 'What's the point?' " Wilson said. "That's just asking for trouble."

Police radio transmissions monitored that night would seem, at least on the surface, to back up Moffatt's contention that officers showed restraint.

Several times, officers monitoring the march asked supervisors what they should do as some of the protesters refused their orders to remain on the sidewalks.

At 7:20 p.m., supervisors gave the officers the go-ahead to arrest those who continued to defy them.

Some felt that's when things went too far.

"If there had been some arrests, there are some people who would have been upset, but most would have realized that the kids were trying to do civil disobedience and direct action, and they knew the consequences," Stephens said. "To have 100 people pulled in, that seems like an overreaction."

Future prospects

Activists are adamant that the protests will continue. What remains to be seen is how Thursday's arrests will influence upcoming events.

"It's kind of in their court what happens," Bradley said of the police. "A lot of us feel that the type of trust we had with them has been violated. [Officers] talked with me at the Merton Center that day; they personally told me there would be no mass arrests unless a large amount of property was damaged. It's really, really difficult to re-start any kind of communication."

Police said they want to work to re-establish the relationship they had with protest organizers before Thursday night.

In individual discussions and on the Pittsburgh Independent Media's web site, protesters are floating ideas for the future.

Although many don't favor a specific ending point for protests because that would ruin the disruptive nature of direct action, others believe that setting a time limit would help. Others are talking about a large, silent vigil in the streets, or changing the time so darkness isn't a factor.

"Ninety-eight percent of the march was orderly and respectful and focused on anger and sadness about the war, and to me, that's the story," said Stevens, who is worried that police will clamp down harder on any type of protests.

"We hope to keep moving forward. There are a lot of people who are really committed to staying active in different ways."


Staff Writer Michael A. Fuoco contributed to this story. Lori Shontz can be reached at lshontz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.

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