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U.S. News
Peace groups help protesters brush up on their technique

Saturday, October 26, 2002

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Virginia Eskridge last attended a big protest -- 30 years ago, when she was a Pitt graduate student and the issue was the Vietnam War -- she boarded a bus in front of Hillman Library that dropped her off in the Pentagon's parking lot.

From left, Virginia Eskridge of Shadyside, Craig Stevens of Point Breeze, Maura Jacob of Point Breeze and Margot Goldberg of Squirrel Hill join arms to form a blockade while resisting arrest during a mock protest at a training session on nonviolent disobedience in Squirrel Hill on Wednesday. Brad Quartuccio (in ball cap) and James Knopf, far right, play the role of police officers attempting arrests. In the back is Mary Barr of Highland Park. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

No one objected when protesters parked their buses there, then took the Metro into Washington, D.C., to march.

"It's all so different today," said Eskridge, a retired law librarian who was outraged when President Bush spoke at a Labor Day event on Neville Island and a man was arrested for protesting outside a designated protest area.

Now that world events, particularly a possible war against Iraq, have propelled her to protest again, Eskridge wants to be prepared. That's why she attended a workshop this week on nonviolent protest and civil disobedience sponsored by several local activist groups, including Zi, the Pittsburgh Organizing Group and the Thomas Merton Center.

The seminar attracted an audience ranging from the newly formed "Raging Grannies" to a bunch of high schoolers who had just returned from a field trip to lobby U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter. Whether they sported pearl earrings or pierced noses, they listened intently as people involved in recent protests told their stories.

Eighteen months ago in Quebec City, they said, during protests at the Summit of the Americas, police fired 5,000 rounds of tear gas and 900 wooden bullets.

Eskridge gasped. It wasn't that she hadn't been tear-gassed, but back then it was possible to outrun it.

"There's so much discussion about how to respond to the cops," said Tim Vining, executive director of the Thomas Merton Center. "That's always bothered me -- we're not here to confront the cops, but the IMF (International Monetary Fund) or the World Bank.

"But in the last few years, we've witnessed the militarization of the police department. Cops snapping pictures, taking names, shooting rubber bullets -- that's stuff we always thought happened in Central America, although it was often U.S.-funded. What we're finding is, it's come home."

Vining believes that practicing civil disobedience today is riskier than ever and that it's important for those involved in a protest -- even someone who may want only to march and not be arrested on principle -- to be aware of the potential dangers and prepare themselves.

Veterans were happy to dispense advice:

Swimming goggles, which form a protective seal around your eyes, keep tear gas out, and it's best to "spend the extra $3 or $4" and get the ones with anti-fog, shatterproof lenses. Don't wear contact lenses -- pepper spray trapped between the lens and your eye can cause permanent damage.

People who wear glasses can buy chemical safety glasses with a seal from U.S. Science and Surplus (regular lab glasses, which also go over regular eyeglasses but are designed simply to prevent splattering, don't work) or spend $30 or so for prescription swimming goggles.

Soak a bandanna in lemon juice or apple cider vinegar for an extra layer of protection against tear gas. Keep it in a Ziploc sandwich bag. "And when you see the police pull out their gas masks," said Nathan Shaffer, a member of Pittsburgh Organizing Group, "pull out yours."

Bathe yourself and wash your clothes in Dr. Bonner's Pure Castile Soap, which doesn't contain additives that can intensify the effects of tear gas and pepper spray.

Wear cotton clothing, not CoolMax or other performance fabrics that wick sweat, because those fabrics will also allow chemicals to penetrate to your skin. Skip the fleece, too; the fabric absorbs chemicals and can slowly release them after several days. Ideal coverings include waterproof slickers or ponchos.

Consider removing body piercings, unless you want to risk having a nipple ring removed with a bolt cutter.

And yes, it is legal to say the F-word to a policeman. "But don't spit on them," said James Knopf, 22, who is also affiliated with Pittsburgh Organizing Group. "That's assault."

The workshop also emphasized the importance of having affinity groups, clusters of six to 20 people who work together to keep everyone safer. Affinity groups talk before an action about everything from their fears to their goals, and then if tensions get high they will understand one another better.

Say an undercover policeman is trying to pull a protester away from a line of linked arms. If the targeted person yells, "I've had enough, let me go," members of the affinity group will know if she really wants the group to allow the police to arrest her.

The affinity groups also have a practical side.

One member usually is designated as legal support; he or she may not even attend the action, but will wait at home with information to help in the event of arrests. Another generally has first-aid or medical knowledge. Someone else may be in charge of carrying water and food, which may also include keeping everyone fed and hydrated, something some protesters don't consider.

"You're getting pumped, you think you're starting to stop the war, you see Bush starting to get nervous, you see him pacing around outside the White House -- and you forget to drink water," Shaffer said, to much laughter.

Another might take responsibility for knowing the area and having maps so that the group can get to a safe place if needed.

The workshop covered a wide variety of techniques: the correct way to link arms while marching down the street, how people in the second row of a sit-down can wrap their legs to protect the people in the front row, when to call for a "puppy pile," in which other protesters cover and protect someone who is being beaten.

Participants learned that it's better to silently point at a suspected undercover cop to alert other protesters than to surround someone, which could be considered kidnapping. And that they need to decide before taking action exactly how far they are willing to go.

"Keep in mind your goals, your message, your tactics," said Alex Bradley of the organizing group. "If you want to be arrested with the least resistance, tell the police."

Most people who attended the workshop are participating today in Washington, D.C., in the March Against War, a national protest against the potential war in Iraq. The event is sponsored by ANSWER, Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. Vining said that because it is a permitted march and rally with large numbers, protesters probably won't have to contend with violence.

But the groups have also discussed other forms of civil disobedience, and they want people to be prepared.

"We're giving you all here the tools to do whatever you want to do," Shaffer said. "You don't have to choose to use them."


Lori Shontz can be reached at lshontz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.

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