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Peaceful weekend pleases police, marchers

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

All they were saying was, "Give peace a chance," and Pittsburgh did: The weekend Regional Convergence Against the War happened peaceably.

"I was just thrilled with the outcome of the weekend. ... It was a rousing success."

That's not from one of the protest organizers, but from Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Cmdr. William Valenta, who coordinated police response to the three-day mobilization against war with Iraq.

Despite the cold, the crowds and concerns about extremist acts, the convergence took place without an arrest. As Valenta explained yesterday, "A lot of things had a hand in that."

Key was communication, which the police started weeks ago with organizers from the Thomas Merton Center and the Pittsburgh Organizing Group.

Valenta also cited cooperation between city police and other agencies, including the state police, Allegheny County Police, Carnegie Mellon University police and University of Pittsburgh police, as well as the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

He said about 70 officers staffed Saturday's parade through the South Side, and about 100 covered Sunday's rally and march in Oakland.

Police estimated at least 1,500 participants Saturday and 5,000 Sunday, making for what many agreed was the biggest anti-war protest here in three decades.

Officials planned to make arrests only as a last resort -- a philosophy CMU Chief Creig Doyle summed up beforehand as "no harm, no foul."

Valenta said he can live with the one loss, a smashed window at an Oakland military recruiting center.

At the end of the Sunday activities, Valenta shook hands with Merton Center Executive Director Tim Vining. Vining thanked him.

"It's certainly rewarding to know that they held true to their word, and I think we held true to ours," Valenta said. "When you can build a rapport like that, if events happen in the future, both sides know they can trust each other."

"We are deeply grateful for the police" who "went beyond the call of duty" to enable participants to exercise their constitutional rights, Vining said.

Vining said the convergence went "beyond our expectations."

"I had people say it gave them hope for Pittsburgh as a community -- that we can actually organize something. It was not a football game kind of rah-rah, but a unifying thing."

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.

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