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Pittsburgh protest turns ugly as police arrest 122

Friday, March 21, 2003

By Lori Shontz, Cindi Lash and Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Two months of goodwill between police and antiwar protesters dissolved quickly yesterday when a march through Downtown and the South Side during rush hour ended with 122 arrests, including several for inciting a riot.

An anti-war protester is arrested by Pittsburgh police on the South Side last night. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Antiwar activists the world over had been planning protests for the day after the war with Iraq started, and the leaders in Pittsburgh, as in other cities and countries, had expected the intensity to increase.

It did. There were protests in 500 American cities, reports of 100,000 marching in Athens, Greece, and 5,000 in London, where the demonstrators shut down streets leading to the houses of Parliament. Demonstrations, too, took place in Muslim countries such as Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Turkey.

The first part of the two-hour march, which started after a 5 p.m. rally outside the William S. Moorhead Federal Building, looked much like recent ones. About 500 people participated. Children walked next to their mothers. College students held multicolored "no-war" balloons. Some motorists responded to the chants and posters by high-fiving marchers and flashing the peace sign.

But as darkness fell and the protesters marched outside the Golden Triangle, the mood changed. When the march went to the South Side, police forced it to turn back, and around 7 p.m. everyone went back across the Smithfield Street Bridge and into Downtown.

Up to then, police had tolerated occasional taunts, profanity and middle fingers flashed at them from the rowdier marchers. But then, as the marchers continued to disrupt traffic, they finally ran out of patience.

An anti-war protester sits in a Pittsburgh police wagon on Smithfield Street after being arrested following a march thru Downtown and the South Side. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

By the time the march reached William Penn Place, near Seventh Avenue and Ninth Street, the crowd had shrunk to less than half its original size. But the police presence swelled, and their patience with demonstrators ended at 7:20 p.m.

Police in riot gear and others on horses appeared. Various officers told demonstrators to keep moving down a sidewalk. Other police shouted at the marchers to leave Downtown. Many began crossing the street, inflaming officers who had ordered them to move along the walk.

Then the arrests began.

Police flung some of the louder protesters to the ground, riling the crowd. Other marchers were pinned against a building on William Penn Place and informed that they were under arrest.

By then, even those who tried to follow police orders risked going to jail.

John Lowry, 21, a student at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, was one who did not move away quickly enough to satisfy a policeman. Told to leave, Lowry hesitated for a second or two, then backed away.

But a policeman snatched Lowry by his backpack, shoved him face-first onto the ground and cuffed him.

Earlier, on the South Side, Lowry had talked amiably with reporters as he walked. He said the war in Iraq seemed wrongheaded, so he felt compelled to get involved in a protest.

"They say we have to cut the head off the snake when they talk about Saddam Hussein," Lowry had said. "To me, the head of the snake is the terrorists. I'm scared more than anything."

By 7:45 p.m., two and a half hours after the march started, police had filled two Port Authority buses with suspects.

About 25 of those arrested were juveniles, according to officials at city Night Court.

Police last night said they were considering charging some of the protesters with inciting a riot and resisting arrest. Most of them, however, were likely to be charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing traffic and failure to disperse.

Knowing that his commute home faced a delay, Lyndall Huggler stops to watch protesters marching on Seventh Avenue , Downtown, yesterday. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Lt. Robert Roth, acting commander of the city police Special Deployment Division, said the changing mood of the crowd and what police believed to be a growing determination to defy orders to stay out of the streets led to the decision to begin making arrests.

"We gave them multiple warnings, but they were being more and more bold," he said. "We gave them four or five warnings and advised them that they'd be arrested if they continued to disrupt traffic. They got to the point where we could accommodate them for only so long."

This march attracted a heavier police presence than previous protests -- about 100 city and county officers, plus federal marshals and sheriff's deputies -- and for the first time, some were wearing riot gear. Police routed traffic away from the march, limiting confrontations with angry motorists, and even helped elderly marchers cross the street.

"We tried to monitor what was happening and take it as it goes. We wanted to give them some leeway," Roth said at 6:30 p.m., shortly after the protesters returned to the Federal Building after making their first swing around Downtown.

Roth and other officials initially said they were pleased that the march had gone peacefully and caused few traffic problems. They said they knew of no reports of property damage Downtown, although some marchers were seen lifting and hurling newspaper boxes on the sidewalks.

But after weaving through Downtown for about an hour, the march began to lose its focus.

Marchers returned to the federal building about 45 minutes after they started, and then -- to the surprise of many in the back of the pack --continued around the building for a second lap of the city. As the protesters went down Smithfield Street, drivers became more impatient, while several city buses tried to inch forward through the crowd.

As it grew darker, the march approached the northern end of the Smithfield Street Bridge. Marchers at first kept to the outbound side, then jumped over the divider to the inbound side of the bridge, snarling traffic.

Some marchers also began harassing motorists and banging or walking in front of cars on the Smithfield Street Bridge and later on South Side streets, Roth said.

Among those motorists was Jerry Parme, who said a marcher confronted him and damaged his car while he was driving from the South Side to begin his shift as a mailer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"If you're going to protest something, then protest. But don't be a mob," said Parme, 70, of Overbrook, who believes the Thomas Merton Center and other groups who organized the march should reimburse him for the damage to his car.

"I recognize the right to protest and express a view," he said.

The first arrest had happened during an earlier protest in Oakland during the afternoon, when Michael Hellein, 25, a University of Pittsburgh student from Boulder, Colo., was charged with aggravated assault on campus police Lt. James Chester near the Cathedral of Learning's Bigelow Boulevard entrance, Pitt spokesman Robert Hill said.

Many of those protesters then attended the Downtown march, still upset because they thought Hellein's arrest was unjustified. Still, none of the activists had imagined such an end.

"Is our freedom over for today?" asked one protester. He didn't stick around to hear the answer.

Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973. Lori Shontz can be reached at lshontz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722. Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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