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Giving the First Amendment a Beating at the G-20

Vic Walczak,
ACLU of Pennsylvania
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October 6, 2009

(Originally posted in Jurist.)

Law enforcement officials have, over the past decade, used gatherings of national and international leaders as license to suspend civil liberties. During the recent G-20 Summit, Pittsburgh proved to be no exception. The city was transformed into a police state where our most cherished freedoms, especially the freedom to dissent, were subject to the martial law-type tactics I witnessed behind the Iron Curtain.

While world leaders were quietly secluded behind closed doors, 8-foot-high steel and mesh fences lined most downtown streets. Six thousand police and National Guard troops manned checkpoints, roamed the streets in armored humvees, and were visible everywhere in large groups. In this militarized ghost town, neither common folk nor demonstrators ever got close to the dignitaries.

Before the Summit, local officials paid lip service to the First Amendment. But just as in Poland under martial law in the early 1980’s, where only carefully controlled demonstrations sanctioned by communist-party bosses were allowed, protesters who lacked political ties to the establishment in Pittsburgh last week were threatened, harassed, and outright prohibited from peacefully expressing their opposition to G-20 policies.

The gamesmanship began early. Initially resistant to allowing any demonstrations during the Summit, the City eventually relented and permitted several mainstream groups, including former Vice President Al Gore’s climate group, to hold events in a local park.

But when two less politically-connected groups, Codepink and Three Rivers Climate Convergence (3RCC), renewed their requests to use the same park, the City refused. The rich and powerful were welcome in Pittsburgh, but those with edgier critical messages were not.

A federal judge eventually ordered the City to issue permits to Codepink and 3RCC, ruling that no good reason existed for precluding them. Unfortunately, the mistreatment and harassment of 3RCC and other protesters didn’t end with the judge’s order.

Police vehicles blocked 3RCC’s educational and food buses, preventing them from going to the demonstration. City officials permitted the group to leave its tent, artwork, and literature in the park overnight, but would not allow anyone to stand guard- claiming that standing guard would constitute illegal camping. The next day everything was gone. In a moment of surprising candor, the City’s spokeswoman admitted to a local reporter that the Public Works department had confiscated 3RCC’s property. With all necessary props gone, the climate-justice demonstrations never materialized.

Despite this intensive scrutiny, which included dozens of warrantless raids on activists’ homes and meeting places and countless pretextual traffic stops, only one person was arrested prior to the Summit – for giving a nickname instead of her birth name.

In the eeriest parallel to my experiences in martial law Poland, on two consecutive evenings the police inexplicably deemed assemblies of people peacefully gathered in a large, grassy University of Pittsburgh plaza to be “unlawful” and ordered everyone to disperse immediately. Police used an “LRAD” (first-ever civilian use of a military sonic weapon that can cause permanent hearing loss), shot pepper spray into dormitory stairwells, and fired rubber bullets and beanbags at fleeing students and curiosity seekers.

When those assembled tried to follow dispersal orders, many ran into the nearly 1000 riot police that encircled the group. The 100-plus arrestees included many curious, non-participating Pitt students and a few journalists. In this police state, apparently, government-sanctioned assemblies are allowed, but spontaneous demonstrations or gatherings, even peaceful ones, are not.

During the Summit, as expected, a few out-of-town kids broke a dozen windows. Police presence at the crime scenes were minimal, primarily because just a few blocks away the massive manpower surge was suppressing the peaceful gathering at the University. If a few of those police officers had simply stood on street corners around the area, even that little damage would have been minimized, Officers who happened to be standing in front of a targeted coffee shop during the two-person rampage discouraged any vandalism.

Pittsburgh’s use of harassment, intimidation, trickery, and indiscriminate arrests against demonstrators was fairly typical of the recent handling of other large important gatherings at the hands of various groups of law enforcement officials. At times when the imperative to allow freedom of speech and assembly is greatest – when national and international leaders convene – we impose martial law. Surely a more balanced model that provides security and respects civil liberties is possible.

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