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Observations on 2009 G20
2009 G20: This is What A Police State Looks Like
M. Burton Brown
Historically, Pittsburgh PA. has been a fertile breeding ground for social activism, union organizing and regional politics . In an earlier era, Pittsburgh's violent, and sometimes deadly organizing activities, made national headlines. In 1892, in nearby Homestead, PA., steelworkers organized against powerful capitalists, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie to protest deplorable work conditions and low wages. The Homestead Strike remains one of the most infamous labor disputes in U.S. history. The Homestead Strike not only resulted in injuries and deaths, it also enabled Carnegie Steel Company to operate a non-union workplace for the next 40 years. Local lore has it that each time Carnegie succeeded in busting up a union, he built the workers a new library, which might explain why Pittsburgh has so many.
Not far from the current location of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, where the G20 Summit was held, stands an historical plaque which marks the site of one of the most devastating labor disputes in U.S. history. In 1877, protests over wage cuts led to the first major rail strikes in the U.S. Baltimore, Chicago and St. Louis also joined the strike, but Pittsburgh is where violence erupted. Railroad president Thomas A. Scott brought in the Philadelphia National Guard to end the strike. The National Guard responded with bullets to the hailstorm of rocks thrown by striking workers. In response, the angry workers burned down the railroad. The strike ended in the deaths of railroad workers and members of the militia. The railroad company incurred over four million dollars in losses.
It's safe to say, that the selection of Pittsburgh as the site of the 2009 G20 Summit was a surprise to many. Once known for its steel and coal manufacturing, Pittsburgh successfully transformed itself, over a period of approximately 30 years, into a technological, medical and academic center. Yet, the transition from the Smoky City to the Golden Triangle was not easy. When steel makers decided it was more economical to close the mills and export steel, instead of producing it in American cities, they not only abandoned the steel mills, but also entire communities, towns and families that were dependent upon the manufacturing industry. Some blame the collapse of the steel industry on escalating union demands, but many dispute that theory and blame the closings on American capitalism. Today, neither railroads nor steel mills are primary employers in Pittsburgh. The role of largest employer in the city of Pittsburgh can be claimed by an academic institution, the University of Pittsburgh and it's Medical Center. (UPMC)
While city and state officials made every effort to present Pittsburgh in the best possible light by showcasing recent green development and new industries, what visitors did not see are nearby towns like Braddock, PA. Braddock ,once a thriving mill town of 20,000 residents and flourishing businesses, now has only 2,500 residents and none of the amenities that it once offered, except its historic Carnegie Public Library. Braddock is the home of the Edgar J. Thompson Works, but the steel mill does not offer enough jobs to reverse the decline of the once vibrant community. Although, there are development sites filled with workers in many areas throughout and around Pittsburgh, if you look closely, you will notice that most of the work sites lack diversity. Despite numerous initiatives intended to include African Americans in the unions, there remain long standing racial inequities in the building trades. Even in predominantly African American communities like Homewood, located in the East End of Pittsburgh, constructions jobs are primarily held by white males who neither live in, nor spend their money in, the communities in which they work. At the Pittsburgh Hilton Hotel, union workers abandoned the construction of an addition over a month ago due to non-payment. Yet, instead of addressing the issue of union workers going unpaid, the Hilton Hotel, at the request of the city, placed a huge welcome banner over the unfinished work site. Pittsburgh's Market Square, a once busy gathering place for downtown workers, shoppers and the homeless, has been razed. The new upscale condos are almost complete and Market Square has been redesigned so that the public urban space is less accommodating to the homeless, who must wait outdoors until evening to return to local shelters. City leaders also essentially shut out much needed organizations such as Food Not Bombs, which has fed the homeless and the hungry in Market Square for over 10 years.
The 2009 G20 Summit is over. Yet, reports and videos of police brutality continue to come in. Activists who traveled to Pittsburgh to assert their First Amendment right to hold public gatherings encountered what they describe as overly aggressive police tactics. Yet, in law enforcement's so-called "War on Drugs", many who live in Pittsburgh are subjected daily to similar tactics. The Pittsburgh Police earned a reputation for being, at times, overzealous in its efforts to control the people . In 1997, the Pittsburgh Police Department was placed under Consent Decree. The Department of Justice (DOJ) sought action to “enforce Section 210401 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, 42 U.S.C. § 14141. The United States alleged that there was a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police that deprives persons of rights, privileges, and immunities secured and protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” (Civil No. 97-0354) The lawsuit listed excessive force, improper search and seizure and false arrest among other offenses. Pittsburgh's activist community was justifiably concerned by the increasing militarization of the city during the G20 Summit as combined federal, state and local law enforcement officials joined forces to deter citizens from exercising their First Amendment rights.
Demonstrators in Pittsburgh were subjected to extreme scrutiny. They were outnumbered and outgunned. Pittsburgh Police used teargas, audio intimidation tactics and at times brutal force. The sheer numbers were overwhelming. Seeds of Peace and Everybody's Kitchen, organizations that provide food and water to demonstrators after marches, was targeted numerous times. The police confiscated the SOP bus, showed up late at night, searched the bus for weapons and managed to cost the organization thousands of dollars in fines for alleged traffic violations. Most of the members of SOP were not even demonstrators, but were in Pittsburgh to prepare and serve meals to the hungry. In Lawrenceville, police prevented demonstrators from leaving the neighborhood. In fact, police purposely kept demonstrators in working class neighborhoods throughout the entire summit. City leaders did not care what happened in Pittsburgh neighborhoods just as long as no one interfered with the dignitaries in town. The exception was when demonstrators managed get away from police and target corporate branches or franchises located in neighborhoods, which I'm sure was not their original targets. It was apparent city officials did not care if working class neighborhoods might become a target of vandalism. In fact, in an effort to alienate residents and demonstrators, that may have been law enforcements intent. However, the people were able to see that they were not the targets of the demonstrators and that the only people releasing teargas in residential neighborhoods was the Pittsburgh Police.
Even before the G20 Summit, Pittsburgh's peace & justice community was the target of spying and infiltration by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (FBI) In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) submitted a request for the release of FBI documents on behalf of the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice under the Freedom of Information Act, (FOIA). The Merton Center received ten pages of documentation, which were heavily dedacted. The Merton Center determined that from 2002-2005, the Pittsburgh Joint Terrorism Task Force had the organization under surveillance because of its peaceful opposition to the war in Iraq. Merton Center just happens to be the same organization that was at first denied a permit to hold a peaceful march the final day of the G20 Summit. The permit request was granted after a hearing before a judge. Working together, the diverse organizations in Pittsburgh for the G20 Summit were able to agree that the march would remain a peaceful one. And overall, it was a successful march. Yet, it had to be frustrating for those organizations that had hoped to hold their own demonstrations in downtown Pittsburgh, but were prevented from doing so.
Dignitaries from around the world were treated to an idyllic view of a city that has successfully weathered economic upheaval and re-invented itself. Visitors saw the city's unique placement among the mighty Three Rivers, the Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio. They saw Heinz Field, PNC Park and Phipps Conservatory and the Botanical Gardens. Visitors saw the University of Pittsburgh and its historic Cathedral of Learning. Visitors likely saw new development as they traveled to and from the David Lawrence Convention Center. However, what visitors did not see are thousands of people who wished to have their voices heard. Visiters did not see the groups advocating against the ongoing conflict in Darfur, the groups concerned about global warming or members of organizations fighting to end hunger, AIDs, poverty and domestic aggression against women and children. Nor did they see the people who marched for Health Care Reform and Gay Rights. Visitors did not see Pittsburgh's homeless, disenfranchised or unemployed. Nor did they visit Garfield, the Hill District, Larimer or public housing developments like North View Heights, Fineview or Saint Clair Village.
Neither visitors nor residents saw Democracy in action during the 2009 G20 Summit. What residents experienced was a police state set up by local government. Residents saw aggressive measures taken by our local Democratic leadership and the Federal Government to quell dissent and suppress freedom of speech. Pittsburgh residents were treated like second class citizens and basically sent the message loud and clear that they can cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers on to victory, but they are not sophisticated enough to mingle or even be seen by the elite of the world.