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Seattle to Pittsburgh- A Look at North America's Global Justice Movement Ten Years Later
by Mac Lojowsky Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009 at 6:05 PM
firstname.lastname@example.org Olympia, WA
This is an in-depth article of the global justice movement through the lens of the Pittsburgh G-20 protests. Through on-the-street coverage, media review and tactical comparisons of other actions, this article explores what happened in Pittsburgh and what needs to change.
Seattle to Pittsburgh: A Look at North America’s Global Justice Movement Ten Years Later via the G-20 in Pittsburgh
by Mac Lojowsky
Lessons of Seattle 1999
In the fall of 1999, over 50,000 people gathered in the streets of Seattle to oppose and shut down the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Due largely to the massive outreach, education and coalition building efforts of the Direct Action Network (DAN) as well as hundreds of other small and large organizations, this was one of the most diverse protests in US history. Tactical innovations including affinity group organizing, “lock downs” and the creation of the Indymedia Center, made this one of the most successful US protest of any kind in decades.
Steelworkers, farm workers, environmentalists, teachers, students, immigrants, musicians, puppeteers, queer and straight folks and grandmothers too came together and shut down the WTO. “The Whole World is Watching!” was the constantly repeated chant, spray painted graffiti and overall word on the streets of Seattle. Perhaps the phrase was so poignant and often repeated was because it was true- the whole world, or a least the US, was watching. North America’s Global Justice Movement had made a definitive stand with undeniable numbers and results. The protests brought the WTO out of the shadows and forced a dialogue within the American public to consider the unchecked growth of corporate globalization.
Across the country activists took the Seattle model and applied it, often as a carbon copy, to subsequent major global justice demonstrations against such institutions as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and conferences like the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (FTAA).
The state’s security forces also used Seattle’s model by studying it and re-enacting it in trainings and have so far prevented anything even resembling Seattle 1999 from happening again. The past ten years have brought significant police/security developments to counter dissent. “Protest zones,” “security zones,” overwhelming numbers of riot-clad officers, the use of national laws like the USA Patriot Act and the modification of local city laws work together to restrict the ability and mobility of demonstrations.
By the time the Group of 20 met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, ten years later, neither the whole world, nor America was still watching. The numbers of protesters who gathered to oppose the meeting were a small fraction of the Seattle turnout. A well-orchestrated and well-financed campaign by the police and the G-20 Summit organizers effectively shut down the protests. Pittsburgh was not the culmination of the Global Justice Movements’ efforts, but rather the apex of the state’s ability to control dissent. In such a context, the movement must open a dialogue from within to question its tactics, goals and venues of protest.
Pittsburgh G-20 Protests 2009
The Group of 20 (G-20) was established in 1999 “to bring together major industrialized and developing economies to discuss key issues in the global economy.” (http://www.pittsburghsummit.gov) The Group consists of the US, Canada, Russia, China, UK, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, Argentina, Australia, Brazil as well as the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Together, these countries and institutions make up 85% of the world’s economy. The aim of the Pittsburgh Summit was to discuss containment strategies for the current global economic crisis.
On September 24 and 25, 2009 the G-20 met at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, PA. Outside of the Convention Center (and a three block radius closed “security perimeter”), over fifty different citizen groups, including: the United Steel Workers of America, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Free Tibet, Free Palestine, Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project (PG20RP), Thomas Merton Center, Greenpeace, the Raging Grannies, CODEPINK, and numerous others came together to raise their objections to the G-20 and offer their voices for a different future.
In the days leading up to the Summit, Pittsburgh was awash in global justice events. There was a People’s Summit over three days, an International Peace, Justice & Empowerment Summit over two days, Bail Out the People marches, Women’s Peace initiative marches, the Three Rivers Climate Convergence and tent city, Poets on Loose, G20-Fight AIDS marches as well as a large-scale concert on Wednesday night. Pittsburgh Indymedia set up a 24-hour live web-streaming and radio broadcast during the week, called the G-Infinity Project (http://www.indypgh.org).
The Thomas Merton Center’s Anti-War Committee (AWC) and the Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project agreed that PG20RP would be responsible for the opening day’s (Thursday, September 24) “People’s Uprising!” march and the Merton Center would organize the second day’s “People’s March” (Friday, September 25).
Also in the days leading up to the Summit, Pittsburgh police, Pennsylvania state troopers, National Guardsmen, DEA, FBI, Boarder Patrol, Homeland Security and Secret Service agents as well as private security firms (such as Texas-based Densus Group and Washington D.C.-based Civitas Group LLC) descended upon the city of Pittsburgh. Police from New York, Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, Georgia, Michigan, Kentucky and Ohio arrived.
Although exact numbers of law-enforcement agents are at this time still unavailable, the Wall Street Journal reported (9/11/09) that 4,000 police and 2,000 National Guard were expected. Not noted in that article or other published estimates were the number of federal agents and private security officers on hand. According to the Pittsburgh mayor’s office, the total cost for “security” reached $19.5 million dollars.
G-20 Summit Day 1- Thursday, September 24, 2009
On the morning of Thursday, September 24, the city of Pittsburgh was a ghost town. All the public and Catholic schools were closed as were most downtown businesses. Most city, state and federal offices, museums, banks and universities also closed. Almost every single business in downtown was boarded up with plywood. Public transportation service was canceled in many areas and most roads downtown were closed to vehicle traffic.
In addition to the closed three block radius “security perimeter,” almost every single intersection within two miles of downtown was heavily guarded by an assortment of armored personnel carriers, German Shepherd police dogs, camouflaged Humvees, mounted cops, motorcycle cops, bicycle cops, “riot fences” as well as walls of assorted law enforcement officers dressed in full, black riot gear. Numerous helicopters flew low overhead.
Secret Service spokesman Special Agent Darrin Blackford explains, “We tried very hard to create a sense that Pittsburgh did not have to shut down for the G-20…but I think the momentum was so strong that people just decided to shut down.” (Newsday, September 21, 2009)
About three miles from downtown, in the Lawrenceville area, at 2:30 p.m., the Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project’s unpermitted “People’s Uprising!” march began from Arsenal Park. As the G20 Resistance Project stated on their webpage,
“At this time in history, with the very architects of the global financial collapse gathering in our city we need events that start from the premise that it is people who matter, not permits. Our decision to not ask for permission from the system we protest has much to do with our belief that our future lies in community-based solutions, in power from below, in putting justice before law, and in a rejection of the G-20 as a legitimate body for decision-making. We build, not beg.”
At 2:30, 500 or so protesters (comprised almost exclusively of young, white males dressed in black) left the park chanting “Bankers, bankers, watch your back! We don’t protest, we attack!” and entered the streets, beginning a chaotic march through the residential streets of Lawrenceville. At every intersection, arguments erupted from march participants about which direction to march- some wanted to head downtown, others wanted to march to various corporate offices. The end result was a disjointed and confused mass of folks who marched right into a solid police line within five blocks. The police ordered the marchers to disperse, then began firing tear gas, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and blasting the crowd with ear-piercing siren sounds called the Long Range Acoustical Device (LRAD). With the first volleys of tear gas, the main bulk of the march split into five or six different directions and never again regained its original number of 500. The remainder of the afternoon was spent with small and smaller groups of protesters running from the police from one street to the next, miles away from downtown.
That evening President Obama, French President Sarkozy, Russian President Medvedev and other G-20 dignitaries dined at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. The protesters smashed a PNC Bank ATM, kicked in a window at Kentucky Fried Chicken and tossed a rock through a Boston Market Chicken and a BMW dealership; 19 arrests were made.
G-20 Summit Day 2- Friday September 25, 2009
After months of delays from the Secret Service and the City of Pittsburgh, the Thomas Merton Center’s Anti-War Committee at last secured a permit a week prior to the Summit to hold The People’s March. To get this permit, the ALCU was forced to sue the City and the Secret Service on behalf of the Thomas Merton Center and twelve other groups. The resulting march permit was for a significantly modified route well away from the closed “security perimeter.”
The march began at noon at the corner of Craft Ave. & 5th, with speakers from the Thomas Merton Center’s Anti-War Committee, Tibetan Youth Congress, Jubilee Zambia, Code Pink Pittsburgh, Palestine Solidarity Committee, Iraq Veterans Against the War, United Steel Workers, Indigenous Environmental Network, African American Workers Union as well as music from the Raging Grannies and Anne Feeney.
Despite a march population of around 7,000, there was easily one officer/agent for every marcher. The front of the march was lead by rows of motorcycle cops, escorted on both sidewalks by riot cops on foot spaced about four feet apart, and followed at the rear by armored personnel carriers, German Shepherd K-9’s and mounted police.
In the face of the extreme police presence, the march was well-organized, well-paced and an impressive display of the diverse components of the global justice movement. The Free Tibet contingent carrying large bright yellow Tibetan flags was immediately followed by marchers with large green and red Palestinian flags. The Steel Workers marched with Jubilee folks and yesterday’s black-clad protesters got boxed in by the Falong Gaung contingent.
The march slowly snaked it orderly way down 5th Avenue, down Grant to the steps of the City County Building. The riot police slowly brought up the rear in a solid wall of plexiglass shields spanning the street, building to building, four rows deep, sweeping any lagging marchers. The march continued across the river, ending quietly at East Park a few hours later.
Just over 100 people were arrested in the two days of the G-20 Summit, most many hours after any “organized” actions or events had ended. The majority of these arrestees were released and the charges dropped. President Obama summed up the two days of protest as “relatively tranquil.” (Associated Press 9/25/09)
Lessons of Pittsburgh
By all accounts, Pittsburgh 2009 was a far cry from Seattle 1999. The most visible difference was the overwhelming police presence at every street corner, bridge and intersection. Downtown Pittsburgh was totally vacant of workers, residents, vendors and the usual bustle and human activity of any large American city. The emptiness of the city leads one to propose a slightly new twist on an age old question: “What if one holds a protest in the city and there is no one there to hear or see it?”
Psychological Control of Space
Luis A. Fernandez, professor of criminology at Northern Arizona University and author of Policing Dissent- Social Control and the anti-Globalization Movement has spent years researching, attending and examining large-scale anti-globalization protests. In his book, he devotes an entire chapter entitled, “Here Come the Anarchists,” to explain what he terms the states’ “psychological control of space.”
“Law enforcement uses numerous psychological tactics to control protest, constructing the meaning of anti-globalization activism through public relations campaigns and media messages. Psychological tactics are social control techniques that operate at the level of the mind, with the goal of creating fear and making it difficult for protesters to successfully mobilize. These police marketing efforts frame the movement as violent, dangerous, and irresponsible, heightening the anxieties of local residents as well as activists.” (p.138)
In the weeks and months prior to the Summit, the Pittsburgh and national news was awash in speculative and dramatic coverage about the potential protests. Seldom, if ever, were the reasons for the Pittsburgh protests given any mention. Here’s a sampling of just a few of the headlines:
“G-20 Protest Plans Raise Alarm in City” (Pittsburgh Tribune Review, 7/11/09)
“Hospital Coordinator Anticipates Unknown During G-20 Summit” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/10/09)
“Pittsburgh Steels Itself for G-20 Protests” (Wall Street Journal 9/11/09)
Newsday was warning the public that the upcoming G-20 protests “…has also caused larger business to take precautions against nontraditional protests or violence-including targets like FirstEnergy Corp.’s Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station about thirty miles away…(FirstEnergy has) took unspecified ‘extra steps’ for the G-20, spokesman Todd Schneider said.” (9/21/09)
On August 6, 2009, The Pittsburgh City Paper reported a Pittsburgh City Council hearing on the G-20 security situation. Addressing the Council, Sam Rosenfeld, a former British Army officer now heading the Texas-based security consulting firm Densus Group, advised the City to prepare for the protesters because they “..want confrontation with police-in fact they don’t care if an innocent person gets pulled in, because they know if it bleeds, it leads.” He also warned the about one of the groups involved in protest planning, the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, who he predicted would be attacking using “long poles from behind to stab at police officers… a la the Romans.”
To a certain degree, some of the protesters and activists played right into their assigned roles. Vic Walczak, executive director of the ACLU of Pittsburgh, cautioned the city against militant police tactics, ominously warning, “If they do that with this group at G-20, it’s going to be a mess, because the people who come in here for that are going to be twice as aggressive as anything the police here have ever seen.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5/31/09)
For the Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project’s planned September 25th “Everywhere Protest” their website listed over 100 business, recruiting centers and university buildings with addresses, such as Victoria’s Secret, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review building and Whole Foods as places to consider actions. With Pittsburgh’s Channel 4 News cameras in tow, police were sure to inform every business listed they were “anarchist targets.” (9/17/09)
The first day of the WTO meeting in Seattle, the streets were open and the Convention Center was guarded at the doors by just a few police officers. Before dawn, thousands of activists had filled the streets leading to the Convention Center. Additionally, the AFL-CIO labor march (with over 30,000 people) had secured permits to march right through downtown and on the streets directly in front of the Convention Center.
In Pittsburgh a solid three block “security perimeter,” closed to everyone but G-20 attendees and registered press, was established long before the summit. In addition, numerous streets closures within two miles of the perimeter greatly restricted movement. And finally, through a strategic permitting process the City and Secret Service made sure that none of the planned protest marches would come anywhere near the Convention Center.
The permit for the largest of the planned marches, organized by the Thomas Merton Center Anti-War Committee, was held up for months by the authorities. Just a week before the summit, due to an ACLU lawsuit, the march was finally permitted to take place miles away from the Convention Center. This obstrucification diverted time, resources and attention away from the reasons the march was called for in the first place. This effective strategy allowed the state to occupy, control and change the focus of the debate.
Seattle had 50,000 people in the streets. Pittsburgh had 7,000. The authorities utilized the psychological control of space, security zones and the police presence to reduce the number of protest participants. Protest organizers failed to anticipate and counter what has become standard police procedure. Outreach and educational efforts by the protest organizers were not enough to bring sufficient numbers of people to the streets.
Pittsburgh did not have the massive presence of college students that swelled the numbers in Seattle. A significant note to recognize is that there are just a handful of colleges and universities within a 200-miles radius of Seattle. But draw a 200-miles radius from Pittsburgh and you may have the highest density of colleges and universities in the entire world. Outside of Pittsburgh, I found no evidence of any focused campus outreach efforts by the organizers.
Although numbers are a highly subjective topic when speaking about demonstrations, it is undeniable that numbers talk. In the history of social/political movements the success of a demonstration is based on the number of people who show up to demonstrate. If 7,000 people had shown up in Seattle 1999, the same thing would have happened as what happened in Pittsburgh 2009- nothing.
The decision by organizers to give the Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project responsibility to organize the first day of protest may have contributed to the overall low turnout. Early on the PG20RP appropriated the language, attitude and dress fashion of the “dreaded anarchists” whom the authorities had created as necessary caricatures to justify the $19.5 million “security” budget and subsequent repressive actions towards dissent. The PG20RP seemed content to focus their time and resources on proposing actions and making “target lists” rather than undertaking the hard work of outreach and organizing. The end result was a tiny, homogeneous group and an action that played right into the role the state assigned. Unfortunately, the PG20RP attitude and presence most likely served to alienate thousands of potential activists before any protests ever began.
The success of Seattle happened on the first day of the WTO meeting in the first hours of the morning. If a multi-day international meeting such as the G-20 is to be the target of protest, it is imperative for activists to gather their largest numbers and make the loudest statements on the first day. This harnesses activist momentum, police confusion and the news cycle.
By the time the Thomas Merton Center’s Anti-War Committee’s march began on the second day, the G-20 Summit was almost over. The police were warmed up and refined from yesterday’s practice round and well prepared to contain any deviations from the permitted route. Local and national news outlets had already run stories about the previous day’s low numbers and skirmishes with the police. Thus when there actually was a significant demonstration with a diverse population of activists, it was already eclipsed by the previous day’s events.
Time and time again, from Washington D.C. to Savannah to Miami, protests and protesters are isolated, contained and neutralized, often before the demonstration begins. Today’s street protests have become little more than clichéd theatrical events with both the police and the protesters falling right into their assigned roles, actions/reactions and comments. Since Seattle the Global Justice Movement has not shown the necessary fundamental evolution or initiative and needs to develop new tactics and new methods of protest.
It may be worth discussing if US street protests at events like the G-20, IMF and other such institutions are even still relevant. Are these the venues that the Global Justice Movement should be focusing energies and limited resources upon? How can the movement counter a two day, $19.5 million “security” budget with the focused intent of silencing dissent? It seems as though that the roles have now reversed with the state’s expressed mandate to “shut down the protests.”
The parts and pieces of the global capitalist machinery are in every city and town we inhabit, across the country and globe. Every so often, the main architects of this mechanism gather together in one place. On a theoretical level, it may be the movement’s duty to oppose their meetings, but on a tactical level, it may no longer make sense.
How can the movement make the most effective use of limited resources and capabilities? How the movement again capture the world’s attention? One such possibility may be to focus on less fortified, smaller local targets which have not spent years or months preparing for a disturbance. There are numerous other possibilities to be explored and that must be examined. As Pittsburgh 2009 clearly demonstrates, the old ways and old targets don’t work any more and the new generation of activists needs guidance. In order to reclaim a seat in the debate of corporate globalization, North America’s Global Justice Movement needs to reflect and evolve. Ten years ago Seattle succeeded because organizers looked at what worked and what didn’t in protests and created something new. It’s time for that again.