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Since midnight Wednesday, automobiles have been prevented from entering Pittsburgh’s downtown business district. The only vehicles one can find downtown are ominous-looking unmarked black sedans with DC plates, silver minivans with uniformed officers inside and marked police cars. Pedestrians and cyclists can enter downtown through three checkpoints, presided over by National Guard soldiers–usually lingering around dark green Humvees–and out-of-town police officers.
Concrete barriers line the sidewalks; and, surrounding the Convention Center, where the G-20 meetings are taking place, tall steel fencing has been erected behind which semi-trailers are lined front to back.
And then there are the police–lots of police: county sheriffs, local cops, state troopers, National Guard soldiers and men in dark suits who drive those ominous sedans. Police from Chicago guarded several checkpoints I visited.
This is what $19 million spent over two days has brought Pittsburgh–a tightly controlled, heavily militarized city center with little sign of protest. Shopping and fawning over the spectacle of the G-20 summit are the only activities that don’t provoke suspicion by the hordes of law enforcement.
As I biked around downtown, workers on lunch break relaxed, some strolling through the near-empty streets. Some took pictures of the police as they filed by on foot or on horseback.
I spoke with two city workers who were heading back to their office after lunch. What did they think of the protesters? “We haven’t seen any,” said one. And this is precisely the point of all the security measures–out of sight, out of sound from the Conference Center. “It’s a police state downtown,” said Witold Walczak, state director of the ACLU.
The only hint of protest was a line of thirty Burmese monks dressed in their signature saffron robes. A half-dozen opponents of the Ethiopian government followed them. Both groups walked silently–no chants; some of these people held signs.
Pittsburgh residents “got the shitty end of the stick,” Levi Miller, 53, told me. The city put up $19 million to host the summit, $10 million of which came from the federal government and $4 million from Pennsylvania, with the city responsible for the remaining $5 million. “Why couldn’t they teleconference?” Miller asked of the world leaders. “We’ve got National Guard, police from Florida and other cities, but Pittsburgh’s broke. What about the ghettos; what about the homeless, the food banks?” Asked what he thought of the protesters, Miller responded, “Let ’em protest. Why shouldn’t they be able to? They’ve got a right to say what they think of the G-20.” Miller, who works as a coal passer shoveling out ash in a coal-fired boiler room, held the hand of his young granddaughter. They were going to a baseball game at PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, which sits across the Allegheny River from downtown. The sight of baseball fans heading to a game amid the checkpoints, ranks of law enforcement and National Guard–and the lack of protesters–gave the militarized scene a bizarre twist.