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Fortress Pittsburgh | The Nation

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Fortress Pittsburgh

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This article mistakenly identified Phipps Conservatory as Fipps College. The article has now been corrected.

About the Author

Robert S. Eshelman
Robert S. Eshelman is an independent journalist. His articles have appeared in Abu Dhabi's the National, In These Times...

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Pittsburgh

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.

Miller is bucking the trend. Many Pittsburgh residents I've spoken to in the past few days have been pumped up by the local media with stories of violent protesters intent on destroying the city. Paranoia and fear run very deep. This has created an inverted narrative. The G-20 is viewed as a savior, offering an opportunity for this battered city, now rising from the ashes of industrial decay, to shine. Conversely, critics of the G-20--especially anyone taking to the streets in protest--are here to muddy the picture and steal Pittsburgh's glory.

Geoff Frost, a local activist, offered a concise statement on the situation: "I think the thing that really strikes me is the whole idea that the people who are coming to meet here to talk about how to fix problems with the climate and the financial crises are literally the people who engineered those problems." Unfortunately, that message isn't getting out to a lot of people in Pittsburgh. A fenced-off city, nearly absent of protest against the G-20, doesn't help.

But, of course, there are protests here. On Thursday about a thousand people gathered in Bloomfield, a neighborhood far from downtown. Until just before the protest, journalists outnumbered protesters by almost three to one. It was the strangest scene I've witnessed at any demonstration in the twenty years I've been going to them. Hordes of photographers, camera people and writers with pens and pads in hand fanned out around the park trawling for someone--anyone--who would speak with them.

On one end of the park, a half-dozen teenagers and twentysomethings sat on the ground playing music. On the other end of the park, a dozen photographers and camera people surrounded a man who was standing by a children's jungle gym with an American flag draped around him--instead of stars, though, the flag displayed corporate logos. Visual material was obviously slim.

Soon, though, the numbers surged to about a thousand, and at 2:30 the protest kicked off. Perhaps a hundred fully padded and helmeted riot police lined one edge of the park. Some held pump-action rifles, presumably with "less than lethal" armaments like beanbag rounds or rubber bullets.

Anne Feeney, a longtime labor activist and union member, offered a somber assessment of the situation. "I'm afraid it seems that the police and the G-20 have learned everything since Seattle, and we've learned nothing," she said. Rather than communicating with the general public, protesters so isolated become engaged in a rehearsed ritual of confrontations with the police that the police will win. "They have effectively made dissent impossible to be visible in this city, and they're willing to spend extraordinary amounts of money to do that."

Around 3 pm, police declared the march an illegal assembly and ordered everyone to disperse. Shortly after, they deployed tear gas on the crowd and used a Long Range Acoustic Device--a vehicle-mounted weapon that sends a high-frequency sound that can cause hearing loss and physical pain. Later in the evening a spontaneous demonstration of antiauthoritarian and anticapitalist activists outside Phipps Conservatory was attacked, and police again used tear gas. Students on the nearby campus were overwhelmed with tear gas while in their dorms. Sixty-six protesters where arrested during these actions.

On Friday, the final day of the G-20 summit, a large demonstration was expected to pass through downtown. Several feeder marches focusing on specific issues like climate change or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were to take place before the noon march. Hundreds of ACLU and National Lawyers Guild observers will be on hand. But so too will most of the 6,000 police and National Guard personnel when the march passes, probably only momentarily, by the meeting place where the architects of global corporate dominance are convening.

Welcome to fortress Pittsburgh, where the Pirates lost 4-1 on Wednesday night and PNC Park officials closed the upper deck because of a lack of fans.

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