[ war zone ]
In the lead-up to last week's G20 summit, Pittsburgh vacillated between fits of excitement and paranoia. Luke Ravenstahl, the city's 29-year-old mayor, told The New York Times Sept. 23 that the confab of the world's 20 economic leaders would dispel the city's "'smoky' image and replace it with the real 'green' image." But outside Ravenstahl's efforts to market the city's environmental renaissance, the real story has been the permeating visceral fear, fueled by breathless media reports about potentially violent protesters, that the G20 would bring with it the kind of chaos often associated with the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Worse, the fear insisted, the summit might lure terrorists to this small metropolis that no longer wishes to be called the "Steel City."
And so the phrase "lockdown" doesn't quite get to the core of how militarized and contained Pittsburgh really was throughout the two-day G20 Sept. 24 and 25. The summit was held downtown, at the six-year-old David L. Lawrence Convention Center — a building, the city would have you know, that has received high honors for environmentally friendly design — which sits at the juncture of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers. In the 18th century, this downtown district was a wartime fort, which means it's relatively easy to keep unwanted people out. Access to downtown, in fact, is largely limited to two landlocked arteries — and during the G20, both of those were completely closed to automobiles and guarded by hordes of cops. The only other way into downtown and anywhere near the summit, then, was via the city's many bridges — and here again, the bridges were closed and guarded by armed military personnel and police in riot gear, standing by concrete barriers and military Humvees. In other words, virtually every road was shut down.
The city of Pittsburgh was ready for an all-out assault that never came.
Ravenstahl told the Times the city had allocated some $19 million for additional security — and it's unclear how much extra the city spent on legal fees after it was sued for civil rights violations, forced to repair various public accouterments and signage, and paid to jail the few protesters who threw bricks through the windows of independently owned businesses.
This $19 million effectively turned downtown Pittsburgh into a police state.
In all, the G20 went smoothly, at least for the assembled power brokers and a city trying to rebrand its image to the world. President Obama called the protests "tranquil." International leaders declared the meeting a success. No one was killed. Injuries were minimal. The weekend following the summit, protests landed more than 100 people in jail; police fired tear gas and used screeching Long Range Acoustic Devices on University of Pittsburgh students like they were insurgents in Iraq. Still, it certainly could have been worse.
The protesters relegated to the event's periphery, however, struggled to cut through the noise and get their message out — that the world's 20 wealthiest nations persistently disregard the plight of the poor, the disadvantaged, the sick and the meek. In the end, though Pittsburgh officials feared that their showcase to the world would turn into another Battle of Seattle, the protests proved impotent.
In 1999, some 50,000 protesters took their anti-globalization message to the Seattle streets, and when all was said and done, they gave their movement a voice. "Not only did the [WTO] protesters succeed in disrupting the meetings of the world's most influential trade-governing bodies," wrote the organizers of the WTO History Project at University of Washington, "but the event drew together incredibly diverse constituencies that represented a wide range of interests, many of which would seem to be incompatible at first light."
Pittsburgh's protests, in comparison, were anticlimatic.
While a diverse community of dissenters did in fact march peacefully and coexist with the international luminaries at the G20 without any major incidents, that success was overshadowed by the size and strength of the city's hired army. And in the future, if outsiders want to overcome such force, new strategies must be considered. For one thing, G20 protests were largely disorganized, says Dave Onion, the long-serving founding editor of Philadelphia's Defenestrator anarchist newspaper. Onion helped organize a caravan from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The Defenestrator Collective also released a special G20 issue with special "alternatives to economic crisis."
"Some of the organizing was definitely disjointed" at G20, Onion says. "There could have been more thought put into a movement-wide strategy, like how to get these [thousands of people] to articulate a strategic alternative to the G20."
Specifically, Onion points to New York City's Right to the City movement, which seeks to protect the rights of lower-income people and minorities, as a model for merging leftist groups under "a unifying platform." "Mostly, at future events like this," he says, "we want to talk about cities as places where people have rights to economic security," he says. "And the economic crisis — and the resistance to exclusively profit-making international unions like G20 — offers an opportunity for resistance in the future."
But that will have to wait for future G20s.
This one was all about the cops.