Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area for the better part of the last 10 years, I've attended my share of protests, though,
again as a resident of the Beltway, I've spent far more time
trying to avoid them and the traffic nightmares they spawn. Among
the various classes of protesters—pro-lifers, environmentalists,
anti-war activists, and now Tea Partiers—the most destructive are
easily the anti-globalization/anarchist protesters. So when
police clashed with anti-globalization protesters last weekend in
Pittsburgh, one could assume that most altercations represented
justified police responses to overzealous protesters.
But a number of disturbing images, videos, and witness accounts have come out of Pittsburgh, as well as from similar high-stakes
political events in recent years, that reveal the disquieting
ease with which authorities are willing to crush dissent—and at
the very sorts of events where the right to dissent is the entire
purpose of protecting free speech. That is, events where
influential policymakers meet to make high-level decisions with
On the Friday afternoon before the G20 kicked into high gear, a student at the University of Pittsburgh sent me this photo, which
he says he snapped on his way back from class.
It depicts a University of Pittsburgh police officer directing traffic at a roadblock. What's troubling is what he's wearing:
camouflage military fatigues. It's difficult to understand why a
police officer working for an urban police department would need
to wear camouflage, especially while patrolling an economic
summit. He's a civilian police officer, dressed like a soldier.
The symbolism is clear, and it affects the attitudes of the both
the cops wearing the clothes and the people they're policing.
He wasn't alone. A number of police departments from across the country came to Pittsburgh to help police the summit, and nearly
all were dressed in paramilitary garb. In one widely-circulated video from the
summit, several police officers dressed entirely in camouflage
emerge from an unmarked car, apprehend a young backpack-toting
protester, stuff him into the car, and then drive off. It evoked
the sort of "disappearance" one might envision in a Latin
American junta or Soviet Block country. Matt Drudge linked to the
video, describing the officers in it as members of the military.
They weren't, though it's certainly easy
to understand how someone might make that mistake.
Another video shows a police unit with what seems to be a handcuffed protester. Officers surround the protester and prop
him up, at which point another officer snaps what appears to be a
trophy photo. (YouTube has since removed the
and uploaded photos and videos claim police fired tear gas
canisters into dorm rooms, used sound cannons, and fired bean
bags and rubber bullets. One man was arrested for
posting the locations of riot police on Twitter.
Emily Tanner, a grad student at the University of Pittsburgh who describes herself as a "capitalist" and who doesn't agree with
the general philosophy of the anti-globalization protesters, has
been covering the fallout on
her blog. The most egregious police actions seemed to take
place on Friday September 25, when police began ordering students who
were in public spaces to disperse, despite the fact that they had
broken no laws. Those who moved too slowly, even from public
spaces on their own campus or in front of their dorms, were
Lucy Steigerwald, a libertarian student at Chatham University (and daughter of Reason contributor Bill Steigerwald),
describes the scene via email: "I'm truly disappointed in my
city's reaction to Friday night....hundreds of riot cops
attack[ed] Pittsburgh's biggest, most jockish, mainstream
college. And people still have no sympathy for peaceful
protesters or curious college students on their campus.
They just feel comfortable and confident that people who have the
right to use force on other people are always in the right when
they do so. It's pretty scary and disappointing that they're so
trusting with people's right to assembly being at the whim of the
A University of Pittsburgh spokesman said the tactic was to break up
crowds that "had the potential of disrupting normal activities,
traffic flow, egress and the like...Much of the arrests last
night had to do with failure to disperse when ordered." Note that
a group of people needn't have actually broken any laws, only
possessed the "potential" to do so, at which point not moving
quickly enough for the liking of the police on the scene could
result in an arrest. That standard is essentially a license for
the police to arrest anyone, anywhere in the city at any time,
regardless of whether those under arrest have actually done
Pennsylvania ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak said the problem is that police didn't attempt to manage the protests, they simply
suppressed them. In the process, they rounded up not only
innocent protesters, but innocent students who had nothing to do
with the protests. "The reason it's bizarre is it seemed to focus
almost exclusively on peaceful demonstrators," Walczak said on September 26. "Police
can't indiscriminately arrest people. On [Friday] night they
didn't even have the excuse of property damage going on or any
illegal activity. It's really inexplicable."
It certainly can't be easy to both keep order and protect civil liberties at these sorts of events. But that doesn't mean police
and city officials shouldn't be expected to try. A few unruly
protesters (and there was very little property damage at the G20
summit) doesn't give the police license to crack down on every
young person in the general vicinity, nor should it give the city
free rein to suppress all dissent.
The leaders of the world's 20 largest economies and the press covering them came to Pittsburgh last weekend. It's unfortunate
that the images that emerged were not of a society that values
free expression and constitutional rights, but one that at big
events gives its police the sort of power to impose order
normally seen in authoritarian states. In all, 190 people were
arrested, including at least two journalists. One, a reporter
from the left-leaning IndyMedia, says her camera was returned
broken, with her footage of the protests and police reaction
Unfortunately, the projection of overwhelming force at such events is becoming more common. At last year's Republican
National Convention in Minneapolis, police conducted peremptory raids on the homes of
protesters before the convention. Journalists who inquired about
the legitimacy of the raids and arrests made during the
convention were also arrested. In all, 672
people were arrested, including at least 39 journalists. The
arrest of Amy Goodman of Democracy Now was captured
on a widely-viewed video. She was
charged with "conspiracy to riot." Those charges were dropped.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported in February that 442 of
the 672 who were arrested had their charges either dropped or
These are precisely the kinds of events where free speech and the freedom to protest is in most need of protection.
Instead, the more high-profile the event, the more influential
the players, and the more high-stakes the decision being made,
the more determined police and political officials seem to be in
making sure dissent is kept as far away from the decision makers
as possible. Or silenced entirely.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.