Monday, September 21, 2009

'Flash mobs' test Pittsburgh's tolerance

By Robin Acton and Betsy Hiel , TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pittsburghers carried on business as usual throughout the city Monday ahead of the Group of 20 economic summit, which brought artistic demonstrations to Downtown streets and city parks and led two groups to accuse police of harassment.

Workers erected barriers around federal buildings, security officers patrolled sidewalks fronting banks and demonstrators organized several educational events, but police reported no problems with protesters and no arrests. Amid the preparations, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two groups -- Seeds of Peace and Three Rivers Climate Convergence -- which claim Pittsburgh police illegally targeted and harassed them.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said: "What I will tell you is we believe that we have a well-trained police force that is going to use their training and expertise to keep everybody safe while balancing the First Amendment rights of those that are in our city."

Demonstrators and visitors faced off a few times as "flash mobs" gathered suddenly in public places to perform.

A Just Ducky Tour boat carrying experts in town for the International Coal Conference was blocked in the afternoon near Roberto Clemente Park by three young people on bikes, who unfurled a poster that read, "It's time to move beyond coal."

Liadi Mudashiru, a research associate from an energy institute at New Castle University in England, shouted back: "We support coal. Coal is very safe. ... Coal is going to be very important for the world's energy security in the future."

Dressed in a T-shirt that read "Coal is Dirty," Raina Rippel, 35, a director of Coalfield Justice, countered that mining and waste disposal help to create a "ring of fire" around Pittsburgh.

Earlier in the day, a flash mob of protesters wearing bathrobes and covered in German, English and U.S. flags appeared at Seventh and Penn avenues to serve as a "wake-up call" for G-20 leaders about climate change.

Kim Huynh, 22, a climate activist from the Avaaz organization, said the group wants "a fair, ambitious and binding treaty at the Copenhagen negotiations" in November.

Today, U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster will hear arguments on the ACLU lawsuit that seeks monetary damages and an injunction prohibiting police from searching or detaining group members without a warrant. It asks for a restraining order to prevent police from asking for identification without making an arrest.

Seeds for Peace activists said they've experienced a "pattern of harassment" from law enforcement since Friday. Peter Dolan of Olympia, Wash., said two officers searched their parked vehicles in Polish Hill that afternoon without a warrant and detained the owners when they objected.

The lawsuit claims police illegally searched and seized a bus and forced members to pay $220 to retrieve it from the tow pound.

On Sunday night, 30 officers armed with semiautomatic weapons raided private property in Lawrenceville and attempted to search the buses with no warrant, the group claims. When the owners declined, police detained four group members on loitering charges for two hours before letting them go with no citation, the lawsuit states.

The activists said they found another place to park the buses -- on private property, behind a fence, on Sassafras Street in Oakland. However, Dolan said more than 40 officers, some carrying assault rifles, approached the home Sunday night.

"One officer said that I needed to take a shower and that I was trying to bring swine flu to the state and I was, therefore, a Homeland Security threat. They keep trying to intimidate us," Dolan said.

Last night, a roving police patrol stopped a Seeds for Peace bus shortly before 7:30 p.m. in the 500 block of Larimer Avenue. Activists wouldn't allow officers to search the bus, so they called in the city's vehicle inspection unit.

They cited the driver, Randy Mark of Montana, for failing to have a license that would allow him to operate a bus and for parking on a sidewalk, which the activists said happened after they were pulled over.

"It kind of seems wherever we go and no matter what we do, this happens," said Mark.

On Sunday, police initially blocked the G-6 Billion group from marching on a sidewalk that runs underneath the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Group members said Pittsburgh police Sgt. Sean Duffy later apologized for not reading the permit. Duffy could not be reached for comment.

Organizers reported no incidents yesterday in Point State Park, where groups set up a tent city in homage to war refugees worldwide. Representatives from Black Voices for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine, Code Pink, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War strung banners spelling out "peace" in all the languages of the G-20 nations.

"We realized that 80 percent of the victims of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries are women and children," said Francine Porter of Shaler, director of Pittsburgh's Code Pink chapter. "We thought that our groups were the best to raise public awareness about a global refugee crisis."

Porter and other activists blamed the United States and its G-20 allies for continuing "imperialist" policies that place nations on a constant war footing. They advocate slashing the defense budget and bringing troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The U.S. faces too many challenges at home. We need to take the funds we're spending on war and use them for housing, food, education, health care for people in this country," said Porter, a critical care nurse.

At noon, amateur poets gathered at the park entrance. Some read original works about humanity, homelessness and drug addiction, while others relied on the works of Pablo Neruda, W.H. Auden, Thomas Blackburn and Walt Whitman.

"My brother went to Iraq," said Jay Brunell of Bethlehem. "He died over there. When he came back, the man I hugged was dead."