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The Police Are Rioting - Reflections on Pittsburgh

If any elements of the corporate media have been paying any attention
to what's been happening on the streets of Pittsburgh over the past
few days I haven't noticed, so I thought I'd write my own account.

There is a popular assumption asserted ad nauseum by our leaders in
government, by our school text books and by our mainstream media
that although many other countries don't have freedom of speech and
freedom of assembly  such as Iran or China  we do, and it's what
makes us so great. Anybody who has spent much time trying to exercise
their First Amendment rights in the US now or at any other time since
1776 knows first-hand that the First Amendment looks good on paper
but has little to do with reality.
The Police Are Rioting

Reflections on Pittsburgh

David Rovics


Dissent has never really been tolerated in the USA. As we've seen in
recent election cycles even just voting for a Democratic presidential
candidate and having your vote count can be quite a challenge  as
anyone who has not had their head in sand knows, Bush lost both
elections and yet kept his office fraudulently twice. But for those
who want to exercise their rights beyond the government-approved
methods  that is, their right to vote for one of two parties, their
right to bribe politicians (lobby) if they have enough money, or
their right to write a letter to the editor in the local
Murdoch-owned rag, if it hasn't closed shop yet  the situation is
far worse.

Let's go back in history for a minute. After the victory of the
colonies over Britain in the Revolutionary War, the much-heralded US
Constitution included no rights for citizens other than the rights of
the landed gentry to run the show. This changed as a direct result of
a years-long rebellion of the citizens of western Massachusetts that
came to be known as Shays' Rebellion. Shays' Rebellion scared the
pants off the powers-that-be and they did what the powers-that-be do
and have always done all over the world  passed some reforms in
order to avert a situation where the rich would lose more than just
western Massachusetts. They passed the Bill of Rights.

Fast forward more than a century. Ostensibly this great democracy had
had the Bill of Rights enshrined in law for quite a long time now. Yet
in 1914 a supporter of labor unionism could not make a soapbox speech
on a sidewalk in this country without being beaten and arrested by
police for the crime of disturbing the peace, blocking the sidewalk
or whatever other nonsense the cops made up at the time.

If you read the mainstream media of the day you would be likely to
imagine that these labor agitators trying to give speeches on the
sidewalks of Seattle or Los Angeles were madmen bent on the
destruction of civilization. Yet it is as a direct result of these
brave fighters that we have things like Social Security, a minimum
wage, workplace safety laws, and other reforms that led, at least
until the Reagan Revolution, to this country having a thriving
middle class (the lofty term we use when we're referring to working
class people who can afford to go to college and buy a house).

Reforms are won due to these struggles  proof over and over that
democracy is, more than anything, in the streets. Yet the fundamental
aspect of these social movements that have shaped our society  these
social movements that have at least sometimes and to some degree
ultimately been praised by the ruling clique and their institutions,
such as the Civil Rights movement  freedom of speech and assembly,
remain a criminal offense.

Fast forward another century to Pittsburgh, 2009. For those who may
have thought that the criminalization of dissent was to be a hallmark
of the Bush years, think again. Dissent was a criminal offense before
Bush, and it quite evidently still is today.

I was born in 1967, so I can't comment first-hand on things that
happened far from the suburbs where I grew up as a kid, but I can
tell you unequivocally from direct experience that I have witnessed
police riots before, during, and since the Bush years. Most recently,
last Friday in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (If you want to read about
previous police riots I have witnessed go to
< http://www.songwritersnotebook.blogspot.com/>

In a nutshell, here's how it went down. I drove to Pittsburgh from a
gig in Allentown the night before, all the while listening to BBC,
NPR, CNN, etc. on my satellite radio. Naturally, the coming G20 talks
in Pittsburgh were in the news. The most powerful people in the world,
the leaders of the world's richest nations, were meeting in Pittsburgh
to decide the fate of the planet, to decide how to deal with the
economic crisis, the climate crisis, and other crises caused by
industrial capitalism gone mad, crises which affect each and every
one of us intimately, crises about which many of us naturally want to
do something  crises about which we would at least like to voice our

Notably absent from the news coverage is anything about the lawsuits
that the ACLU had to file in order to force the local authorities to
allow any demonstrations or marches to happen at all. Permits applied
for months ago by state senators, peace groups, women's groups and
others were only granted in the past couple weeks. Many other permits
were never granted. It doesn't say anything about applying for a
permit in the First Amendment, and in many other more democratic
countries than ours no permit is required for citizens to assemble.
In many European countries where I have spent a lot of time, if
citizens choose to have an assembly in the streets the role of the
police is to escort the march in order to divert traffic and keep
things safe, and no permit is required. But not in the US  not in
Philadelphia or Los Angeles in 2000, not in Miami in 2003, not in
Denver or St. Paul in 2008 and not in Pittsburgh last week.

While various progressive organizations were trying hard to work with
the intransigent authorities, other groups took the sensible (but  in
the US  dangerous) position that this is supposed to be a democracy
and we should not need to apply for a permit so that the authorities
could tell us where and when we could and could not protest.

The first nonpermitted march that I heard about was Thursday
afternoon. I should mention that I heard about it, but only with a
certain amount of difficulty, because I and many other people I
talked to in Pittsburgh were having strange problems with our cell
phones, problems which started in whatever states we came from and
continued in Pittsburgh right up until yesterday. People I talked to
 friends and fellow engaged members of society such as Cindy
Sheehan, Joshua White, Sarah Wellington and others  reported the
same phenomenae. Every time one of us would receive a call we
couldn't hear the callers, though we could hear our own voices
echoing back to us. When we'd call back it usually would work then.
Coincidence? Sure, maybe.

Reports I heard over the phone on Thursday from people I talked to
were in between bouts of catching breath and running from the police.
Reports on the local media (the only mainstream media doing any
serious coverage of the protests, as usual, mainly because they were
intimately connected to the traffic reports) said the police were
restrained (what else are they supposed to be?) until the march
reached a certain point, at which time it was declared to be an
unlawful assembly and the crowd was dispersed. How? There was no

Usually  and outrageously enough  whether in North America, Europe
or other places I've been, if there's a meeting of the global elite
happening you are not allowed in unless you're part of the gang or
you're a lobbyist or a (officially-sanctioned) journalist. Usually a
perimeter is formed by the police, Secret Service, FBI, and whichever
other intelligence agencies are there, that you can't cross. This
was also the case in Pittsburgh, but like Miami in 2003, St. Paul in
2008, and other occasions in recent years, the authorities were not
just being on the defensive and maintaining a perimeter around the
meetings. They were on the offensive.

If this happened in Iran or China it would be called martial law 
but here in America we never have martial law, apparently, even when
the military and the police are jointly patrolling the streets with
armored vehicles and weapons of all descriptions and attacking people
for the crime of being on the streets. Any gathering other than the
permitted march (which was a great, festive march involving many
thousands of participants from all walks of life, albeit with a
ridiculously large, armored and menacing police escort) was
declared an unlawful assembly and then attacked. I saw it myself on
Thursday night and then again, much worse, on Friday night.

And what kind of unlawful assembly are we talking about? Hundreds of
students and other folks, a few of whom may have broken a window or
two at some point during the evening in the course of being pursued
by violence-prone riot police, who were ultimately gathering on the
grass on the campus of the university in the Oakland district of
Pittsburgh. They had no weapons, they were unarmed, mostly youth,
mostly college students from various parts of the country, along with
perhaps an equal group of local college students, most of whom were
just curious and didn't even have anything to do with the protests 
many of whom in fact were just wondering what there is to protest
about! They soon found out one thing to protest about  police
brutality and active suppression of our Constitutional rights.

I have no doubt that the Pittsburgh police (and cops present from, of
all places, Miami as well as other cities) will in the end have
radicalized many local students who had previously been apolitical,
and for this I applaud them.

On Friday night I went to a free concert a local community radio
station was hosting on the campus. It ended around 8 pm. Over the
course of the next two hours there were more and more riot cops
arriving. Why? Because they knew what I knew  that a few hundred
young folks were planning on gathering on the green at 10 pm, many of
whom came by bicycle, after having engaged in a criminal, nonpermitted
mass bike ride around the city. Around 9:30 I had to leave to go to a
different neighborhood, and I returned in my rental car around 11 pm
along with Cindy, Joshua and Sarah.

If the police had made announcements for everyone to disperse (as I'm
sure they had at some point) we were too late for that. What we
arrived in the midst of was a police riot. We parked on the street in
front of the campus and walked on the sidewalk on the campus. Within
seconds we saw a young man on a bicycle, a student at that very
university, being violently tackled by two riot cops, thrown down to
the ground with the police on top of him. All of the police all of
the time were dressed in black armor head to toe, many of them
driving armored vehicles. Earlier in the evening Cindy and Joshua and
I were hanging around one of the armored vehicles while Cindy harassed
the cops and soldiers strutting around there, telling them her son
died in Iraq because he didn't have an armored vehicle like this one.
(They studiously ignored her, of course.)

The young man with the two cops on top of him and his bicycle cried
for help, perhaps not realizing that there wasn't much anyone could
do other than take his name, which he was too freaked out to
pronounce in a way that anybody could understand. Within seconds we
found ourselves running from a group of cops, along with a bunch of
young folks who had their hands in the air, hoping vainly that this
might deter the police from attacking them. It didn't. Off the
campus, a block away, police were running in groups in different
directions, penning people in, throwing them to the ground, hitting
them with clubs, handcuffing them and arresting them.

The four of us (an affinity group I suppose) got separated. Sarah and
I were running and were about to be boxed in by police coming in
different directions. After I was myself clubbed in the back by a cop
with his truncheon, we ducked into the front of the lobby of the
Holiday Inn and started talking with guests, other protesters, and
various students who had also gone there because they were quite
naturally afraid to be on the streets. Fifty feet away in either
direction the police were assaulting and arresting people,
individually and in small groups, picking them off the sidewalks.

Cindy and Joshua had ended up running in a different direction,
through clouds of tear gas. They ducked around a corner just in time
to watch dozens of young people, running away, being shot
methodically with rubber-coated steel bullets in the back. One friend
of mine there from Minneapolis said he saw someone who had ten welts
on his back from being shot ten times. On both Thursday and Friday
nights the authorities used their fancy new LRAD weapons, a
sound-based weapon that causes people to flee because it hurts their
eardrums so badly. (At future demos, look out for the
noise-cancelling headphones accompanying the goggles...)

At every turn you could hear the sound of shocked students who had
never seen or heard about this sort of thing happening, who were
struggling to come to terms with what they were experiencing. They're
just attacking anybody on or near the campus, they're not
differentiating between us and the protesters! Some of them seemed to
think that it might be OK to club protesters as long as you don't club
the students, others had concluded that attacking people for hanging
out on the grass was over the top regardless. (This is not an easy
thing for a sorority girl from a wealthy suburb to come to terms
with, so I was duly impressed at hearing these heretofore clueless
youth having such epiphanies.) What was particularly entertaining was
the first-hand realization that the local students could not
themselves differentiate between their fellow students and the
other ones who had come from out of town. How could they? It is, in
fact, completely impossible to tell the difference between a college
student from Pittsburgh and one from Toledo, even if they do have
very different politics...

Eventually, by 1 am or so, Cindy and Joshua were able to move without
being fired on, and they joined Sarah and I in the comfort of the
patio at the Holiday Inn. The people who worked at the Inn, at least
some of them, were trying to keep protesters out. The thing was,
though, that if you could afford to buy a drink you were no longer a
protester, but a guest of the bar, which is what we were. A little
while before Cindy and Joshua arrived a convoy of limousines and
other fancy cars pulled up in front of the hotel, and then security
locked the doors. You could still go in or out, though, just not
without security opening the doors for you.

We continued going in and out of the bar, passing by none other than
Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister of Australia, and his entourage, who
were all staying that night in the Holiday Inn (of all relatively
downscale places to stay!) and watching some big Australian rugby
match on TV. In our confusion at having just escaped the riot police
only to find ourselves ten feet away from the Australian Prime
Minister, Cindy, Joshua, Sarah and I were all at a complete loss as
far as what we should say to the guy. We all talked a lot about what
we could say, but by the time we were getting close to coming up with
a plan he had gone to bed.

The next day, Saturday, I joined a couple dozen friends and
acquaintances outside the county jail where people had spent the
night, waiting to get out on bond. Most folks got out on bond, others
were (and perhaps still are) being held on a higher bond, waiting for
friends and relatives and comrades to come up with the money. Talking
to people just out of jail I heard more horror stories. One man,
Gabriel, told of being kept outside between 2 and 6 am in the rain,
and then being held in a cell where he was handcuffed to a chair
along with another man, not able to stand or lay down, for 13 hours.

I left Pittsburgh in the late afternoon from the jail, heading
towards New England to continue this northeastern concert tour. In
Connecticut this morning I got a call from Cindy Sheehan, who had
just gone to the Emergency Room because she was having trouble
breathing. People around her the night before had been vomiting
profusely as a result of the tear gas. Having suffered injury in the
past from getting gassed in Quebec City, I knew exactly why she was
in the ER.

There will be lawsuits, and the lawsuits will be won. People like
Cindy and Gabriel might make a bit of money from their suffering at
the hands of the authorities. Not to worry, though  the authorities
have a multi-million dollar slush fund to deal with these lawsuits.
They expect them, and they don't care. This is democracy in the USA.
It's always been like this, under Democrats or Republicans. If you
doubt me, it's quite simply because you don't know your history.

Protest, however, matters. The end of slavery, the banning of child
labor, the fact that most working class people live to be past 30
these days, is all a direct result of protest  of democracy
happening in the streets. Marches, strikes, rebellions, and all
manner of other extra-parliamentary activities. The authorities are
well aware that democracy in the streets, no matter what they say 
that's why dissent is criminalized. Because as soon as we are allowed
to have a taste of our own power, everything can change. It has, and
it will again, but the powers-that-be will continue to do what they
do best  try hard to make sure we don't know how powerful we are.
They require the consent of the governed, the consent of those
students in Pittsburgh, and they have now lost it, at least for many
of those who were in Oakland last Friday night. They would have lost
it a lot more if they had done mass arrests or used live ammunition,
which is why they didn't do that.

We don't have freedom of speech or assembly and we never have, but it
is through all kinds of unlawful assemblies, from Shays' Rebellion
to the Civil Rights movement, that change happens. So here's to the
next Pittsburgh, wherever it may be. I hope to see you there, on the
streets, where our fate truly lies.


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