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 far-reaching consequences.
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.
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 arrested.
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 government.
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 anything wrong.
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 deleted.
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 dismissed.
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.