Sunday, September 27, 2009

Gee, Twenty

So the G-20 conference was held in Pittsburgh late last week, and though if you pay attention to the media you might have missed it, for most of the folk in my home town it was a pretty big deal.

The meeting itself involved the top twenty developed countries meeting in one place to discuss how to run the rest of the world. So of a regular mega-summit (and I remember as a child summits were rare, important things - sort of like World's Fairs). But except for the latest move in the nuclear chess game with Iran (where Obama told everyone we knew about the Iranian secret reactor and Iran responded with "Oh, you mean THAT secret reactor"), it was pretty procedural - a few good announcements, some self-congratulation that the economies haven't fallen totally off a cliff, a big dinner at the Phipps Conservatory, and pushing off climate change to the next of these regular events.

Seriously, there was lousy coverage. The Daily Show showed up to mock the media coverage, but there wasn't a lot of it to mock. I had to do some digging to find what was happening, with the best reporting coming off the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Blog (which is devilish hard to access from their front page). Even the liberal blogs were mostly quiet, but then, they had been in town in early August, and still had leftover Primanti Brothers sandwiches in their fridges. But still, the national discourse for the summit itself was pretty lame.

But leading up to this mostly-ignored event, Pittsburgh was in a dither. We are a fretful people, we Burghers. Anyone who has seen me in the run-up to one of our Christmas dinners or gaming day parties know about fretful. Now imagine an entire city caught up in this - Do we have enough rooms? Will the renovation to the local Hilton be complete? What about the stalled and bankrupt projects on Mount Washington? Will the guests get a good opinion of the city? Will they tell their friends? I was in town in early August and we had already hit a fever pitch of frantic worry.

And the local media helped not at all, identifying every tourist with a camera as an advance man for the waves of anarchists that would flood the city. So the city did something that no protesters could do - it shut itself down. Seriously. bridges shut down, shops closed and boarded up, people told to stay away, apocalypse after-the-plague empty streets. Or as they usually call it, Sunday Afternoon. Two full days of Sunday Afternoon.

And they took a hard line with potential protesters, denying permits, tightly constraining permitted sites, and spending a lot of money on bringing law enforcement in from all over the place. Seriously, the cop-to-protester margin was so high, the protesters had their own personal law enforcement valet ("Hello, my name is Officer Gregg, and I will arresting you today"). The cops had clubs, dogs, tear gas, beanbag shot, rubber bullets, and in an advance that will make Pittsburgh a future footnote, the first use of sonic weapons on a civilian population (and no, I'm not talking about the midnight fireworks display at PNC park Saturday night, which steamed MORE people off).

One of the end results of all the hard line was that the cops confronted the illegal protests not downtown, where property damage could happen, but in neighborhoods like Lawrenceville, where the locals got front-row-seats (well, front-stoop-seats) of the conflict plus the bonus of being tear gassed for living in the wrong part of town.

And there were anarchists, though not in the bogeyman numbers raised by the media. In fact the local police are saying half the listed damage was from one guy. Now anarchists are sort of the left-wing version of teabaggers, in that it doesn't take a lot of them to blacken the honest intentions of other protesters. But unlike the teabaggers, anarchists don't wear flags as clothing, don't have the same level of organization and don't have a cable news network planning their rallies for them.

Seriously, anarchists. If you want to get some traction, get a network sponsorship. Maybe Bravo or Cartoon Network.

The largest Thursday conflict was in Lawrenceville neighborhood, where police squared off against 500 illegal protesters. Now, as a point of reference, for WTO in Seattle, they ARRESTED more than 500 people, so this was very, very small. Friday's "official" protest was a well-controlled amble past lines of heavily armed troopers, and numbered around 2000 marchers (again, for reference, we had a pro-health care rally in Seattle with 3000, which was so unremarkable the local paper forgot to cover it). And there was the standard collection of Greenpeacers hanging signs off bridges, monks chanting, protestors hula-hooping and doing interpretive dance (my favorite photo caption was "Protester taunts police by doing handstands"), and some guy from PETA dressed up as a clubbed seal. Or as we in Seattle like to call it -- Sunday Afternoon.

So Friday, everyone goes home, and things go back to normal. Well, except for the Police Riot up at the University of Pittsburgh, where the heavily-armed riot police, with nothing else to do went after a trailing edge of protesters and in the process nailed a bunch of locals, students, and oh yes, a reporter who was guilty of not looking old enough to be a serious journalist. Up to that point, the city pretty much escaped the worst of the police brutality accusations, but riot cops taking pictures of each other standing on downed students pushed that hope off a cliff.

So Saturday night, of course, there was a protest to protest the protest from Friday, but wisely, not as many cops showed up (the out-of-town help apparently went home) and things moved more smoothly (the cops put a couple undercover agents/agent provocateurs in the crowd, which the crowd spotted and outed quickly).

So the end result? More damage was done to Pittsburgh bySteeler fans after the last Superbowl than by the hated and feared anarchists (um.. anarchist). Pittsburgh shut itself down and gave the delegates the impression they were in a heavily militarized ghost town (the Russians were taking notes). A lot of Pitt students and Lawrenceville locals are more radicalized than they were before they were tear-gassed for their own protection. Most of those arrested will have charges dismissed (except for that one guy, and hopefully whatever neanderthal broke the windows at the Irish Design Studio on South Craig). And the city will have to shell out more cash to handle the court cases from over-zealous, heavily armed out of town law enforcement. And the circus moves on to Toronto.

Which is, all things considered, is probably the best we could expect.

More later,