The G-20: A Guest with an Iron Fist
Once upon a time, people in Western Pennsylvania knew authoritarianism when they saw it. It had an unmistakable odor about it -- like the smell of Pinkertons and sulfur wafting up from the steel mills of Homestead.
It didn't wear makeup or attempt to justify itself with flowers or candy. Authoritarianism used to be honest about its own brutality -- and it didn't care much who noticed. When it looked in the mirror, it recognized its reflection. With a wink and a smile, it exercised its prerogative for violence at the slightest provocation. It kissed its brass knuckles and its twirling baton and expected you to do the same.
Over the years, authoritarianism has learned the value of mounting a charm offensive before it comes out swinging. Though it has gotten a face lift or two over the years, it still exhibits the same contempt for democracy it always has. Though it douses itself with perfume and wears a loincloth made of shredded pieces of the Constitution, it stinks of rotten eggs, rubber and pepper spray. When it is doing its business on the streets, it expects you to avert your eyes -- and God help you if you ever question its authority or tactics.
Last week, authoritarianism came back to Pittsburgh. Like any long-lost uncle, it came bearing gifts: national and international media exposure that would take $100 million to achieve, $35 million in cash injected into the local economy and a cavalcade of world leaders who took time from their oligarchies back home to admire the solidity of our fences and barriers Downtown.
All authoritarianism wanted in exchange for these goodies was our soul -- starting with our civil liberties. Our civic leaders, flattered by the "prestige" that comes with hosting a G-20 summit, quickly obliged. Who would miss a little thing like civil liberties, anyway?
For three days, Downtown was emptied of four-fifths of its population and replaced with 4,000 cops who spread out to different parts of the city when ordered to do so by some invisible democracy-hating high command.
The cops given the task of imitating Darth Vader's stormtroopers were a grim bunch. They volunteered to come here from other parts of the country, attracted by the mercenary pay and the opportunity to exert the kind of force on a civilian population their own civic leaders would never let them get away with. Pittsburgh now has the dubious distinction of being the only place outside Russia where sonic weapons were used on a civilian population.
Dressed entirely in black, the irony of the cops' villainous-looking protective gear was lost to them but apparent to everyone they gassed, pepper-sprayed, knocked to the ground and arrested without cause. Yesterday, the city released a list of 190 people, including several journalists, arrested during the summit. Cameras were damaged and film destroyed in a clumsy and bare-knuckled attempt to abrogate the First Amendment.
"As a group, the police responded admirably," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said resisting the urge to identify with people close to his age, but more diminished in power and stature. Mr. Ravenstahl couldn't afford to acknowledge what anyone with access to YouTube can see with their own eyes -- that there was a full-scale breakdown in public order on the part of the cops. The images of the brutal assault on Pitt students and passers-by caught up in an indiscriminate and chaotic police sweep at the University of Pittsburgh on Friday night will surely be a cautionary tale to the next American mayor silly enough to consider hosting a G-20 summit.
An occupation like the one Pittsburgh experienced can't help but change the way people view cops and their civic leaders going forward. For three days, thousands of militarized strangers took possession of our city, ostensibly to "protect" foreign and domestic leaders most of us would never see, much less meet. As one critic of the police action said during a news conference at the Thomas Merton Center yesterday, if the planners of future G-20 summits really want to ensure smooth, dissent-free experiences for the world's leaders, why not have the conferences at military bases?
Security for the G-20 in Pittsburgh is put conservatively at $20 million. There was an estimated $50,000 in damage to windows and storefronts caused by anarchists in a few neighborhoods on the East End. But more than a few windows were broken last week. Something ghastly happened to us.
We proved we were willing to give up something very precious to us for a few days in the international spotlight. We invited authoritarianism into our homes and promised not to whimper while it danced on our necks. This is truly pathetic.
© 2009 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette