Pittsburgh Braced for G20 Protests

Law enforcement personnel walk near the site of the upcoming G20 Pittsburgh Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania September 23, 2009. The G20 Pittsburgh Summit will be held on September 24 and 25. (REUTERS/Eric Thayer)

Pittsburgh Braced for G20 Protests

Police seal off city centre to insulate global leaders from potential protests surrounding G20 heads of government summit

A carefully drilled security operation swung into action in Pittsburgh today as police sealed off the centre of the so-called steel city to insulate global leaders from potentially rowdy protests surrounding a contentious G20 heads of government summit.

Nearly 4,000 police and 2,000 national guard troops, plus 11 coastguard vessels, are on standby in Pittsburgh, where President Barack Obama will host talks on issues ranging from the environment to the global economic downturn and restrictions on bankers' pay. The city was chosen as a venue to showcase its recovery from disused smokestacks to hi-tech growth.

Welcome flags adorned the streets and a banner from one skyscraper read "jobs, good jobs, green jobs". Catholic and Anglican bishops have asked every church in the district to ring bells at midday tomorrow to mark prayers for the summit. At a 19th-century greenhouse in the city's botanical gardens, chefs began preparing for an eve-of-summit banquet showcasing local produce, organic foods and sustainable agriculture.

But many restaurants, schools and offices were shutting for the duration of the two-day summit. Scores of shops have boarded up their windows, wary of a constellation of protest groups. Even before the arrival of politicians, demonstrators pressing for healthcare reform, more funds for HIV/Aids treatment and opposing bank bailouts have marched on the G20 convention centre. A group called the G20 Resistance Project is calling for a "peoples' uprising", culminating in a mass march with the theme, "power from below, not impositions from above".

Officials say Pittsburgh is ready. Dan Onorato, chief executive of the local Allegheny County authority, said protestors "come with the turf" in hosting summits: "We view them as our guests and we welcome those who plan peaceful protests. But those who want to do damage to property will be dealt with."

Onorato said he hoped world leaders would leave with an impression of dynamism from a city known as the birthplace of the artist Andy Warhol and as the home of the food brand Heinz. "We want to show how we've remade ourselves and turned ourselves round from an old industrial town."

The bulk of the negotiations will take place on Friday , when 19 leaders of the world's biggest economic powers, including Britain, Australia, Japan and Russia, plus the president of the European Union, will gather at Pittsburgh's David L Lawrence convention centre. The US is calling for a rebalancing of the global economy, pressing rapidly growing economies such as India and China to increase public spending and curtail their vast budget surpluses.

President Obama will urge nations to resist the temptation to cut off economic stimulus packages prematurely. But he will come under pressure from Europe to impose caps on multi-million-pound Wall Street bonuses, blamed for encouraging reckless risk-taking and for contributing to the credit crunch.

To address climate change, the US wants countries to agree on a plan to phase out any remaining subsidies for power generated by fossil fuels, although developing nations such as China, Brazil and Russia are reluctant to agree to this. There will also be efforts to avert any repetition of the global financial meltdown through tighter financial regulation - an avenue which Germany's finance minister, Peer Steinbrueck, has accused Britain of avoiding: "There is clearly a lobby in London that wants to defend its competitive advantage tooth and nail."

Meanwhile, leaders' spouses including Michelle Obama and Sarah Brown will have a meal at Rosemont Farm, a working farm owned by the food heir Teresa Heinz. They will tour Pittsburgh's Andy the Warhol art museum and visit to a local music academy for performances by several stars including the cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

A city of 313,000 people, Pittsburgh is spending $18m (PS11m) on public safety. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that 27 ramps and streets leading into the central area, known as the golden triangle, will be blocked off. The US National Lawyers' Guild is sending 200 observers to watch the authorities' handling of protests, but tensions have already flared, with one group, Seeds of Peace, filing a lawsuit against the police for harassment.Seeds of Peace has accused the authorities of "illegal searches, vehicle seizures, raids and detentions", and has complained that police have repeatedly forced a van cooking food for demonstrators to move. One member said officers had even accused them of failing to have adequate local animal permits for pet dogs.

Several city-centre restaurants awere offering special G20 menus and some local businesses have vowed to carry on with business as usual. Larry Lagattuta, owner of an Italian bakery, Enrico Biscotti, said he hoped that activists would sample a biscuit before demonstrating: "There's an old Buddhist expression,: 'I stand here with my hands open.' We're ready for anything that happens, we're ready to welcome the world."

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