by Chris Potter
About a month ago, CP's own Marty Levine wrote about what local activists could expect prior to the September G-20 summit. Among other things, one protest veteran warned:
Pittsburghers will soon hear wildly inflated estimates about the number of protesters expected. That, he says, will increase public perceptions of a threat. And, he predicts, so will efforts to demonize protesters by both the police and press.
So here we are, at the end of July, and that prophecy seems to be fulfilling itself. This week's issue of City Paper contains not one but two stories about the local media's treatment of public protest.
In one of those stories, we touch on a KDKA-TV report concerning a recent protest on the North Side. That story, filed by John Shumway, is merely patronizing and smug (and is deconstructed in much greater detail here). It treats the protesters -- who were seeking better pay and benefits at city development sites -- as charlatans, intent on producing nothing more than a bit of political theater.
The other piece, by WTAE-TV, is much more insidious, despite its laughable Reefer Madness-style hysteria.
The WTAE story, in fact, actually isn't about a protest at all. It's about police fears that a month-old minor crime -- trespassing in a former Polish Hill school building -- could lead to protest activity in the future.
Listen for yourself as Shannon Perrine murmurs darkly about the fact that it was "young people" committing the trespass. Note how she and the anchorpeople fret over the "European connections" of some of the trespassers (who appear to have been members of a Swedish rock band on tour). And bear in mind that this incident -- about which the police supposedly still have "questions" -- took place a month ago.
This story pretty much sums up the reason Pittsburgh's TV media has a reputation for small-mindedness. I mean -- holy shit! Young people in Pittsburgh? Clearly, they can't be up to any good. (After all, when Kevin Bacon wanted to dance in Footloose, where did he go? That's right -- a vacant building!)
And for God's sake ... what would Europeans be doing in Polish Hill?
On the bright side, it's nice to see Scandanavians being the target of racial profiling for a change. It gives the 6 o'clock news a little diversity.
What isn't so funny, though, is what this portends for media coverage when the G-20 does come to town.
Perrine's report doesn't quote any of the trespassers -- though one of them lives across the street from the "crime scene." But we were told the trespassers' only agenda was exploring a neat old vacant building. Now, maybe that isn't true, but Perrine's report gives us no evidence to think it's false.
The story itself acknowledges that the trespassers didn't have any "protest materials," so why all the fearmongering about G-20? Perrine doesn't say. She doesn't even identify the source of these fears -- other than nameless "police" and "authorities." The G-20 connection is pure speculation.
It makes you wonder about how Perrine will react when there really are protesters in town. And what about Shumway? His whole story seems to take umbrage at the idea that protesters called police in advance, and explained their intention to be arrested. So if the G-20 protesters do something spontaneous, does that mean he'll take them more seriously? I doubt it. ("Say what you want about the smashed windows and burning automobiles, Patrice ... but at least it's real!")
And make no mistake: When the G-20 comes to town, there will be need for skepticism directed toward both sides. Just today, in fact, we have news from Washington that law-enforcment there may have suppressed evidence stemming from a mass arrest in 2002.
Those arrests involved hundreds of people, who were protesting against the global financial system. (Among those taken into custody was a demonstrator who later became a CP staffer, perhaps as a form of penance.) The police overreacted so badly that the police chief later apologized for the department's actions. Protesters filed a lawsuit against the city for violating their civil rights, and today we learn that
Some evidence [in the case] including a key report and portions of radio transmissions, has vanished. In recent days, the D.C. government has also turned over thousands of pages of records and videotapes to protesters' lawyers, some of which should have been produced years ago.
Attorneys for the protesters are, not surprisingly, accusing local law-enforcement of destroying evidence. The federal judge in the case called the disappearance of key records "abysmal" and "not acceptable."
All of this ought to be a timely lesson for reporters: In large-scale protests, the cops too can get out of hand ... and law-enforcement accounts deserve to be questioned as well. Especially considering that many of the cops who come to Pittsburgh will be from out of town -- just like the protesters.
So keep your eyes open, Ms. Perrine: Some of those cops might even be from Europe.