Thank God police work is just one more business in America, with boastful advertising like this. Otherwise, the public wouldn't know what it faced in the streets of Pittsburgh from six different police agencies during the March 18 anti-war protest.
What, for instance, was that thing slung over one officer's shoulder, photographed by Duquesne student Joe Veix at the finale of the march at Oakland's military-recruiting center? Some sort of souped-up Tommy gun?
According to the Web site of manufacturer Sage International, it's the SL6 Launcher: a 37 mm semi-automatic rifle "capable of delivering accurate blunt trauma inducing batons, combination baton/chemical rounds, non-pyrotechnic barricade penetrating projectiles as well as pyrotechnic chemical agents."
In the business of policing, such things are known as "Less Lethal" weapons. But "Less Lethal" is not so much a scientific designation as a sales category, says Gan Golan of Los Angeles, a protest veteran and recent MIT grad who did his thesis on the increasing use of such devices. He informed me -- kindly -- that the orange tape on other police rifles dangling a few feet before the crowd on March 18 signaled not hasty repair jobs but "Less Lethal" status.
"Less Lethal" weaponry is billed as a substitute for lethal force. But Golan contends "The fact that these weapons are called 'Less Lethal' only makes them more likely to be used." And they can still be lethal. A Boston Red Sox fan celebrating a 2004 playoff victory died after a pepper spray projectile hit her in the eye. She wasn't even protesting anything.
"Who wants to go out and engage in freedom of assembly and speech when they know they will face hundreds of heavily armed militarized police officers dressed like stormtroopers?" Golan adds.
While the armored, helmeted troops all in black on March 18 did look like something out of Star Wars: The Winter Collection, the most chilling thing was that they seemed so unnecessary. At 4:05, as one officer stood 20 feet away with that SL6 Launcher, I stepped from the street to the sidewalk and noticed that the recruitment-center door had been shattered and spray-painted. Several protestors were jumping on downed chain-link fences that had been placed temporarily between the sidewalk and street, but I had no problem wandering up to that door. It was not the object of mass protestor wrath.
It was only then -- after the day's lone crime had already been committed -- that the police arrived in three lines, more than 70 strong.
It's not as if the massive police presence had been summoned in response to the vandalism. Two hours before the marchers were due on Forbes Avenue, I saw more than a dozen police vehicles behind Pitt's Posvar Hall, and four more on side streets flanking the recruitment center. Those fences were already up along Forbes and around the doorway to the Marines recruiting center on Meyran Avenue, with a police car parked in the alley next to it. In Oakland, and also at the pre-march rally in East Liberty, there were police on roofs, on horseback, leading dogs, and videotaping from inside cars and buildings. They were watching, waiting -- for what?
The Oakland Business Improvement District had sent a warning to its members on March 10: "Zone 4 Police have advised that Starbuck's [sic] and Banana Republic [in Shadyside] may be potential targets for criminal mischief" during the anti-war march, its e-mail said. Such warnings are not uncommon, reports OBID Executive Director Georgia Petropoulos. The group sent one out before the Super Bowl too.
Was there damage from the anti-war march other than vandalized door? The Shadyside Starbucks on Copeland Street had a damaged window, Petropoulos says.
But not because of the march, says a Starbucks spokesperson.
Pittsburgh Police did not return multiple phone calls about March 18, nor send any explanatory memos. I guess the public is on its own for a while.