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Binding Resolutions

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Back in 2004, Pittsburgh City Council passed one of those feel-good resolutions that make people roll their eyes at city government. It was a resolution -- non-binding, of course -- taking issue with the PATRIOT Act, the highly controversial anti-terrorism measure passed after 9/11. 

Sponsored by Bill Peduto, city council's resolution faulted the Act for "[e]roding the right of all persons to due process of law," and trumpeted council's "strong support for fundamental constitutional rights and its opposition to federal measures that infringe on civil liberties."

The measure passed unanimously. Three of the councilors who voted for it -- Peduto, Jim Motznik and Doug Shields -- are still on council today. A fourth "yes" vote came from our mayor, Luke Ravenstahl. 

Now, with the G-20 coming to town this month, city officials have a chance to take a civil-rights stand that matters. Which means we're about to learn how much difference there is, really, between local Democrats and the Bush administration. 

Because now, as then, we have law-enforcement officials demanding expanded police power, and using fear to do it. And now, as then, our legislators may make the wrong decision because they're too easily distracted by the flash of a badge. 

As reporter Marty Levine notes elsewhere in this issue, legislation before city council would prohibit the public possession of handcuffs and other "locking devices," which would make it harder for police to disperse a demonstration. Also banned: rotten eggs and other "noxious substances," gas masks and various firearms. Merely possessing these devices could warrant arrest, if a police officer thought they were going to be used "for the purpose of defeating lawful removal" of demonstrators. 

Ironically, the most dangerous items on the prohibited list -- the firearms -- may be the hardest to prohibit. State law bars cities from restricting gun rights ... so it could be easier to wield a gun outside the G-20 than an egg-salad sandwich.

The legislation is hard to understand for another reason: Unlike the threat from terrorism, we know when the protesters will be leaving -- right after the G-20 does. Yet the city's assistant solicitor has told council that the new police powers should be permanent, that they are needed "not only for the purposes of the G-20."

So why wait until the G-20 to propose it? After the PATRIOT Act passed, we learned it was really just a hodgepodge of powers that 9/11 finally gave law-enforcement an excuse to ask for. The same thing seems to be happening here, and the result -- a series of disturbing revelations about civil-rights and privacy abuses -- may be similar too.

Look, I don't think Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper is the next John Ashcroft. I don't think he's a bad guy. But I also don't think he can ensure the new powers will be used wisely. Harper himself has admitted as much.

Even as the police bureau is seeking new disciplinary powers, we're learning that it can barely discipline itself. Witness the case of Paul Abel, a police officer who -- after downing a half-dozen drinks in a South Side bar last June -- got into an altercation with a 20-year-old, during which Abel's gun went off and wounded the other man. Judge David Manning cleared Abel of charges stemming from the incident, saying it wasn't up to a judge to "police the police department." Apparently, it's not Harper's job either. Last week, an arbitrator cleared Abel to return to duty -- over Harper's objections.

"How can we maintain the trust of the public when we can't terminate someone when excessive force is used?" a dismayed Harper asked the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Good question -- especially when you're asking the public to trust you with more power.

The war on terror should have taught us some things: Namely, that overreacting to a threat can be as dangerous as not taking it seriously. That's how you get into situations like Iraq. 

Are there people coming here to stir up trouble, to smash a few windows because they can't smash the state? Almost certainly. They're coming to "prove," through their own repression, that the G-20 represses all of us. And right now, Pittsburgh seems intent on helping them make that case, on playing into the hands of those our leaders fear. 

Unless, of course, our elected officials choose to stand up and show us who the real patriots are. 

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