With signs reading, "I have family in Iraq -- we are all children of God," and "If you're not appalled then you're not paying attention," at least 1,300 anti-war protesters marched on March 18 from East Liberty to Oakland to mark the third anniversary of the Iraq War. They were escorted by city police the entire way, but were met by an overwhelming display of law enforcement at their destination, the Forbes Avenue military recruiting center.
The show of force included 16 city police in riot gear, eight more officers in green army-style vests, and more than 50 officers in identical black cloth-covered armor from ankle to neck, carrying shields, sticks and other weapons.
March organizer Pete Shell labeled the presence of so many police "overly aggressive and intimidating. It's absolutely uncalled for." Shell heads the Anti-War Committee of the Thomas Merton Center, the Garfield group that sponsored the march.
The march and an earlier rally attracted a number of first-time participants who said they felt compelled to speak up as the war entered its fourth year.
"I felt obliged to come out here; I was waiting for something," said Ottoleo Kuter-Arnebeck, a Carnegie Mellon University freshman living in Squirrel Hill. "If you stop protesting, I guess they're going to be, 'Oh, we can just blow up another country.'"
"Everybody should be here," said state Sen. Jim Ferlo, carrying a hand-lettered sign ("Lying Spying Dying!! Impeach"). But he directed more of his anger toward the U.S. Senate, particularly the Democrats from Delaware and New York: "For the Joe Bidens and Hillary Clintons to be accommodationists at this point, they should hang their heads in shame. If they think the advantage for running for president is to be Bush Light -- that's not the way to be."
At 4 p.m., as the marchers completed their peaceful three-mile trek through Shadyside to Oakland, police had gathered in force near the recruitment center, which has been the target of nearly bi-weekly protests led by the Pittsburgh Organizing Group. The previous night, there had been no uniformed officers visible during a peaceful two-hour POG protest by 50 people. The demonstration had ended with protesters symbolically pelting the glass recruitment center door with foam bricks. Now, with the door freshly tagged with a spray-painted obscenity and the bottom pane broken in the hours since, three lines of police behind a freestanding chain-link fence quickly blocked the entrance. It was unclear which police department they represented -- even a state trooper had overseen the march at one point -- but "Pitt PD" was visible on the turtleneck of one front-line officer.
Two individuals, one in a dark uniform, were visible videotaping the protest from across the street, at 3711 Forbes Ave. In the past, protesters have cited the presence of such observers as a sign that police were surveilling their activities. Police spokeswoman Tammy Ewin says she knows nothing about police renting the room for surveillance. The site once housed a now-defunct store, From the Beyond; the county's assessment Web site contains no ownership information for the address.
For all the taunting the heavy police presence prompted from the crowd, there was only one arrest. According to police and protester accounts, POG member Noah Manion, 20, of Oakland, was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and criminal mischief for the alleged vandalism of the recruiting station.
Two Anti-War Committee members, Bill Neel, of Butler, and Dean Gerber, of Edgewood, say they witnessed the arrest. Both say Manion was walking along when one plainclothes officer told him he was under arrest. Several other officers then pulled him into the doorway of From the Beyond. They then locked the glass door behind them.
Ewin disputes that account, saying that, according to Assistant Police Chief of Operations Nate Harper, Manion was "escorted to a police wagon at Forbes and Atwood."
"That's not true," says Neel, "unless they had another way to get [Manion] outside. They grabbed him, dragged him into the stairwell, threw him down, closed the door and locked the door" from the inside.
Not that Neel approves of the vandalism -- whoever did it. "It doesn't work," he says. "It changes our idea from protesting what we see as an immoral war to a confrontation with police, which is not what we want."
What the anti-war groups want was perhaps expressed most clearly at the previous night's demonstration. Sam Waite, of North Oakland, represented Pitt Against War. "Now we reflect the majority of the country," he said, referring to public-opinion polls showing declining support for the war. "Once the majority of the country starts doing this, the war will stop."