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Up in the Air

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With less than a week before protests are set to begin against the G-20 summit of international leaders Sept. 24-25, city and federal officials are still making decisions -- where protesters can march, whether they can camp and exactly what is going to get them arrested -- all while facing a lawsuit and early demonstrations in the process.

Six groups are suing the city, the Secret Service and the state agency that controls Point State Park, claiming the city is delaying or denying their First Amendment rights. Their hearing in federal court was set for Sept. 16. None of the defendants would comment on the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh City Council was prepared to vote Sept. 15 -- after City Paper went to press -- on whether wearing masks or carrying certain items will be grounds for arrest during the G-20 and beyond.

Announcing the lawsuit on Sept. 11, state ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak noted that "nobody has received a permit," despite city assurances. He is one of two lawyers representing the six protest groups, which includes the Thomas Merton Center, organizing a Sept. 25 march from Oakland to the Convention Center summit site -- or to just outside the security perimeter. Three other plaintiffs (CodePink, Three Rivers Climate Convergence and Pittsburgh Outdoor Artists) plan to set up educational camps in Point State Park and the South Side's Riverfront Park. The other two plaintiffs are the jobs-focused Bailout the People and G-6 Billion Journey and Witness, an inter-religious group. 

None of these organizations has said publicly how it will alter its plans should it lose the lawsuit and be denied a permit. On Sept. 11, some groups laid claim -- symbolically -- to Schenley Park, planting flags behind the Overlook.

Meanwhile, march organizers have spent weeks advertising the City-County Building and Federal Building as their final destinations, after starting in Oakland. The city, citing "vague security reasons," according to organizer Pete Shell, has rejected the Federal Building and three other destinations without offering a reasonable alternative. 

The march needs to get close to summit delegates, Shell explains, for them to hear the "people's solution to this crisis," which G-20 policies cause or perpetuate. The city recently rented a Strip District parking lot beside the Convention Center as an open protest area and recommended it as the march destination. But Shell points out that the security perimeter will prevent participants from reaching there without approaching from the North Side. 

"They've basically set this up so they are not approving any demonstrations in Point State Park or the Golden Triangle," Walczak says of city authorities.

There is, perhaps, one exception. On Sept. 23, a green-jobs event will take over the front half of Point State Park. That gathering is organized by the United Steel Workers, the Blue Green Alliance and the Alliance for Climate Protection -- a group founded by Al Gore, who may appear.

The lawsuit charges that the city is favoring this powerful group, with a popular message, over local progressive organizations.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo sought the Sept. 23 permit -- which he doesn't have yet either, says aide Mikhail Pappas. But, Pappas adds, the senator "is prepared to file as a co-plaintiff in this case" to assert that the application process should not be weighed in his favor.

The lawsuit also argues against the city's claim that camping is disallowed in city parks -- and that such encampments are not protected under the First Amendment. Other groups have used Schenley to camp as a protest, the lawsuit points out. Such camps are akin to 24-hour vigils, participants explain, providing time for workshops and other educational events. And the city would be foolish not to help the large crowds establish safe, sanitary sites, they argue. 

Whatever protesters are allowed to do, in whatever venue, they will likely face new laws that could lead police to make unnecessary arrests, planners worry. 

City council seems ready to pass a law banning anyone from using certain tools, "noxious and/or toxic substances" or weapons to defeat a "lawful dispersal order" by police. 

"I don't want anyone to feel they have license to obstruct the public right of way," said Councilor Bruce Kraus in pushing for the bill's passage at a Sept. 9 hearing.

But council is likely prepared to nix a law allowing police to cite anyone who has concealed his or her face with the "intent to commit an unlawful act." 

Assistant City Solicitor Yvonne Hilton had argued that police are well trained in determining individuals' intent. But few councilors expressed confidence in such judgments, and council President Doug Shields pointed to the large number of police citations against people who've given them the finger, which is not even illegal.

"It seems that these ordinances are just greasing the wheel for the violation of civil rights," added Naomi Archer, of Fairview, N.C., in town to organize with local activist groups. She and others pressed council for public discussion of police use-of-force policies and rules of engagement during G-20 -- particularly regarding 3,100 temporary officers from outside the city. They also pushed for an ordinance protecting protesters' civil liberties.

Instead, council introduced a third law that got unanimous early approval. While it simply adds local strictures against public urination and defecation where state laws had already applied, activists fear it may put protest encampments in jeopardy if their toilets aren't up to snuff. 

"We haven't been too welcoming here except for the world leaders," Shields concluded.

Protesters laid claim to Schenley Park for their G-20 encampments
  • Protesters laid claim to Schenley Park for their G-20 encampments

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