For G-20, Pittsburgh became a police state Massive force routed cherished constitutional values.

Posted: September 30, 2009

The world economy may or may not have emerged stronger from last week's G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. And the first non-capital city to host the summit enjoyed the public-relations boon of showcasing its Phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the steel industry. But the Constitution took a hit.

Government officials decided a massive, preemptive police presence was necessary to avoid the raucous demonstrations that marred past economic summits. They established a virtual police state that quickly extinguished any spark of dissent, and a federal court ruling gave them free rein to do so.

To begin with, there was an oxymoronic requirement that groups get permits to march and demonstrate during the summit. Requiring citizens to obtain permission to gather, let alone speak, violates the spirit of the First Amendment.

But even demonstrators who had permission faced zealous intimidation. It started during the first demonstrations of the week, before the summit commenced. Police delayed one properly credentialed march and denied another group access to a public bypass.

Without a warrant or show of probable cause, police also interfered with the activist group Seeds of Peace's attempts to serve free meals to demonstrators from a converted bus, which was parked legally on private property. Police cited the group for silly traffic and vehicle-code violations, and they detained members on loitering charges while they were walking to a residence where they were staying.

Two days before the summit began, U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster offered legal justification for the police activities to come. Noting the extraordinary security needs of an important international gathering, he refused to grant a restraining order sought by Seeds of Peace and another organization.

"I will not enjoin the city from enforcing these laws against anyone," the judge said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He added that Seeds of Peace's good intentions and free-speech rights did not give the group "immunity from local traffic and zoning laws."

Responding to the judge's ruling, Witold Walczak, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told the paper, "It's hard to imagine a situation where a peaceful group that makes food ... could attract this much firepower and police attention and not be [a target of] harassment." It was also hard to understand the judge's comment that the parties were "not here to determine if constitutional violations have occurred."

Judge Lancaster's logic was quite a stretch. Police had ordered the Seeds of Peace bus to stop 20 yards from its destination and then detained it for two hours for a safety inspection by the city's commercial-vehicle enforcement unit. This was hardly routine enforcement of a city's traffic and zoning regulations.

Upholding the city's right to employ such tactics in this early legal challenge set an unfortunate tone for the summit. While the judge's ruling may not have been the final word on possible constitutional violations, it gave the police a pass to do as they pleased in handling the larger planned and unplanned demonstrations later in the week.

The police did just that, arresting, gassing, jailing, and dispersing protesters at will. Thousands of riot-gear-clad police and National Guard troops employed an arsenal of ear-piercing sound effects, rubber bullets, clubs, and chemicals to herd and corral marchers. Protesters and their messages were penned safely into nooks far away from the eyes and ears of the summit participants.

Supporters of such tactics cite the dangers of terrorism, the threat of violence, and the inconvenient disruption of political proceedings as justifications for limiting free assembly and speech. But the First Amendment does not apply only during periods of safety and calm. Indeed, it is during perilous times that constitutional guarantees of speech and assembly are most necessary - and most endangered.

Because any subsequent rulings on police tactics during the summit would come far too late to have any legal or tactical use, Judge Lancaster's early ruling inflicted real and lasting damage. It gave the police unrestrained power, leaving the messy matter of constitutionality to be determined at a later - and meaningless - date.

Steve Hallock is an assistant professor of journalism at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. He can be contacted at shallock@pointpark.edu.

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