By David Edward Clark
I talked to Jonathan Sidney ’12 this afternoon about his firsthand experience with the police brutality at the G-20 protests. Here is his account of the event.
Jonathan: I’m not unsympathetic to the people who were there protesting the G-20. My primary concern was with the more general pattern of the suppression of dissent. I’ve observed, not first hand but second hand, what’s been going on in the United States at other events, like the police actions at the Republican National Convention in 2008. The reason I felt like going personally was because I wanted to see first hand what really happens at these events. I hear horror stories of police going crazy on nonviolent protesters, but I haven’t been there. That was my motivation for going.
What I saw while I was there was what I guess is consistent with what I had expected–just really horrible, unjustifiable suppression of dissent, violence against protesters, arrests–just a real climate of fear there. I guess I want to put out a couple of disclaimers before I start going into the stories. First, I’m obviously speaking from my perspective of what I saw and what I’ve observed and what I was thinking. There’s thousands of people involved with the protests all for their own reasons. Different people have different takes on things, so I’m not trying to speak for everyone that was there as to what was.
What I observed was particularly the evenings of Thursday and Friday at the protests surrounding the area of the University of Pittsburgh, the campus area. To me, it was a full on police state. I use that term not in the hyperbolic sense, like chants used at a rally, “This is what a police state looks like,” but in a literal sense, like according to what I think the broad consensus of what a police state is. The way police acted on Thursday and Friday nights at the areas I was at–that was a police state to me.
I haven’t had a lot of time to fully process everything that happened yet. I guess I can start by relaying some of the experiences that I have. I guess I should start by giving a little background. In Schenley Plaza, which is a plaza right in campus at the University of Pittsburgh–it’s really UPitt students’ territory–there was some protest activity going on there because on Thursday night, there was a meeting. I believe it was just a dinner with all of the people who were at the G-20 a quarter mile away. So there was some protest activity going on there with just lines of riot cops in the park closing off the area where the dinner was happening and protesters were there. Though there were protesters there, it was primarily just a lot of UPitt students coming out. There was a toga party going on, so we saw a bunch of kids in togas drunk off their asses, and they’re like, “Oh, it’s a bunch of people. Let’s go over here and see what’s happening.” And what’s happening is riot cops are blocking off an area. At some point, I left that immediate area, Schenley Plaza, and went around to see some of the other activities in the area. I heard smashing windows at some point. It is true–not that this in any way, in my mind and I don’t think in any person’s mind, justifies the police action.
Anyway, there’s this gathering of people–some protesters, a ton of students–and the police declare it to be an unlawful assembly and order everyone to leave the area. They do their warning over the loud speaker that if you don’t leave the area, you will be subject to the use of riot control things like teargas, pepper spray, that kind of thing. The problem is, there are lots of cops everywhere, all around. There’s SWAT teams, helicopters, there’s National Guard people, and it’s not entirely clear how to best leave the area at this point. If you’re a UPitt student who was just trying to get out of the chaos, where are you going to go?
At some point there becomes a sort of large mass of people–this was almost entirely Pitt students–right outside a dorm room, and then that was declared an illegal assembly–the fact that University of Pittsburgh students were congregating immediately outside of their dorm room. The SWAT team came up, made their announcement over the loudspeaker, “You need to leave the area,” their dorm room, “or you will be subject to teargas.” At one point, I saw police literally violently throwing students back inside the dorm. Because there were a lot of things going on at the campus, a lot of chaos, I’m not exactly sure when everything happened, but the police did teargas the dorm room while students were in it. They went in, raided, and gassed the University of Pittsburgh students, the vast majority of which had absolutely nothing to do with the protest. They were all being treated like they were worthy of being tear gassed and have their dorms raided just because they happened to live near a place where there were protests, a small minority of which might have been doing something illegal.
At this point, things just really got out of control. This is when I would really describe it as a full police state. There were just lines of riot cops everywhere just pushing students away, driving entire masses of people out of the area. There was chaos. People really didn’t know where to go. There was liberal use of pepper spray. I myself was in a group of five people–four of us got pepper sprayed… my glasses protected me, so it was not painful. I had a little bit on my face, and I was careful to decontaminate. I didn’t get any in my eyes because of my glasses, but I was with other [Oberlin] students who were pepper sprayed and were really severely hurt by that.
Teargas being shot into the dorm rooms, police locking the dorms so that students couldn’t get out. (Jonathan later corrected himself: Police did release gas on the balconies of a building in which they had trapped hundreds of students. However, to my knowledge, they did not release gas inside of the actual dorm itself.) Protesters who come to these things, a lot of them expect that there will be that kind of police violence and come with bandanas soaked in vinegar or paint respirators to protect themselves from the gas. For these hundreds of University of Pittsburgh students who were trapped in their own dorm room, none of them had anything to protect their faces, because they weren’t expecting to be tear gassed in that way. There was just violence against an undifferentiated group of people for no particular reason other than the “illegal assembly” that was the congregation of students outside of their dorms. That was one of the most jarring instances for me.
I saw some pretty brutal beating of people, most of whom it didn’t really seem like they did anything wrong, other than just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One particularly disturbing case–I saw this one kid who looked pretty clearly like he was a Pitt student just running from a bunch of riot cops just because he’s scared of a bunch of people with armor and guns and all that crazy shit. So he’s running, and five cops just grab him, manhandle him, push him into a wall, smack him down and start beating him. Then 10-15 cops surround the perimeter so you can’t see what’s going on. It’s that kind of insane level of violence that I saw throughout the night, that kinda thing. I’m sure I’m leaving a lot of stuff out, but those are just some of my most vibrant impressions of Thursday night.
Friday night was different. During the day, there was the lawfully permitted major march on the G-20 that took place in the afternoon. At the beginning of that, we had received fliers from someone, which had said, “Fuck the police, go Pitt. 10 o’clock at Schenley Plaza.” It was a proposal of a counter demonstration, presumably protesting the police brutality of the night before…so we went and nervously went into the plaza. It wasn’t clear if there was anybody in charge of the march. It was not organized well at all. I don’t want to say this as something I’m convinced of, but I have some question as to whether maybe the police distributed the fliers, sort of as an excuse to gather people who are antagonistic to them in one place.
Anyway, we go into the park. There are riot cops pretty much on all sides of it, and then there were tons of reinforcements throughout. It’s hard for me to estimate numbers, but I think there were more cops there than non-cops. They had their SWAT teams all around. They had all sorts of unmarked vehicles that would later go around the street picking people up. We gathered in Schenley Plaza at about 10–no real clear organization. There’s a couple of people with megaphones being ineffective at saying anything really meaningful. At one point there was the chant, “We the people have the right to assemble,” which me and some Oberlin people started. There was no one leading things at this point. It was just a gathering of about 300 people, I would estimate, some protesters, but mostly just Pitt students who got drunk and got their cameras out to see what would happen. The gathering in the park–there was no illegal activity other than I smelled a little bit of pot, but there was no violence there and it’s declared an unlawful assembly. People sort of linger for a little bit, then go out into the streets when it’s becoming clear that the plaza will be surrounded on all sides, and there would be no exit point. So we go to the streets for a little and stand there for a while, seeing if maybe the demonstration will pick up.
At some point, I became very uncomfortable with the whole thing. It became clear that the police are going to entrap everyone and arrest everyone they could, so we started to take off. We walked around the neighborhood, and there were just cops everywhere, blocking intersections, preventing people from leaving the area. They were saying, “It’s an unlawful assembly, get out,” and they weren’t providing a mechanism for doing so. On the one side where we could get out of the Plaza, there were bushes that we had to walk through, and while walking through the bushes, we tripped over wires. So, once again, I don’t think it’s crazy for me to draw the conclusion that cops put wires in these bushes to trap people in, basically because those wires weren’t there the last night. I went through the same bushes the night before, if I’m remembering correctly. (Editor’s Note: Jonathan sent this correction through email: I did not go through the same bushes the night before, so I do not know that the wires were not there before.)
At this point, I changed my perspective to, “I want to get out of this situation because I do not feel safe here. I feel like the police are about to riot like the night before,” except with much less resistance than the night before. (Editor’s note: Later, Jonathon clarified in an email: The atmosphere was as much of a police state as the night before, but with much less resistance from everyone else, which for more me made it much scarier and more depressing.) Again, I was out of the action after that point for the most part, but from all of the first hand accounts from other people, that’s what happened.
Apparently there was teargas all throughout the Oakland neighborhood, which was the neighborhood that we were in. It [teargas] was being used on the street, there were rubber bullets being used on the street, again, without any kind of violent action on the part of the protesters, any kind of illegal activity other than their mere presence. I heard that rubber bullets were coming out, teargas, pepper spray obviously again. Unmarked vans were driving through sweeping up group people who were wandering and were literally trying to exit.
We had been trying to get away as far away from the scene as possible. We had walked up and hit the end of a hill, and we wanted to go down so that we could get back to our car, but police were at that intersection. We were walking along this hill now, trying to figure out where to go. I was in a group of five people, and there was a similarly sized group that was close to us on the street. An unmarked van pulls up. A couple of cop cars sweeps that group up. You know, flip a coin and that’s us. They were doing what we were doing. They were trying to leave.
At this point, I had had a camera all week, and I had been recording as much as I could, but I put my camera away at this point because I did not feel secure with a camera out. I felt like if any cop saw me with a camera that in all likelihood, I would be arrested. I talked to a friend who was an independent reporter from Minneapolis, who says a lot of journalists that he knows had their cameras smashed by police. (Editor’s note: Jonathan corrected himself in an email: I only heard of one journalist who had a camera smashed by police, though I heard that at least one other camera was smashed — possibly two or more.) Some journalists he knows were arrested. A lot of people were pepper sprayed. I read that someone from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette was arrested. If you do a Youtube search for the Thursday night police brutality, you can find it, because people had their cameras out, but that was not true to the same extent on Friday because the intimidation and fear was raised to a new level.
We decided to abandon going back to our car because we were just too scared of cops. We did not want to be out any longer. We walked all the way back to the house that we were staying at.
I think the Oberlin administration has an obligation to take a stand on this in solidarity with college students everywhere. The University of Pittsburgh administration, which I am disgusted with right now, basically put out a statement that said students should be careful, use common sense, follow police orders and avoid situations that would lead them to harm. And what exactly does that mean to a student when police orders lead them directly into harm, when the police are ordering them into their dorms and then spraying teargas into their dorms? That makes no sense. No matter what you think about the G-20, no matter what you think about protesting in general or in this instance, no matter what you think about capitalism, no matter what you think about police, as a university administrator, you have an obligation to keep your students safe. By failing to respond to the police thuggery that went on at the University of Pittsburgh, the administration has failed horribly in its obligations and I think that’s something that’s relevant to the Oberlin and they should be taking a stand on this.