Demonstrations for jobs and the poor begin the week's protests
September 21, 2009 4:00 AM
Demonstrators hold flags of many nations during the G 6 Billion march through Downtown yesterday.
An interfaith march organizer speaks with police, who blocked marchers from taking the road underneath the David Lawrence Convention Center yesterday
By Ann Rodgers Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The 400 marchers sang their way through Downtown, carrying flags of the world's nations, until they encountered a phalanx of 30 police officers blocking their route into the bypass that runs under the David Lawrence Convention Center.
Wanda Guthrie, the grandmotherly organizer of the G 6 Billion Journey and Witness, conferred with the officers.
"The police are going to help us and guide us to go around," she calmly told the marchers. "The convention center does not want us to go on private property."
"It's public property," someone yelled. But the crowd cooperated.
The incident ended with an apology from the police officer. But it raised concerns among other organizers that the city is not prepared to handle much larger, potentially rowdier, demonstrations during the G-20 summit Thursday and Friday.
Witold Walczak, the state director of the ACLU, which represented the G 6 Billion and other groups in a lawsuit to obtain march permits, noted that the incident paralleled another yesterday.
At a march for jobs yesterday in the Hill District, police delayed the event at one point, claiming the protesters didn't have a valid permit, even though they did.
The convention center bypass "isn't private property, it's public property. It's a through street, and they had a permit," he said.
"The more distressing thing for me is that the first two demonstrations that were the subject of a federal court lawsuit got bungled by the police, and bungled in a way that they tried to restrict activity. It's either sheer incompetence or something more insidious. It's one or the other, and neither is very flattering."
The interfaith event began Smithfield United Church of Christ. It was a politically and religiously left-leaning crowd. Folk singer Anne Feeney opened with a song satirizing opponents of same-sex marriage.
The big ovations came for two speakers from the trenches of global poverty. Benedicto Martinez Orosco, co-president of a major labor federation in Mexico, said that corporations have pushed people off their ancestral lands and polluted what's left, forcing many to migrate to the United States. Privilage Haangandu, debt program officer for the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection in Zambia, described poor nations burdened with enormous loans that their corrupt leaders had received and then stolen. He described a family of seven that took turns eating because they couldn't afford to eat on the same day.
"This is the message that millions of people in Africa want to put to the G-20. ... We want a complete overhaul of global economic architecture," he said.
"We are going to spent $10 million ... on security for a few days in Pittsburgh when millions of children are starving."
As people left the church, organizers handed them flags. Celeste Vitunic of Hampton asked for Tajikistan's because her son had lived there for two years.
"We're here for the millions of people who are not represented at the G-20," she said.
Just after the police rerouted them, the Rev. Diane Ford Jones of Washington, D.C., who works for Bread for the World, paused to thank Pittsburgh police Sgt. Sean Duffy for his service.
When she rounded the other side of the convention center a few minutes later, Sgt. Duffy asked to speak with her. The Rev. Jones, who was not a scheduled speaker, then took the microphone to relay his message. He had offered an apology, she said, and told her that he had not read the march permit, but had acquiesced to the convention center management.
"Had I taken the time to read the permit ... I would have seen you had permission," she quoted him saying.
Sgt. Duffy, who was nearby, confirmed the account.
"It was an error," he said.
Jonah McAllister-Erickson, an organizer for the Thomas Merton Center, took little comfort in the apology.
"It doesn't bode well for the rest of the week if the police don't know what the permits are for," he said. "It's important that they know what they are supposed to be letting us do."