No stampede and 100 arrests

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An old saying goes "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

The corollary might be that when police don riot gear, everyone looks like a rioter.

I'd written a post-mortem on the G-20 as it was ending Friday, little knowing that duck-duck-goose games would break out among college students in Oakland later. Soon after, police arrested more than 100 people, many of them students as well as a handful of journalists. That stemmed any threat the situation in Schenley Plaza might escalate to Ring Around the Rosie.

That's not why arrests were made, of course. Police had intelligence of anarchists in the crowd and had dealt with serious property damage the day before.

Police were undoubtedly tired, but many among those arrested didn't think it was fair for police to give an order to disperse, then bar people from dispersing, and then start arresting people for failure to disperse. That seemed a Catch-22, or at least a Catch-G-20.

Police arrested 48 women in five days during the week of the G-20, 26 of them on Friday night in Oakland, according to police records. (Among them was PG reporter Sadie Gurman, 24.) All but five of the women arrested were 21 or younger.

Nobody's saying young women can do no wrong, but Schenley Plaza is in practice if not in fact an extension of the University of Pittsburgh campus. Early autumn Friday nights typically have young people out and about along Forbes Avenue, though having more than 200 in Schenley Plaza did make it an extraordinary gathering.

An untold number of police were hired from out of town and wouldn't know what a typical Friday night in Oakland is like. A Pittsburgh police spokeswoman couldn't say yesterday how many out-of-towners were among police Friday, but said most were locals. Pittsburgh police were also assigned to each visiting team, and any arrests and subsequent testimony would be handled by Pittsburgh police.

A "trophy arrest" video making the rounds on the Internet shows a person made to kneel on Forbes Avenue before a dozen or more officers for a group photo by their supervisor. That captures the work of a Chicago police contingent Friday night. Pittsburgh police Chief Nathan Harper stated that's not a "trophy photo" but the required documentation of the arrest.

It's dubious that documentation requires that someone kneel before the entire group, but OK. Whatever else Friday night in Oakland was, it raised another old saying, "Hey, you kids, get off the lawn," to the nth power. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. already has identified at least four students erroneously arrested last week. I'm not sure what the over-under is on how many more arrests get tossed out, but I'd set it at half. The number of students and citizens radicalized by these events is harder to figure.

The event made me long to learn more about arrest counts at previous Pittsburgh protests, preferably ones with more actual protesters. So I went back to the Depression era and this story on page 10 of the Nov. 22, 1933, edition of The Pittsburgh Press:

"PACKING STRIKE RIOT JAILS 13; Gangs Stampede Steers, Hurl Bricks as Workers Extend Walkout.

"Steers were stampeded, windows smashed and meat trucks attacked last night and early today in the strike of Pittsburgh packing house workers. Police, striving to curb the violence, made 13 arrests in the worst outbreak in the 10-day walkout."

Strikers and young vandals broke butchers' windows on the North Side, in Lawrenceville and in East Liberty. They stampeded a herd of 35 steers being driven from Herrs Island over the 31st Street Bridge toward Bloomfield by hurling bricks into the animals at 33rd and Liberty.It took an hour for city slickers to round up the herd. Yet there were only 13 arrests.

A week later, the PG had a story of 4,000 people marching from Fifth Avenue High in the Hill District to Downtown -- and only 125 police lined the parade route. Fifty more police greeted the protesters on the North Side, where "Communists assailed the recovery program" and booed President Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Deal programs.

So, a week after serious violence, badly outnumbered police carried tear gas guns to a "motley parade" with actual Communists in their sights -- and made no arrests and held their gas.

Those were the days.

Maybe planners spent so much time before and during the G-20 making sure we're "not like Seattle or London," they forgot this is Pittsburgh. People here aren't going to just join the fray, particularly when there is no fray to join.


Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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