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The Police Are Rioting: Reflections on Pittsburgh

By David Rovics  Posted by Elaine Brower (about the submitter)     Permalink
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If any elements of the corporate media have been paying attention to what's been happening on the stgreets of Pittsburgh over the past few days I haven't noticed, so I thought I'd write my own account.

There is a popular assumption asserted ad nauseum by our leaders in government, by our school text books and by our "mainstream" media that although many other countries don't have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly -- such as Iran or China -- we do, and it's what makes us so great. Anybody who has spent much time trying to exercise their First Amendment rights in the US now or at any other time since 1776 knows first-hand that the First Amendment looks good on paper but has little to do with reality.

Dissent has never really been tolerated in the USA. As we've seen in recent election cycles even just voting for a Democratic presidential candidate and having your vote count can be quite a challenge -- as anyone who has not had their head in sand knows, Bush lost both elections and yet kept his office fraudulently twice. But for those who want to exercise their rights beyond the government-approved methods -- that is, their right to vote for one of two parties, their right to bribe politicians ("lobby") if they have enough money, or their right to write a letter to the editor in the local Murdoch-owned rag, if it hasn't closed shop yet -- the situation is far worse.

Let's go back in history for a minute. After the victory of the colonies over Britain in the Revolutionary War, the much-heralded US Constitution included no rights for citizens other than the rights of the landed gentry to run the show. This changed as a direct result of a years-long rebellion of the citizens of western Massachusetts that came to be known as Shays' Rebellion. Shays' Rebellion scared the pants off the powers-that-be and they did what the powers-that-be do and have always done all over the world -- passed some reforms in order to avert a situation where the rich would lose more than just western Massachusetts. They passed the Bill of Rights.

Fast forward more than a century. Ostensibly this great democracy had had the Bill of Rights enshrined in law for quite a long time now. Yet in 1914 a supporter of labor unionism could not make a soapbox speech on a sidewalk in this country without being beaten and arrested by police for the crime of disturbing the peace, blocking the sidewalk or whatever other nonsense the cops made up at the time.

If you read the mainstream media of the day you would be likely to imagine that these labor agitators trying to give speeches on the sidewalks of Seattle or Los Angeles were madmen bent on the destruction of civilization. Yet it is as a direct result of these brave fighters that we have things like Social Security, a minimum wage, workplace safety laws, and other reforms that led, at least until the "Reagan Revolution," to this country having a thriving middle class (the lofty term we use when we're referring to working class people who can afford to go to college and buy a house).

Reforms are won due to these struggles -- proof over and over that democracy is, more than anything, in the streets. Yet the fundamental aspect of these social movements that have shaped our society -- these social movements that have at least sometimes and to some degree ultimately been praised by the ruling clique and their institutions, such as the Civil Rights movement -- freedom of speech and assembly, remain a criminal offense.

Fast forward another century to Pittsburgh, 2009. For those who may have thought that the criminalization of dissent was to be a hallmark of the Bush years, think again. Dissent was a criminal offense before Bush, and it quite evidently still is today.

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I was born in 1967, so I can't comment first-hand on things that happened far from the suburbs where I grew up as a kid, but I can tell you unequivocally from direct experience that I have witnessed police riots before, during, and since the Bush years. Most recently, last Friday in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (If you want to read about previous police riots I have witnessed go to http://www.songwritersnotebook.blogspot.com.)

In a nutshell, here's how it went down. I drove to Pittsburgh from a gig in Allentown the night before, all the while listening to BBC, NPR, CNN, etc. on my satellite radio. Naturally, the coming G20 talks in Pittsburgh were in the news. The most powerful people in the world, the leaders of the world's richest nations, were meeting in Pittsburgh to decide the fate of the planet, to decide how to deal with the economic crisis, the climate crisis, and other crises caused by industrial capitalism gone mad, crises which affect each and every one of us intimately, crises about which many of us naturally want to do something -- crises about which we would at least like to voice our concerns.

Notably absent from the news coverage is anything about the lawsuits that the ACLU had to file in order to force the local authorities to allow any demonstrations or marches to happen at all. Permits applied for months ago by state senators, peace groups, women's groups and others were only granted in the past couple weeks. Many other permits were never granted. It doesn't say anything about applying for a permit in the First Amendment, and in many other more democratic countries than ours no permit is required for citizens to assemble. In many European countries where I have spent a lot of time, if citizens choose to have an assembly in the streets the role of the police is to escort the march in order to divert traffic and keep things safe, and no permit is required. But not in the US -- not in Philadelphia or Los Angeles in 2000, not in Miami in 2003, not in Denver or St. Paul in 2008 and not in Pittsburgh last week.

While various progressive organizations were trying hard to work with the intransigent authorities, other groups took the sensible (but -- in the US -- dangerous) position that this is supposed to be a democracy and we should not need to apply for a permit so that the authorities could tell us where and when we could and could not protest.

The first nonpermitted march that I heard about was Thursday afternoon. I should mention that I heard about it, but only with a certain amount of difficulty, because I and many other people I talked to in Pittsburgh were having strange problems with our cell phones, problems which started in whatever states we came from and continued in Pittsburgh right up until yesterday. People I talked to -- friends and fellow engaged members of society such as Cindy Sheehan, Joshua White, Sarah Wellington and others -- reported the same phenomena. Every time one of us would receive a call we couldn't hear the callers, though we could hear our own voices echoing back to us. When we'd call back it usually would work then. Coincidence? Sure, maybe.

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Reports I heard over the phone on Thursday from people I talked to were in between bouts of catching breath and running from the police. Reports on the local media (the only "mainstream" media doing any serious coverage of the protests, as usual, mainly because they were intimately connected to the traffic reports) said the police were "restrained" (what else are they supposed to be?) until the march reached a certain point, at which time it was declared to be an unlawful assembly and the crowd was "dispersed." How? There was no mention.

Usually -- and outrageously enough -- whether in North America, Europe or other places I've been, if there's a meeting of the global elite happening you are not allowed in unless you're part of the gang or you're a lobbyist or a (officially-sanctioned) journalist. Usually a perimeter is formed by the police, Secret Service, FBI, and whichever other "intelligence" agencies are there, that you can't cross. This was also the case in Pittsburgh, but like Miami in 2003, St. Paul in 2008, and other occasions in recent years, the authorities were not just being "on the defensive" and maintaining a perimeter around the meetings. They were on the offensive.

If this happened in Iran or China it would be called martial law -- but here in America we never have martial law, apparently, even when the military and the police are jointly patrolling the streets with armored vehicles and weapons of all descriptions and attacking people for the crime of being on the streets. Any gathering other than the permitted march (which was a great, festive march involving many thousands of participants from all walks of life, albeit with a ridiculously large, armored and menacing police "escort") was declared an unlawful assembly and then attacked. I saw it myself on Thursday night and then again, much worse, on Friday night.

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