Testing Democracy in Pittsburgh: The G20 Protest Experience

Working for that waterfront property


My trip to the G20 protests was a reflection of the G20 itself: way out of whack.

The sojourn to Pittsburgh, PA began early, especially by leftist standards. I rose at 5:30 AM on Thursday, September 24, from a mattress I would soon long for. Three William Paterson Young Democratic Socialists (YDS) cadre and I made our way to their campus where we rendezvoused with five other activists from their chapter. And we were off. Well not quite…we realized that there was some miscommunication about the YDS banner and we had to turn around to get it after about half an hour of driving. My comrades and I agreed that this would be the fluke of the trip but in retrospect it was more like breaking the toilet handle on Apollo 13 before the oxygen tanks exploded.

So we were off…again! Our first stop was in Allentown, PA were we picked up a prospective and now full fledged YDSer George Cedeno. After a protracted bathroom brake at George’s house, we were back on the road driving through a beautiful and winding mountain highway. The highway might have been a little too beautiful and winding because there was no “I” on the signs marking it, but what can you do? As part of the paperless and thus mapless, generation we were at the mercy of the Global Positioning System.

In addition to the circuitous route, our progress was also hindered by the condition of one of our vehicles. This little baby was no Formula 1; at 55 Mph it started to shake, and if you dared to break 85 the car would indicate its disapproval by letting go of the road and swerving back and forth. Good thing there was not a cop to be seen. (Un)fortunately for us all the boys and girls in blue within 1000 miles were playing with playing with their Billy clubs and tear gas launchers in Pittsburgh. Needless to say, our seven hour trip lasted upwards of ten.

When we finally reached the City of Bridges there was little rest for the weary. We were stretching our legs in the parking lot for no more than 30 seconds when an attractive “good cop” rolled up and asked us if we needed any help. Being naïve youngsters, we informed our new matron that we wanted to go downtown and asked which buses would take us there. The officer politely responded she wasn’t sure and about one sun salutation later we looked up to notice we were being surrounded by six police cruisers and a paddy wagon.

At first the group was calm. We weren’t doing anything wrong; therefore the cops couldn’t do anything to us. Then we remembered what country we were in and we were gripped by a small panic. After some accelerated democracy, plans to go downtown were scrapped and we agreed to go to “The People’s Tribunal,” a mock trial of the G-20, located across town. Eager to make sure we arrived at our destination safely, our new police friends escorted/followed us for over 20 minutes. Boy did I feel safe!

“The People’s Tribunal” convened at Calvary United Methodist Church, where YDSers enjoyed a free hot vegan meal and relaxed out of sight of big brother. We were joined by comrades from Jobs With Justice, Coordinating Committee at-large member, Sean Monahan of Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America and Maria Spadaro, currently organizing a YDS group at the University of Pittsburgh. The tribunal was filled with other young activists and we began to distribute around 800 pieces of YDS literature to new friends and allies.

The mock court was charged with determining if the G-20 was responsible for violating the human rights of the people. We heard the testimony of over half a dozen witnesses including representatives from Domestic Workers United, United Students Against Sweatshops, and the American Friends Service Committee. One speaker astutely asked “What is our measure of development?” The speaker from the AFSC noted that capitalism and war are both dehumanizing forces and that the G-20 has worked hard to militarize and capitalize the world. The speakers mentioned the ills of the earth, ranging from child soldiers in Africa to abused workers on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the “Wild West” world of domestic workers.

“The People’s Tribunal” was definitely more consciousness-raising than a brick thrown through a Starbucks window. The speakers were articulate and informative, and the judges represented organizations like Hemisphere Social Alliance and Africa Action, Unsurprisingly, the court found the G20 guilty of violating all 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, the event could have been improved if the speakers cited specific actions taken by G20 that led to the violation of human rights.

After the court adjourned, the William Paterson delegation and I drove to Maria Spadaro’s apartment for some drinks but we didn’t stay long as we were exhausted by the day’s adventures. We got back in our vehicles and made a short drive to the housing that we had arranged.

As we arrived our hostess came out to greet us. She looked a bit strange but that isn’t unusual for the left (though it turned out she was a libertarian). Right before we walked in the door she exclaimed that she had four cats and a dog. Being the cat lover I am I thought, “Yeah! Kitties!” But my yeah soon turned into a gag. To say that the house reeked of cat piss would be like saying George W. Bush was not a great president, i.e. a gross understatement. A more accurate description would be that the house was characterized by a cat piss atmosphere. You might even say that it had a cat piss weather system since the floor and carpeting were wet with the feline excrement. An unfortunate few, who will remain unnamed out of courtesy to their families, were “rained” on in their sleep. Needless to say, at least six socks were abandoned on that foul planet.

Waking up the next morning was easy and we kept goodbyes to a minimum. We ate breakfast at a diner with a broken window. Bystanders automatically assumed the “darn protesters” were behind the vandalism. But employing the analytical tools developed by discussing socialist theory for hours in the car ride over, we determined that it was unlikely that protesters were behind the shattering since the McDonalds and the Starbucks across the street were untouched. It was later announced that a group of frat boys were behind the destruction.

After providing the most economic stimulation Pittsburgh enjoyed since the invention of the Bessemer Process, we walked over to the main event, “The People’s March.”

The People’s March was organized by the Thomas Merton Center, a Pittsburgh antiwar group. At the intersection of Craft Street and Fifth Avenue we rendezvoused with other YDS activists from Michigan State University, Philadelphia, and Wooster College of Ohio. There were over twenty YDS activist marching.

We were also joined by just about every other leftist group ever established. From Free Tibet, to Free Palestine, to Legalize Marijuana, they were all there. This is unsurprising considering that the march was co-sponsored by seventy organizations. The group of about 10,000 marched into downtown. Once the buildings were over five stories tall, the sidewalks were lined by police officers spaced five feet apart, dressed in full riot gear, with batons in hand. If you looked up you could see cops on top of and inside buildings, and they stood in ranks five or six deep where space permitted. Some carried tear gas launchers and some carried automatic shotguns. All were really scary.

The march paused in front of a county building and speeches were given. Some of the speeches we heard last night and all spoke of the sad state of the world.

The march continued across the Seventh Street Bridge out of down town where it ended with a rally and more speeches including one by Cindy Sheehan. Realizing the scope of the drive ahead of us, the William Paterson group decided to leave as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that wasn’t so soon.

We needed to get back to our cars but the buses were barely running and when they did they were completely full. After about an hour of waiting we decided we might as well just walk back, but just as soon we started we bumped into a young man we met at “The People’s Tribunal” Thursday night. He had flown in from California so he rented a car. Our new savior offered to take the drivers to the cars so we wouldn’t have to walk all the way back. This was great news since we were all tired from the four hour march. The non-drivers sat down on a curb and waited. And we waited and waited some more.

During our wait we noticed that some police cars were marked Palm Beach County. Palm Beach, Florida? No way! We asked the cops and they confirmed that they came all the way from the Sunshine State just to keep us out of trouble. We later met some cops from Milwaukee, WI who told us that they were making lots of money being in Pittsburgh and beseeched us to hold even more protests in the future so they could all buy second homes. Yeah big government!

After about two hours of waiting to be picked up, the drivers finally called us and said the police had closed all the bridges and had split the city in half with a barricade. So after all that waiting we had to walk back anyway. Finally, reunited in our vehicles, we began our long trek back east. The ride back was relatively uneventful if you don’t count stumbling upon a Nazi book store and being hit by change thrown by a bunch of thugs in Allentown. It’s safe to say that I’ve never been happier to cross the Delaware River and enter the great state of New Jersey.

Overall, the G20 protests were a mixed bag. The protestors performed the important task of visibly criticizing the undemocratic G20 for facilitating the sad state of the world. On the other hand, there was no central organization of the protests and the demands were unclear. The speakers, while they vividly described the world’s many problems, failed to provide the smoking gun needed to garner a mainstream indictment of the G20 for its crimes against humanity.

Nevertheless, the YDS expedition was a great success. Despite my sarcastic tone, we had a good time and strengthened the social bonds that are the mortar of our movement and socialist organization. Like I said before, well over 20 YDSers from New Jersey, Philadelphia, Ohio, and Michigan were united at the demonstrations. Our membership is normally separated by distance, but here we were able to meet, catch up, and trade organizing wisdom. The trip was also an organizing opportunity and will hopefully yield new groups in Pittsburgh and Allentown. With any luck, we will soon be reunited at another large demonstration against the capitalist system and provide the cops from Milwaukee the dough they need to finally purchase that dream house on the shore of Lake Michigan.

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