In the fall of 1999, over 50,000 people gathered in the streets of Seattle to oppose and shut down the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Due largely to the massive outreach, education, and coalition-building efforts of the Direct Action Network (DAN), as well as hundreds of other organizations, this was one of the most diverse protests in U.S. history. Tactical innovations including affinity group organizing, "lock downs," and the creation of the Indymedia Center made this one of the most successful U.S. protests of any kind in decades.
Intersection lock-down in Seattle at the 1999 WTO protest—photo from organizing4power at flickr.com
Steelworkers, farm workers, environmentalists, teachers, students, immigrants, musicians, puppeteers, queer and straight folks and grandmothers came together and shut down the WTO. "The Whole World is Watching!" was repeatedly chanted and spraypainted. Perhaps the phrase was so poignant because it was true—the whole world, or at least the U.S., was watching. North America’s global justice movement had made a definitive stand with undeniable numbers and results. The protests brought the WTO out of the shadows and forced a dialogue within the American public to consider the unchecked growth of corporate globalization.
Across the country, activists took the Seattle model and applied it to subsequent demonstrations against such institutions as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and conferences like the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (FTAA).
The State’s security forces also used Seattle’s model by studying and re-enacting it—so far preventing anything resembling Seattle 1999 from happening again. The past ten years have brought significant police/security developments to counter dissent. "Protest zones," "security zones," overwhelming numbers of riot-clad officers, the use of national laws like the USA PATRIOT Act and the modification of local city laws work together to restrict the ability and mobility of demonstrations.
By the time the Group of 20 met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ten years later, neither the whole world, nor America was still watching. The number of protesters who gathered was a small fraction of the Seattle turnout. A well-orchestrated and well-financed campaign by the police and the G-20 Summit organizers effectively shut down the protests. Pittsburgh was not the culmination of the global justice movements’ efforts, but rather the apex of the state’s ability to control dissent.
Pittsburgh G-20 Protests 2009
On September 24 and 25, the G-20 met at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. Outside the Convention Center, beyond a three-block closed "security perimeter," over 50 different citizen groups came together to protest, including: the United Steel Workers of America, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Free Tibet, Free Palestine, Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project (PG20RP), Thomas Merton Center, Greenpeace, the Raging Grannies, and CODEPINK.
In the days leading up to the Summit, there was a People’s Summit over three days, an International Peace, Justice & Empowerment Summit over two days, Bail Out the People marches, Women’s Peace Initiative marches, the Three Rivers Climate Convergence and tent city, Poets on the Loose, G20-Fight AIDS marches, as well as a large-scale concert. Pittsburgh Indymedia set up a 24-hour live web-streaming and radio broadcast during the week, called the G-Infinity Project.
The Thomas Merton Center’s Anti-War Committee (AWC) and the Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project agreed that PG20RP would be responsible for the opening day’s "People’s Uprising!" march and the Merton Center would organize the second day’s "People’s March."
Also in the days leading up to the Summit, Pittsburgh police, Pennsylvania State troopers, National Guard, DEA, FBI, Border Patrol, Homeland Security, and Secret Service agents, as well as private security firms (such as Texas-based Densus Group and Washington DC-based Civitas Group LLC), descended on Pittsburgh. Police from New York, Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, Georgia, Michigan, Kentucky, and Ohio were also on hand.
Although exact numbers of law-enforcement agents are at this time still unavailable, the Wall Street Journal reported (9/11/09) that 4,000 police and 2,000 National Guard were expected. Not noted in that article or in other published estimates were the number of federal agents and private security officers on hand. According to the Pittsburgh mayor’s office, the total cost for security reached $19.5 million.
G-20 Summit Day One
Downtown Pittsburgh at 11:00 AM. What happens if you have a protest and nobody hears or sees it?
On Thursday morning, the city of Pittsburgh was a ghost town. All schools were closed as were most downtown businesses. Most city, State, and federal offices, museums, banks, and universities also closed. Almost every single business in downtown was boarded up with plywood. Public transportation service was canceled in many areas and most roads were closed to traffic.
In addition to the security perimeter, almost every intersection within two miles of downtown was heavily guarded by an assortment of armored personnel carriers, German Shepherd police dogs, camouflaged Humvees, mounted cops, motorcycle cops, bicycle cops, "riot fences," as well as walls of assorted law enforcement officers dressed in full riot gear. Numerous helicopters flew overhead.
Secret Service spokesperson Special Agent Darrin Blackford explained, "We tried very hard to create a sense that Pittsburgh did not have to shut down for the G-20…but I think the momentum was so strong that people just decided to shut down" (Newsday, September 21, 2009).
About three miles from downtown, in the Lawrenceville area, at 2:30 PM, the Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project’s unpermitted "People’s Uprising!" march began from Arsenal Park. As the Project stated on their web page, "At this time in history, with the very architects of the global financial collapse gathering in our city we need events that start from the premise that it is people who matter, not permits. Our decision to not ask for permission from the system we protest has much to do with our belief that our future lies in community-based solutions, in power from below, in putting justice before law, and in a rejection of the G-20 as a legitimate body for decision-making. We build, not beg."
Youth marching in Pittsburgh
The 500 or so protesters (comprised almost exclusively of young white males dressed in black) left the park chanting "Bankers, bankers, watch your back; We don’t protest, we attack." They marched through the residential streets of Lawrenceville and at every intersection, arguments erupted about which direction to go—some wanted to head downtown, others to various corporate offices. The end result was a disjointed and confused mass of folks who marched into a solid police line within five blocks.
The police ordered the marchers to disperse, then began firing tear gas, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and blasted the crowd with ear-piercing siren sounds called the Long Range Acoustical Device (LRAD). With the first volleys of tear gas, the main bulk of the march split into five or six different directions. During the remainder of the afternoon smaller and smaller groups of protesters ran from the police.
G-20 Summit Day Two
After months of delays from the Secret Service and the City of Pittsburgh, the Thomas Merton Center’s Anti-War Committee at last secured a permit a week prior to the Summit to hold The People’s March. To get this permit, the ACLU was forced to sue the city and the Secret Service on behalf of the Thomas Merton Center and 12 other groups. The resulting march permit was for a significantly modified route well away from the security perimeter.
The march began at noon at the corner of Craft Avenue and 5th, with speakers from the Thomas Merton Center’s Anti-War Committee, the Tibetan Youth Congress, Jubilee Zambia, CodePink Pittsburgh, Palestine Solidarity Committee, Iraq Veterans Against the War, United Steel Workers, Indigenous Environmental Network, African American Workers Union, as well as music from the Raging Grannies and Anne Feeney.
Fifth Avenue escort by riot police
Despite a crowd of around 7,000, there was easily one officer/agent for every marcher. The march was lead by rows of motorcycle cops, escorted by riot cops and followed by armored personnel carriers, police dogs, and mounted police.
Even in the face of the extreme police presence, the march was a well-organized display of the diverse components of the global justice movement. The Free Tibet contingent carrying large bright yellow Tibetan flags was followed by marchers with large green and red Palestinian flags. The Steel Workers marched with Jubilee folks and black-clad protesters were boxed in by the Falun Gong contingent.
The march slowly snaked its way down 5th Avenue to Grant to the steps of the City-County Building. Riot police brought up the rear in a wall of plexiglass shields, four rows deep, sweeping any lagging marchers. The march continued across the river, ending at East Park a few hours later.
Just over 100 people were arrested, most many hours after any actions or events had ended. The majority of these were released and the charges dropped. President Obama summed up the two days of protest as "relatively tranquil" (Associated Press, 9/25/09).
By all accounts, Pittsburgh 2009 was a far cry from Seattle 1999. The most visible difference was the overwhelming police presence at every street corner, bridge, and intersection. Downtown Pittsburgh was totally vacant of workers, residents, vendors, and the usual activity of any large American city.
Luis A. Fernandez, professor of criminology at Northern Arizona University and author of Policing Dissent: Social Control and the anti-Globalization Movement has spent years researching, attending, and examining large-scale anti-globalization protests. In the chapter "Here Come the Anarchists," he explains the State’s "psychological control of space."
"Law enforcement uses numerous psychological tactics to control protest, constructing the meaning of anti-globalization activism through public relations campaigns and media messages. Psychological tactics are social control techniques that operate at the level of the mind, with the goal of creating fear and making it difficult for protesters to successfully mobilize. These police marketing efforts frame the movement as violent, dangerous, and irresponsible, heightening the anxieties of local residents as well as activists."
In the weeks and months prior to the Summit, the Pittsburgh and national news was awash in speculative and dramatic coverage about the potential protests. Seldom, if ever, were the reasons for the Pittsburgh protests given any mention. Here’s a sampling of just a few of the headlines:
"G-20 Protest Plans Raise Alarm in City" (Pittsburgh Tribune Review, 7/11/09)
"Hospital Coordinator Anticipates Unknown During G-20 Summit" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/10/09)
"Pittsburgh Steels Itself for G-20 Protests" (Wall Street Journal, 9/11/09)
Newsday warned the public that the upcoming G-20 threat "…has also caused larger business to take precautions against nontraditional protests or violence—including targets like First-Energy Corp.’s Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station about thirty miles away…. [FirstEnergy] took unspecified ‘extra steps’ for the G-20, spokesperson Todd Schneider said."
On August 6, 2009, the Pittsburgh City Paper reported on a City Council hearing about the security situation. Sam Rosenfeld, a former British Army officer now heading the Texas-based security consulting firm Densus Group, advised the city to prepare for the protesters because they "want confrontation with police—in fact they don’t care if an innocent person gets pulled in because they know ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’" He also warned about one of the groups involved in protest planning, the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, who he predicted would be using "long poles from behind to stab at police officers…a la the Romans."
To a certain degree, some of the protesters and activists played into their mainstream media assigned roles. Vic Walczak, executive director of the ACLU of Pittsburgh, cautioned the city against militant police tactics, ominously warning, "If they do that with this group at G-20, it’s going to be a mess because the people who come in here for that are going to be twice as aggressive as anything the police here have ever seen" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5/31/09).
The Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project’s planned "Everywhere Protest" listed on their website the addresses of over 100 places to consider actions, including recruiting centers, university buildings, and businesses such as Victoria’s Secret, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and Whole Foods. With Pittsburgh’s Channel 4 News cameras in tow, police were sure to inform every business listed they were "anarchist targets" (9/17/09).
Seattle vs. Pittsburgh
Seattle had 50,000 people in the streets. Pittsburgh had 7,000. The authorities utilized the psychological control of space, security zones, and the police presence to reduce the number of protest participants. Protest organizers failed to anticipate and counter what has now become standard police procedure. Outreach and educational efforts by the protest organizers were not enough to bring sufficient numbers of people to the streets.
Pittsburgh did not have the massive participation of college students that swelled the numbers in Seattle. There are just a handful of colleges and universities within a 200-mile radius of Seattle. But draw a 200-mile radius from Pittsburgh and you may have the highest density of colleges and universities in the entire world. Outside of Pittsburgh, I found no evidence of any focused campus outreach efforts by the organizers.
Although numbers are a highly subjective topic when speaking about demonstrations, it is undeniable that numbers talk. In the history of social/political movements the success of a demonstration is based on the number of people who show up to demonstrate. If 7,000 people had shown up in Seattle, the same thing would have happened as what happened in Pittsburgh—nothing.
The decision by organizers to give the Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project responsibility for the first day of protest may have contributed to the overall low turnout. Early on, PG20RP appropriated the language, attitude, and dress fashion of the "dreaded anarchists" whom the authorities had created as caricatures to justify the $19.5 million security budget and subsequent repressive actions. The PG20RP seemed content to focus their time and resources on target lists rather than undertaking the hard work of outreach and organizing. The end result was a tiny, homogeneous group that most likely served to alienate thousands of potential activists before protests began.
The success of Seattle happened on the first day of the WTO meeting. If a multi-day international meeting such as the G-20 is to be the target of protest, it is imperative for activists to gather their largest numbers and make the loudest statements on the first day. This harnesses activist momentum, police confusion, and the news cycle.
By the time the Thomas Merton Center’s Anti-War Committee’s march began on the second day, the G-20 Summit was almost over. The police were warmed up and refined from yesterday’s practice round and well prepared to contain any deviations from the permitted route. Local and national news outlets had already run stories about the previous day’s low numbers and skirmishes with the police. Thus, when there actually was a significant demonstration with a diverse population of activists, it was already eclipsed by the previous day’s events.
Today’s street protests have become little more than clichéd theatrical events with both the police and the protesters falling right into their assigned roles, actions/reactions, and comments. Since Seattle, the global justice movement has not shown the necessary evolution or initiative and needs to develop new tactics and new methods of protest.
It may be worth discussing if U.S. street protests at events like the G-20, IMF, and other such institutions are even still relevant. How can the movement counter a 2-day, $19.5 million "security" budget with the focused intent of silencing dissent? It seems as though the roles have now reversed, with the State expressed mandate to "shut down the protests."
How can the movement make the most effective use of limited resources and capabilities? How can the movement again capture the world’s attention? One such possibility may be to focus on less fortified, smaller local targets which have not spent years or months preparing for a disturbance. There are numerous other possibilities to be explored. As Pittsburgh 2009 clearly demonstrates, the old ways and old targets don’t work anymore and the new generation of activists needs guidance. In order to reclaim a seat in the debate of corporate globalization, North America’s global justice movement needs to reflect and evolve. Ten years ago Seattle succeeded because organizers looked at what worked and what didn’t in protests and created something new. It’s time for that again.
Mac Lojowsky is a playwright and union carpenter currently living in Olympia, Washington. He has been active in the global justice movement since 1996. Pittsburgh photos are by him.