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Chanting 'Shut It Down,' Protesters Block Downtown Pittsburgh Streets

“Hands up – don’t shoot!”

That was the cry of dozens of Pittsburghers who gathered downtown Thursday to protest the deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers.

“The average person, the average citizen has to get involved in this. This involves all of us,” said organizer Julia Johnson. “Police brutality, systemic racism, the list goes on and on of the issues that our country is suffering from right now. Everyone must be a part of this movement. We must liberate ourselves from this oppressive system.”

Signs in hand, the protesters gathered in front of the August Wilson Center and marched through Smithfield Street, up Fifth Avenue and then Grant Street until they stopped in front of the City-County Building.

“We are here to say that we care and that we are here to act, and that this system is not sustainable,” Johnson said. “This system will come to an end – this oppression will end.”

They stopped at multiple intersections, chanted “Shut it down” and lay on the street in silence for four and a half minutes to signify the four and a half hours Michael Brown was left on the street after being shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 9.

The protest comes just one day after a grand jury decided there was “no reasonable cause” to indict New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner.

Pantaleo placed Garner in a chokehold while arresting him for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on July 17. Garner died minutes later, and the medical examiner concluded his death was the result of the neck compression plus his health issues, including asthma, and declared it a homicide.

Johnson said her first reaction to the decision was outrage.

“And that outrage was also compounded by the fact that everything was caught on video – watching that video broke my heart, it angered me,” Johnson said, her voice unsteady. “And even with video evidence of exactly what that officer did wrong, breaking the law in order to murder a black man – there was still no justice.”

Protester Kyndall Mason said the recent cases haven’t necessarily changed how she feels about America and its justice system as much as solidified it.

“I’ve always sort of understood institutionalized racism, and I’ve understood the systematic problems that we have, and I think the grand jury cases recently have been more evidence of that,” Mason said.

Bystander Nick Burns, a student at Point Park University, said he agreed with the message of the protests, but not necessarily the methods of closing down streets.

“I watched a woman in an SUV, she had to get to Children’s Hospital, and she had to wait for them, so that’s also kind of tough to see,” Burns said. “So, you know, I don’t disagree with the protests , and I’m obviously against police brutality, but I think the methods are a little – they could be improved.”

But Pittsburgh Police Commander Eric Holmes said they decided to take a “passive” approach and allow the protesters exercise their First Amendment rights.

“It’s a balancing act that we as law enforcement have to take, and that’s the job we signed up for," Holmes said. "But we want to make sure that individuals are allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights, and we do recognize that with that comes a cost, and today that cost was disruption of traffic and a normal flow of those who weren’t involved in this.”

No arrests were made during the protest.

Jess is from Elizabeth Borough, PA and is a junior at Duquesne University with a double major in journalism and public relations. She was named as a fellow in the WESA newsroom in May 2013.