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Pittsburgh Organizers Say Don’t Lose Focus: This Is About Police Brutality

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Thousands marched peacefully on Saturday.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has sparked waves of protests across the country to oppose police brutality. On Monday afternoon, officials held a press conference to discuss how a Saturday demonstration in Pittsburgh devolved into a clash between protestors and the Bureau of Police, and ended with property destruction, tear gas, and rubber bullets.

Mayor Bill Peduto said a small group of anarchists bent on destruction and chaos hijacked Saturday’s protest and betrayed young black organizers.

“And they betrayed them for their own self interests,” he said. “The actions that they took were not supported by the organizers of the event.”

Police and protesters have differing accounts of why the afternoon turned hostile. Representative Summer Lee helped lead Saturday’s demonstration. She said before there were any altercations police took a very defensive stance, and swept through a crowd at Freedom Corner in a way that seemed to incite an exchange.

Many agree that the situation deteriorated when a few people smashed the windows of a police SUV; a widely shared video shows a white man defacing the car. (The suspect, Shaler resident Brian Bartels, turned himself in Monday.) Mounted officers who moved into the crowd were met with lobbed water bottles and rocks.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert said the department plans carefully for all protests and was surprised by how events turned.

“Those officers were doing whatever they could to protect themselves,” he said. “It was a very scary situation, it was a very dangerous situation for our officers.”

Ultimately, two police vehicles were lit on fire. Organizers urged people to disperse; later, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds. Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said they have begun an investigation to find the people who damaged Pittsburgh.

“But it will take months and potentially up to years to determine who the suspects are and to bring them to justice.”

Hissrich, Schubert, and Peduto said they could not offer details about the identities or affiliations of the alleged infiltrators.

To spend the days after the protest assigning responsibility for how things went wrong is a distraction, said Lee. The lamentation about whether the protest was peaceful misses the point: police brutality against people of color in the United States continues unabated.

“The way that black and brown people have been treated in this country has not been peaceful. The way that George Floyd died was not peaceful,” she said.

As Lee tried to make her way home on Saturday she said she walked into the middle of a clash downtown. She asked police how people could avoid getting caught in the action. She said there were officers in one direction and flash bangs in another.

“And it didn’t seem clear where the route of exit was, so we were trying to ask them, ‘if these people wanted to disperse, where even would they be able to?’”

Schubert said there were numerous places where people could have gone.

“Run the opposite way,” he said. “There was plenty of opportunities for them to leave.”

Allegheny County Councilor Liv Bennett also helped organize Saturday’s march. She said she does not condone violence or destruction of property but she understands why it happened: people look around and see systems that oppress more than they lift up.

“For black people it looks like police killings, for workers it looks like not being able to unionize, being paid low wages, for somebody else it might be lack of transportation or access to health care or education,” she said. “They’re all symptoms of this backwards capitalistic system.”

Both Bennett and Lee contrasted the public response to armed protesters demanding the economy reopenafter coronavirus shutdowns to the nationwide protests against police brutality.

“We have to stop pretending that the reaction to black people, to black pain, to black fear, or to black joy, to whatever it may be, is not disproportionately different than the reaction to white violence,” said Lee.

Across the city, faith leaders, elected officials, and speakers at rallies and marches have urged people to go beyond public demonstrations, to advocate for policy change and legislative reform, to call out racism and inequity in whatever sphere or group they find themselves in.

“People who operate in these hateful spaces have been shielded and made to feel safe and that needs to change,” said Bennett.

We cannot go back to the normal that led us here, said Lee, and that will take consistent work.

“I think that so many people are just waiting for this to pass,” she said. “They send messages of solidarity, but … they’re not doing their part to bring about the end of this.”

At a vigil in East Liberty on Sunday, Bishop Loran Mann urged people to work together.

“And I want to encourage us to speak the language of love,” he said. “Hate has divided us, too long. Hate has put too many injuries upon us.”

After the shooting of Antwon Rose in 2018, Lee introduced a bill to address the use of police force. It has yet to be sent to committee.

Police and protestors clashed again on Monday evening. After a large, peaceful assembly in East Liberty dispersed, police said a small group threw rocks and water bottles at them; they responded with smoke canisters and bean bag rounds to disperse the crowd. Protesters dispute that version of events, and Peduto said he will have a transcript of all communications prepared for his review.