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Activists Condemn Pittsburgh Officials For ‘Cheap And Insincere’ Response to Protester Arrest

Members of Black, Young, and Educated said on Monday that the recent arrest of a Black Lives Matter protester was part of an effort by Pittsburgh police to silence demonstrators. And they said the tactics officers used to make the Saturday arrest belie statements by city officials that safety is their top priority in monitoring protests.

Matthew Cartier, 25, was arrested in Oakland Saturday for trying to block traffic from entering the route of a march that had been organized by BYE. The white tech engineer said armed plain clothes officers lured him to an unmarked van before booking him at the Allegheny County Jail, where he was charged with failure to disperse, disorderly conduct and obstructing a public passage.

Cartier’s arrest, which stoked outrage among those calling for greater police accountability, took place at BYE’s 11th Civil Saturday rally. Each of the events has drawn dozens to hundreds of protesters. But BYE outreach and communications coordinator AD Bagheera said the demonstrations have not led city officials to engage her and her peers’ in substantive conversations about policing issues.

Except for a June 27 email from Pittsburgh Public Safety’s Civil Affairs unit, Bagheera said BYE has “not gotten any communication” from the city. “It has been 51 days since June 27 … For seven weeks, there has been no communication from the Civil Affairs unit or [the] Bureau of Police whatsoever.”

Yet public safety officials fault protest organizers from not communicating with them. At a news conference Sunday, they said the organizers should have shared their plans ahead of Saturday’s demonstration, in the interest of public safety.

“We’re balancing the First Amendment rights of the protesters, and we’re trying to keep them safe, with the safety and the rights of all the other motorists and pedestrians in the city,” Cmdr. Ed Trapp, of the city’s Special Deployment unit, said.

Police spokesperson Cara Cruz added that when Civil Saturdays first started, BYE had cooperated with officers. Although “those channels of communication have largely broken down,” Cruz said, “the Civil Affairs team will continue to reach out to the leadership of all of the groups that are organizing protests in an effort to ensure the safety of protesters and the citizens of Pittsburgh during those demonstrations.”

On Monday, BYE co-founder Nick Anglin disputed the extent to which his organization had ever coordinated with police. He characterized the relationship as an understanding that the police would allow protest marshals like Cartier, who was arrested Saturday, to direct protest routes.

Regardless, Treasure Palmer, also a co-founder of BYE, said going forward, her group does not plan to share march details with the police whose conduct they have long condemned.

Rather, Palmer said, “We really want to raise police accountability. Through the whole entire summer, [Pittsburgh police and city officials] haven’t been accountable for anything that they’ve done.”

And Bagheera added that officials “claims of safety and concern” for protesters struck her as “cheap and insincere.”

Mayor Bill Peduto, meanwhile, said Sunday that he had “serious concerns” about the methods police used in Saturday’s arrest. He ordered Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert and Director of Public Safety Wendell Hissrich to fully examine “operations taken by Pittsburgh Police and by the individual arrested.”

But on Monday, after viewing video of Cartier’s arrest Saturday, Peduto was more definitive in his assessment.

“It is hard to find the words for how livid I was after seeing the online videos of the disturbing arrest at Saturday's protest,” the mayor wrote in a statement. “I have taken the time to review all the video and information that has been made available to me. As Mayor, I will never tolerate these tactics being used at peaceful protests again.”

Later on Monday, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala noted in a statement that city police should not have arrested Cartier Saturday, but should have instead mailed the protester a summons to appear in court. “Pending the review of body worn camera footage which my office obtained earlier today, this matter appears to be a summary offense at best and should be handled by the Pittsburgh Police Department in a summary hearing,” the district attorney wrote in a statement.

During her remarks earlier in the day, Bagheera criticized Peduto more generally for not being consistent in dealing with issues of police accountability. Bagheera recalled that in June, the mayor initially stood by police accounts that they had properly used less-lethal weapons to break up a protest in East Liberty.

Peduto has since requested two independent investigations of the incident. Those probes are still ongoing. In the meantime, however, Pittsburgh police have filed charges against protesters for offenses they are alleged to have committed at other demonstrations weeks earlier.

Anglin suggested that Peduto, who has authority over the police, should instead “stand in solidarity with us” by attending one of BYE’s Civil Saturday protests.

“We will not be shaking his hand,” Anglin said. “Just standing there and hearing our voices would be enough."

Tim McNulty, a spokesperson for the mayor, said that although Peduto “has been careful to avoid large public events due to the pandemic,” he “would consider meeting with demonstrators in another fashion.”