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‘Law and order’ depend on your political outlook: Jan. 6 and Pitt’s Gaza protests

A man in a blazer speaks into a microphone in front of the Mister Rogers Memorial on Pittsburgh's North Side
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Former U.S. Capitol police officer Harry Dunn speaking at a lectern on the North Side on Tues., June 4. Former Sergeant Aquilino Gonell is at bottom left. 

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

It’s always risky to hold a political event at the North Side’s Mister Rogers Memorial. For one thing, the continuous loop of tape from the beloved children’s show includes Mister Rogers making animal noises, which doesn’t lend itself to an air of gravitas. And as the past week in local politics shows, when we’re asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” the answer isn’t clear.

But reporters and supporters of President Joe Biden gathered there Tuesday to hear from two U.S. Capitol Police officers who’d been attacked by the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Sergeant Aquilino Gonell described a harrowing battle in which he was struck with his own baton and beaten “with a flagpole with the American flag still attached to it.”

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The two officers, who are making a statewide tour for the Biden campaign, made clear who they blamed: “Donald Trump keeps exacerbating it,” Gonell said. “He calls the people who injured me … hostages, patriots, and political prisoners and promised to pardon them if he wins in November. If those people are hostages and patriots, then who are we?”

Fellow Capitol officer Harry Dunn recalled Trump’s contention that there would be a “bloodbath” if he lost this fall. (Trump was speaking about the plight of the economy, rather than the prospects for civil war, but he has issued similarly dire warnings since then.)

I know what a bloodbath looks like,” Dunn said. “I saw one on Jan. 6th, and I fear it will be even worse if [Trump] regains power. Americans need to wake up. This is not a drill.

The Trump campaign’s response has been to argue that Trump is the only candidate who “supports law and order and will empower local law enforcement,” while Democrats have turned cities into “cesspools of bloodshed and crime.”

Well, maybe not so much. Pittsburgh has seen 17% fewer homicides than it had this time a year ago. And in a trend similar to those in many other cities, that follows last year’s drop of 26% from a 2022 COVID-related high, despite widely amplified fears about police staffing.

Still, those seeking proof of an urban dystopia found it in a two-day protest at the University of Pittsburgh, where police squared off against protesters opposed to the war in Gaza. Footage of demonstrators and police batting metal barricades at each other circulated on TV and social media, along with film of a brief scuffle involving a Republican campaign volunteer. Pitt also reported a handful of acts of vandalism around the Cathedral of Learning protest, while demonstrators objected to heavy-handed and provocative tactics by police.

As we’ve seen with Jan. 6, your response to such events can be shaped by how you feel about the message. And when the message concerns Israel, the homeland for a faith whose adherents have been demonized and brutalized for centuries, things are especially fraught. An early demand by protesters that Pitt sever ties with the Jewish campus organization Hillel, for example, has proven divisive even within the movement, which pulled back from it after acknowledging it “may in fact serve to divide the community.”

But as for the tactics, they’re little changed from those used by the “Black Bloc” protesters who opposed the Iraq War two decades ago — and who, like the protesters today, insisted on masks and anonymity. Compared to Downtown’s months-long Occupy Pittsburgh demonstration a dozen years ago, meanwhile, the Oakland encampment was a model of efficiency.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results, of course, and protesters clearly aren’t through.

“Student dissent over this situation will continue,” one spokesperson declared at a news conference Wednesday.

Still, between this week’s events and a somewhat longer-lived encampment this spring, Pittsburgh has now seen a peaceful end to two protests on an issue that has roiled other cities. The protests barely disrupted anyone’s commute, let alone the transition of power in the most powerful country in the world. Both ended quietly, with a total of three arrests between them.

That’s arguably a win for Mayor Ed Gainey, who was elected amid anger about how his predecessor handled protests of police conduct, and who “came to the table in good faith,” as one protester said.

But protesters have stressed that they aren’t about to join Gainey around the campfire. A good police department/bad police department dynamic appears to have been at work this week, with the city offering a kinder approach than partners at the state police and university itself.

“We were able to negotiate a deal with the mayor to provide safe passage for the students,” who would have been “brutalized” by other officers, said one protester Wednesday.

A mixture of public statements and private conversations suggest this wasn’t a deliberate strategy, but it worked. Sam DeMarco, a local Republican Party leader who urged that "gloves should come off" as clashes with police escalated, agreed with the demonstrators on that much.

"I'm happy it ended the way it did,” he said. “But it happened this way because the gloves were going to come off. …We can't allow everyone who feels aggrieved to occupy, vandalize and damage an institution because of their grievances.”

Before you ask: Yes, DeMarco says that philosophy applies to anyone who broke the law on Jan. 6. Part of his complaint, he said, is that it has been applied to them, while local demonstrators on the left walk free.

“At the end of the day, we as a society need to have law and order,” DeMarco said.

But law and order aren’t necessarily the same thing, and we don’t see them the same way. Conservatives denounce officials who won’t aggressively use the laws to establish order, while Democrats fear that Trump will impose order on others while indulging in lawlessness himself.

And these mindsets exist side-by-side, in a city and a nation where we aren’t sure we want to be neighbors at all.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.