G20 in Pittsburgh
My adopted home of Pittsburgh, USA and my recently vacated home town of Melbourne, Australia now have three things in common:
They have both been voted ‘most livable city’ by various publications and lifestyle monitors. For the last decade, Melbourne has consistently scored up the very top of The Economist’s assessment of world’s most livable cities (just this year, it lobbed in near the top again, rated number 3, with Vancouver number 1 followed by Vienna). And in 2007, Pittsburgh was rated the USA’s most livable city, according to a number of publications including ‘Places Rated Almanac’.
They have both played host city to high profile meetings of world political and corporate leaders negotiating on issues of international finance and trade – in Melbourne the World Economic Forum meeting in 2000 and the G20 meeting in 2006. And in Pittsburgh, the G20 meeting which took place on Thursday and Friday last week.
They both magnetize the loyalty and frustration of a small Australian musician who regards them both now as ‘home’.
In 2000, I was only one of 10,000 protesters who gathered for three days to highlight issues of fair trade, third world debt relief and ecologically sustainable economic development by blockading access to the (newly built and highly contentious) Crown Casino on the Yarra river where the WEF meeting was to be held. These issues were not on the agenda of the meeting, but they were, from the protesters point of view, critical to the world’s future.
I had the easiest job of all: I was simply part of the entertainment, on a stage several hundred meters away from where the human barricades were at their thickest. Along with other musicians, I got to play tunes to help relieve the anxiety and tedium experienced by protesters spending hours and hours sitting around, peacefully waving their placards and occasionally chanting. Some got up and boogied to my set, and it felt good. But there was a sense of unease and fear growing, the blockade was being so effective, surely ‘the other side’ was going to try something drastic.
Sure enough, early hours the next morning, mounted police (that means police on great big horses) charged the barricades, batons a-swooping, to clear a path for the delegates. Police did not have badges displaying their names/ numbers, making it difficult for protesters or legal observers to identify police involved in the illegal activity. This pattern of unidentified police charging on peaceful protesters continued in bursts throughout the rest of the protests. Because of the large number of eye-witnesses, including by journalists, even the normally ‘turn a blind eye’ national newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald reported legal observers as noting:
“Up to 200 protesters had been injured by police who hit them on the head with batons, trampled them with horses, dragged them by the hair, punched, kicked, elbowed and bitten them and driven at high speed to disperse the crowds…”
There were numerous hospitalizations and serious injuries although, luckily, no deaths. Two years later, court cases against the Victorian police relating to these incidents were still continuing. I understand that most of these have been successful ie awarding compensation to the unlawfully assaulted.
After the three days of bloodshed and trauma had finished, the WEF delegates had finished their discussions in Melbourne’s newly legalized gambling emporium and went home. Steve Bracks (the newly elected Labor premier of Victoria) then held a party for the Victorian police and congratulated them on their handling of the protests. That was the day when I realized that supporting the Australian Labor Party was no longer an option for me.
Fast forward to 2009, and I knew that, based on my personal experience in Melbourne 10 years ago, combined with reports from other cities that had hosted G20, WTO and other similar groupings of world economic leaders, that Pittsburgh was in for a shock.
I was not in Pittsburgh over the G20 summit, as I was In Norfolk, Virginia, otherwise engaged in a very different kind of tussle with folk who were from a completely alien socio-cultural planet (although, thankfully, not on horses with large sticks). But when I got back last night, I have pieced together what happened based on friend’s accounts and newspaper reports.
Downtown Pittsburgh, where the G20 meetings were being held, was effectively cordoned off for security measures and was a ghost town for the two days. Many businesses shut, and most colleges here also shut and sent their students away. There were some marches by protesters on Thursday, approved in advance by the local government, which went on without incident. Greenpeace gathered in the West End of the City and tried to display a banner with a message about climate change. Some of them were arrested.
There was one small bunch of protesters, organized by some anarchists and I think also Resistance (International Socialist off-shoot group) who on Thursday gathered in Arsenal Park (in my suburb of Lawrenceville, just a few blocks down from where myself, Tanya and Scott live). They didn’t have a marching permit, but they tried nevertheless to make their way downtown to the David Lawrence convention center where the world honchos were gathered. Some of them were allegedly pushing a dumpster along the road and some also broke a couple of shop windows along the way. Breaking struggling shop-owners property is inexcusable and causing mayhem on inner city streets is also inexcusable behavior. Unless of course you are a Steelers fan on the night we won our 6th Super Bowl this year, in which case you can burn couches on the streets, trash cars and run around in packs drunk out of your mind screaming all night and its all in the national interest.
However, the small band (maybe 400 at the most?) of Lawrenceville agitators quickly learned black headbands, banners and dumpsters were no match for equal numbers of armored riot police lobbing tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets. Many protesters (and unlucky local residents) collapsed from the spray, and there were several arrests.
Apparently word of the encounter spread to University of Pittsburgh students, and a few hundred gathered in Schenley Plaza, near U of Pitt campus. As of today (Sunday 27th), most eyewitness accounts claim there were either no, or only a few, protesters. The rest were just students and general folk who milled around Oakland, Pittsburgh’s groovy university district, on a Friday night. Nevertheless, the police struck out in force again, with rubber bullets, tear-gas and numerous arrests. This time they made the mistake of arresting a Pittsburgh Post Gazette journalist, and there were dozens of witnesses who claimed there were no protests, acts of violence, or threats going on – there were just students suddenly surrounded by police, confusion as they tried to disperse, then they were fired on, then arrested.
However, the good news is that, although some people have been hurt from rubber bullets and tear gas, it appears there have been no serious injuries in the aftermath of G20.
Whether or not you agree with the issues that the G20 protesters want to highlight (and I don’t agree with all of them, certainly not the Resistance propaganda or the shop vandalizing anarchists), it seems to me a stand needs to be taken on whether or not people in a democracy have the right to gather peacefully in the streets, express their views and not be subject to intimidation and violence. They may not have a place at the heavily guarded conference table, but do they have a point? Is the greatest danger to our collective wellbeing the skinny, lost kid stumbling down Butler St with the ‘I protest everything’ sign, or a bunch of world political leaders who are not acting any where near fast enough on the scientific evidence that the world, in the next 2 years, will enter a point of no return in terms of ecological collapse?
One of the final attributes that Melbourne and Pittsburgh have in common is this: a political paradox that runs through America and Australian political life. Both our countries pride ourselves on our democratic principles of government and talk a great deal about freedom and individual rights. But in recent decades both our governments have been quick to curtail those very freedoms – both legislatively (Australia, too, had our own version of the Patriot Act) and in ’emergency powers’ under the pretext of protecting our ‘democratic way of life’.
I note that Kevin Rudd, Australia’s current Labor Party Prime Minister, was in town and gave a speech to CMU last Wednesday. From what I can tell, it was the usual bland belching of ALP hack writer rhetoric, saying nothing in particular about everything in general. Inasmuch as Mr Rudd made greenwash MacStatements about climate change issues ‘affecting us in the long term’ (is 2 years ‘long term’??), you can be sure he is doing nothing in the here in now to re-direct Australia, as one of the world’s greatest carbon emitters per head of population, to avert our headlong rush into chronic water shortages, continued old growth forest logging, and massive tax subsidies for our coal, uranium and other polluting industries.
So where was I when G20 protesters in my very own newly adopted suburb were performing a kind of subversive ballet with dumpsters in front of the police? (and not just the ‘Mr Roger’s Neighborhood’ type friendly ‘help kids across the road’ local cops, but especially imported military trained Federal troopers who could quell-a-riot-in-Iraq type police?).
Well, I was in sleepy Norfolk, Virginia spending two and a half days at a trade show called the Performing Arts Exchange. This is an annual conference based in the South where presenters (people who run theaters, festivals and arts institutions) come to shop for shows to buy and present at their venues over the coming twelve months. I was there with Steve O’Hearn, one of the artistic directors of Squonk Opera, a Pittsburgh based multi-media music troupe. Tanya has been helping Squonk with video projections for several months now. And about a month ago, Steve and Jackie (the other artistic director of Squonk Opera) kindly employed me as their part-time Communications Director, to help them with the large number of administrative and marketing tasks that are needed to run a successful, long-running (17 years) troupe such as theirs.
So instead of facing rubber bullets, I was facing booth displays and showcases by other agents and artists anxious to impress presenters with the audience draw of their talent – which consisted mostly of recent Broadway shows, B-grade Broadway show rip-offs (Jersey Men!), has-been bands from the 1970s and ’80s (eg Procol Harum! Nitty Gritty Dirt Band!), regional wind quartets featuring flautist ladies with plunging necklines, guys in checkered suits who juggled ping-pong balls, Rat-Pack tribute shows, Beatles tribute shows, Patsy Cline tribute shows, evenings with Larry Hagman, heart-warming children’s shows featuring C&W cowboys (Comedy and Western!), an electric violinist that does Led Zepelin medleys! the list goes on.
I will save recounting a little more about my time in the heartland of the mid-Atlantic/Western/South, middle American entertainment industry trying to sell Squonk’s high tech visual wizardry set to abstract, progressive rock soundscapes, to the next blog post. Till then, I should perhaps reflect on the irony that, Norfolk, my haven from G20 confrontations was nothing less than NATO’s global headquarters. Which makes me wonder: so many great musicals have been borne from past wars, but could we create one from our current internal unrest?