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Into the Streets: This is What Democracy Looks Like

October 7, 2009

(This article was submitted by Kristi Arbogast, an independent journalist who was in Pittsburgh for the G-20 protests.)

“Tell me what democracy looks like!” The cry went up into the tense air of downtown Pittsburgh, barricaded and boarded up. A few hundred of us marched through the streets, chanting and blowing whistles that someone had handed out. Up ahead the marching band played, consisting of several drums, trumpets, tubas, and clarinets. Press swarmed around us, photographing and recording one of the first marches to oppose the soon to be arriving G20. We continued mounting a ruckus in the road, drawing attention from passersby and chanting out our disgust with corporate greed. At one point, we were forced to snake our way around giant concrete barricades that were protecting the glass walls of a bank. The protestors were itching to change our words into actions, but resisted. After winding our way up town and back down again, my friend and I headed out for the night, eager to rest in preparation for the events of the next day, rest that it turns out we would desperately need.

100_0301A march calling itself the People’s Uprising was set to begin up in Lawrenceville at Arsenal Park. After getting off the bus I had no idea in which direction the park was located but that turned out to not matter. Little masses of people were all heading through the streets in the same direction, and we knew we were getting close by the sound of the helicopter flying overhead. We were being watched. It was an eerie feeling. Rounding the corner we were confronted with police, but we continued on to join up with the rest of the people getting ready to take back the streets. This was a march without a permit from the city, as was the intent of the Pittsburgh Resistance Group that organized this. People were ready for the confrontation that would therefore ensue, wearing bandanas and googles as protection against the pervasive tear gas. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that, at least for me, especially since I didn’t necessarily agree with the political and tactical ideas of most of those I was marching with. If I was to get chased and gassed for something, I wanted it to be for something I felt strongly about.

As we began to march, it didn’t take long for the police to make their presence known. The mood of the mob grew tense and volatile as down the street, barricading our route forward to the conference center where the leaders of the world gathered, stood a line of riot police, German shepherds, and SWAT trucks. Standing on top of the truck was a man dressed in military garb. Seeing the crowd of protestors up the street, he hit the play button on his recorder which blasted this warning to those gathered.


After a shouting match, the crowd disappeared. My friend and I didn’t follow, as she wanted to get out of harm’s way. Me? I wanted to get right in the thick of things. My friend stayed back, watching what was about to unfold from afar. I, however, got closer, moving down the road with media, onlookers, and stragglers from the protest. The police stood at the end, dressed to the hilt in protective pads, shields, and helmets looking at us as if we were going to attack at any second. They kept a close eye on everyone milling about, keeping expressionless and silent. Rumors were rampant about where the protestors had reassembled and how the police had tear-gassed them. Soon I was on a street, riot police wearing gas masks at one end and police marching towards us on the other. I knew I had to get out of there. I went and huddled around with the ACLU Legal Observers, who stood by making sure no unlawful behavior from the police or demonstrators went undocumented. The police closed off the streets, forcing everyone upwards, declaring this was an unlawful assembly.

Further up the road the media was everywhere. Filming, interviewing. The person who was gathering the most attention was John Oliver, the British correspondent from “The Daily Show”. People swarmed him, eager to have their time on the television epitome of liberal cool. For my part, I purposely walked in front of the camera several times. It worked!, as I ended up in the background on the show. 

Eventually the police got sick of us milling around, so they decided to intimidate us by pounding on their shields and marching up the street. People cried out their anger and disgust but eventually had to acquiesce to the law. I was just as angry, because we were all onlookers and media and posed no real threat to anyone. But I had to leave and went in search of my friend, who had decided to get away from the tense situation.


Later on that evening, my friend Jess and I witnessed a large standoff between students and the riot police. The lights from the numerous police cars lit up the night sky at Schenley Park by the University of Pittsburgh. Hundreds of students, along with some anarchists from the day’s earlier march, stood around, watching the massive lines of police all decked out in their riot gear. Then the chanting started, as the students decried the police presence on their campus. Many of us just stood there, watching the scene unfold before us. A great number of these students had just stopped by, taking a break from studying, to see what was going on. The police deemed us to be a threat. 

Just then a city bus full of riot police pulled up and unloaded. They silently joined the ranks of the others. The mounted police, their horses wearing protective face shields, eyed us, especially those who were yelling and riling everyone up. Just then, the newly arrived police, charged through their line and into the crowd, waving their clubs and screaming at us to get out of here. The students fled, freaked out by the unprovoked show of violence. But then we recuperated and re-gathered, re-forming our line of protest. The yelling and chanting continued. The police had enough and decided to start making a move. Standing up by the fountain of the Greek god Pan, I was near to the police, who were on either side of the hill the fountain was situated on top of. All the sudden I hear them yell “MARCH” and they start closing in on the fountain, yelling, “MOVE” to those who stood in their path.  They marched towards me, only a few feet distant, and I slowly walked away from them, frustrated and annoyed that they keep using their brute force. Eventually they forced us all off the hill and into the street, then off the street into the park. Students walking about couldn’t believe their campus had been taken over. Walking away from the standoff to go and join up with Jess, who was sitting safely in a coffee shop up the road, I wondered what would happen next.

Flipping on the news that night, I got my answer. The police at Schenley Park had gassed and arrested the students. I was appalled watching the images on the screen.  What also had me disgusted was the media’s coverage of the People’s Uprising March that I took part in for a few brief moments. Pittsburgh’s news teams didn’t disappoint with their stereotypical coverage of protests. They focused solely on the property destruction caused by the few and didn’t even touch on why we were protesting in the first place. The media painted us demonstrators as a bunch of hooligans who didn’t know what we stood for and why we were so angry. If they had only asked or took the time to delve into the issues. No wonder the people dislike us and misunderstand us! We are being misrepresented! I hoped things would be different the next day.


After going to a lecture by some prominent Latin American labor union and civil rights leaders in which they detailed the despicable meddling of the United States in their countries, Jess and I were riled up to speak out. Today was going to be the huge march, the city permitted one, guaranteed to be constitutionally protected. I was excited. Jess and I mingled with the thousands gathered. Those marching were as varied as their political opinions, coming from all corners of the state and country to protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, healthcare, Tibet, Palestine, capitalism, bailouts, the World Trade Organization, and the unfair ratio of twenty world leaders to the 6 billion inhabitants of the world.

After some speakers, we were on our way. Eight thousand strong we marched down the streets of Pittsburgh, heading to the heart of the city. We were jubilant to all be gathered together, sharing the common idea of having our causes represented. Walking amidst the different groups of people, chanting one song and then another, I was amazed by the passions and convictions of those around me. But I was also slightly disappointed. The march felt disjointed. We had the public ear but we were yelling everything to them at once. I felt that if we had a clear message, focusing on one or two things, chanting the same songs together, eight thousand strong, we would have really captured the attention of the media, the public, and those who gathered on the sidewalks to watch us pass by. 

But we continued to march, each with our own ideas, under the watchful eyes of the riot police lining the route. As we passed by them, I looked at the solemn faced police officers, trying to catch their gaze to humanize them for me. Dressed up in their full riot gear, they looked more like robots than humans. When our eyes met, the police would always quickly look away, perhaps afraid to humanize us demonstrators. Regardless I kept looking and marching.


After marching for miles and crossing the Andy Warhol Bridge to the other side of Pittsburgh, we stopped at a park for our final rally. Exhausted, the thousands of protestors collapsed on the grass. I looked out over the river to the white roofed David Lawrence Convention Center where the leaders of the world were seated, talking about things we could only guess at. This was as close as we could get to them, and I wondered if they had even heard our voices.

This doubt continued to nag at me as I wondered if what we had all just done would make any change in the grand scheme of things. I decided that no, on the world stage it didn’t really make a difference. That is almost impossible. But what we did change was ourselves and those who are a part of our lives. By each one of us protestors being there we had taken a firm stand in what we believed in and what we felt needed to be changed to better this world. Our passion for truth would draw the curiosity of our friends and families, and we would tell them about the ills of the world and our desire for change. A chain reaction of information and ideals would pass from one person to the other. This spark will help inflame our ability to demand real change from our leaders, as more and more of us take a closer look at the world around us. Glancing around the park in Pittsburgh at the thousands gathered under the sun, I began to feel hopeful again.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Vance permalink
    October 8, 2009 8:54 pm

    Excellent Jeff… Thanks!

  2. note permalink
    October 14, 2009 5:56 pm

    To the above commentor:

    Jeff did not write this piece, thanks should go to the author Kristi Arbogast.

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