Since the Obama administration first announced several months back that the G-20 was going to meet in Pittsburgh on September 24-25, the town has been in a frenzy of anxiety. City, state and federal government are intent on turning the downtown where the G-20 leaders will meet into a military zone and the specter of becoming another “Seattle” has led a very large number of businesses, school districts, universities, museums and other organizations to close their doors for the two days. Many of those closing are not in or near the downtown G-20 zone, and in fact, some are in the distant suburbs. The news media daily reports the terrified reactions of much of the area.
Instead of embracing the G-20 as a coup for the region, people and organizations are behaving as if they are frightened not just by their shadow, but by democracy itself.
Of course, the code word for bad riots by unruly and anarchistic demonstrators at an international event, the brand as it were, is Seattle in 1999. But when you look at the reports, what you find is that:
- Media had to retract original reports of widespread violence by demonstrators.
- The City of Seattle ended up having to pay damages to demonstrators who were wrongly arrested.
- The report by the Seattle City Council a few years later essentially said that what happened in Seattle taught the city not to overreact to demonstrators.
In other words, the fear of Pittsburgh becoming another Seattle during the G-20 isn’t much of a fear at all.
I believe that the G-20 have a right to meet and should be protected, but that the demonstrators also have rights. It seems that virtually all the groups that want to demonstrate are interested in making their points and not in inciting violence. The peaceful confluence of the G-20 leaders and the demonstrators can only have a beneficial impact on our open and free society.
With that in mind, here’s my view of how the major players are handling the G-20:
Law Enforcement: Bringing in extra troops, cordoning off the downtown, restricting and placing patrols around the area are all necessary. We do have to protect the many world leaders coming to Pittsburgh and I applaud law enforcement authorities for what looks like a good plan.
The City: By denying permits to protest, the city has it absolutely wrong. The city should have approved as many of the requests for permits as feasible and then worked with the protesters and with enforcement officials to keep things peaceful. Appropriately trained law enforcement officers know how to maintain crowd order without overreacting.
Organizations: Every organization that canceled its activities and closed its offices for the two days should be ashamed for giving in to baseless and irrational fears and misperceptions about demonstrations and demonstrators. Instead of running from the G-20 experience, Pittsburghers should embrace it. Instead of an exercise in paranoia, we should have made the G-20 a celebration of freedom.