Pittsburgh police give Downtown protesters their space
By Liz Navratil
Dec 4, 2014 – Julia Johnson let out a piercing scream on the steps of the City-County Building on Thursday afternoon.
“Stop killing us!” she yelled next. Then, she screamed loudly once more.
Below her, on the steps leading to the Downtown building, dozens of people lay on the ground, their limbs splayed outward as if they were dead. Later, some would be outlined in chalk, and Ms. Johnson would scatter flower petals over their bodies.
On the outskirts of the protest — which at times swelled to include about 100 people — were Pittsburgh police officers on bicycles and on foot, some in plainclothes. Most of them stood silently or chatted with one another while the crowd — over about two hours — chanted slogans such as “no justice, no peace” and “no racist police.”
Their message was being echoed at similar demonstrations across the country — they decried a New York City grand jury’s decision not to indict an officer who killed Eric Garner in a chokehold this year and lamented a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to charge an officer who killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
Protesters rally against police brutality and racism by marching with their hands up along Liberty Avenue, Downtown. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette
But this demonstration, unlike some in other cities, ended peacefully and without arrests.
Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Eric Holmes stood on the fringes of the protest as groups blocked traffic at four intersections and as one of his officers coordinated with demonstrators to clear the path for a woman driving her child to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
The issues discussed, he said, were important to many officers on the force. “I obviously recognize that I’m an African-American male, so I’m going to come to the discussion on both sides.”
Cmdr. Holmes said he took a “passive approach” to working with the demonstrators. “I allowed them to block the street, and I made that call, so that decision rests with me. We wanted to make sure that individuals are allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights and we do recognize that with that comes a cost, and today that cost was [the] disruption of traffic.”
Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, watched as the group gathered outside the City-County Building. She praised the police and the protesters for the way they acted. The 2009 G-20 Summit aside, she said, Pittsburgh residents and police have a long history of peacefully interacting with each other at protests.
Still, tensions at times were high. Iyanna Bridges, who is black, yelled in the street at a white man who she said described their protest and stories as “funny.”
“It was not funny,” she said. Ms. Bridges, 24, who recently moved to the area from New York City, said she cried when she learned that New York City Officer Daniel Pantaleo would not be charged in the July death of Mr. Garner.
“I have two sons,” Ms. Bridges said.
Another mother, Carmen Alexander, 44, of Braddock, said she thinks Braddock officers have unfairly targeted her son and grandchildren. “I’m scared for them,” she said.
A few miles away, at the University of Pittsburgh campus, others held a separate demonstration. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher wrote a letter to students and staff Thursday sympathizing with the protesters and also quoting the university code of conduct, which encourages “an atmosphere of mutual respect and civility, self-restraint,” and other similar qualities.
The Garner and Brown cases, as well as the earlier killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, he wrote, “collectively are galvanizing powerful reactions of anger and outrage across the country because they indicate that for too many, especially those in our African American communities, the American promise of ‘equal protection under the law’ is not being realized … I am proud of our Pitt students and faculty and staff who are channeling their anger and outrage in positive ways that can and will make a difference.”
Liz Navratil: email@example.com First Published December 4, 2014 1:54 PM