By Ryan Deto
Pittsburgh City Paper
June 10, 2020 – There have now been more than a dozen protests across the Pittsburgh region for George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis Police, and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by Louisville police. The protests are condemning police brutality against Black people; the tens of thousands of Pittsburghers who have marched are calling for swift and decisive reforms to police departments.
The vast majority of the protests have concluded without incident or serious confrontation with police. But there has been a lot of confusion around what happened during protests that took place on May 30 and June 1, both of which ended in confrontations with police and police firing tear gas and sponge rounds or rubber bullets.
Many reports have largely relied on information solely from police. And considering that police admitted lying about using tear gas during the protest on June 1, Pittsburgh City Paper is attempting to document what happened on May 30 and June 1 through its own reporting, videos on social media, and other reports from journalists on the ground during these events.
University of Pittsburgh criminology professor and national policing expert David Harris also provided insight after CP informed him in detail of both what has been reported and what CP witnessed on both May 30 and June 1.
Here is what is known from the protest and events following on May 30:
More than 3,000 people marched for about two hours Downtown to PPG Paints Arena without incident. Shortly after they arrived outside the arena, a 20-year-old white Shaler man allegedly damaged an empty police vehicle, spray-painting it and smashing its windows. Shortly after, more young men, both white and Black, continued to damage the vehicle with blunt instruments like baseball bats. Then, several police officers arrived on horseback and surrounded the vehicle, causing the crowd to recede. Some protesters threw a few water bottles at the officers, hitting at least one in the back. The police officers then rode away from the car toward Downtown.
After mounted officers left, more damage was done to the empty vehicle and then it was set on fire. Calls began for the protest to disperse from some apparent protest organizers. At this point, the vast majority of the crowd left. However, about 200 people remained and began demonstrating on Washington Place in front of several police officers, who had already lined up, in riot gear such as face shields, helmets, and batons. Protesters kneeled en masse, and then were instructed to disperse. Then, one or two tear-gas canisters were fired in front of protesters. Many retreated, but then shortly returned. At that point, police broke their line and retreated from the scene entirely. One empty undercover police vehicle was left behind. A small group of protesters then smashed it and set it on fire.
After this, more protesters dispersed and left the scene, but a group of about 100 remained and marched back Downtown. WESA reported that “store windows were shattered along Smithfield Street, and some looting was reported” and that “police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds, as demonstrators again used signage to erect barricades.” Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto tweeted at the time that “those vandalizing Downtown … will be arrested” and protesters who continued Downtown had “turned on the very mission, and more importantly — the people, you supposedly marched for two hours ago.”
Other than this WESA report, the details of what happened Downtown on Saturday after the cars were set on fire are largely unreported. Forty-three people were arrested on May 30, but some participants have since shared on social media that they don’t believe the force against them was warranted, as they were not participating in property destruction or looting. Public Defender Lisa Middleman has been compiling first-hand accounts and videos of what happened that night to help people in court. On June 8, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala dropped the charges of 39 people that were arrested for charges stemming from actions on May 30.
Pittsburgh police near the intersection of Centre and Negley avenues following a protest in East Liberty on Mon., June 1 – CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Pittsburgh police near the intersection of Centre and Negley avenues following a protest in East Liberty on Mon., June 1
According to Harris, the events of May 30 are two-sided. On one side, he says police, at least initially, were fairly restrained.
“They didn’t arrest anyone, and in fact they pulled back,” said Harris when told about the events that occurred before and immediately after the two empty police vehicles were set on fire.
However, even before the second car was set ablaze, the police tactic of forming a line in riot gear and deploying tear gas can only contribute to the tension, not de-escalate the situation.
“Meeting a large group with military force, even if just ready to use, it raises the tension,” says Harris.
On May 30, Pittsburgh officials and police said the destruction, looting, and chaos of the protest was caused by people who didn’t live in the Pittsburgh area and even claimed it was anarchists who “hijacked” the message of the peaceful protest. Records showed that all people arrested on May 30 were from the greater Pittsburgh area.
Eventually, police blamed the first instigator, Brian Bartels, a Shaler man who allegedly damaged the first police vehicle, with provoking the events that they say led to more damage across Downtown.
“I’m willing to bet my check that there’s a lot of people who are anarchists, who, they’re not here to protest what happened, they’re not here to protest what happened, they’re here to take advantage of situations and throw it their way and bring other people into the mix and cause damage and cause injury,” Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert said to KDKA.
Bartels was charged with inciting a riot, among other charges. In his federal criminal complaint, Bartels admitted to wanting to cause destruction and told investigators “that he considers himself to be far ‘left,’ and that he had become fed up with incidents involving police mistreatment of citizens.”
Harris says these destructive actions can sometimes take away from the message of a protest. “When property damage happens or someone is hurt, it distracts and allows some people to say, ‘We just can’t have this kind of lawlessness,’” says Harris.
However, Harris also understands that protests have also been about confronting oppressors directly. And considering that the protests that have been ongoing for over a week are about police brutality, protesters have the opportunity to confront police every time they march.
A protest and vigil in honor of George Floyd around the East Liberty Presbyterian Church in East Liberty on Wed., June 3 – CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
A protest and vigil in honor of George Floyd around the East Liberty Presbyterian Church in East Liberty on Wed., June 3
“Sometimes people want to make that point,” says Harris. “If you are able to do that and not feel stifled and still be able to make your point, there are pluses to it as well.”
On June 7, about 500 marchers made this point, as they marched past police and state troopers lad in riot gear shouting, “I don’t see no riot here, why are you in riot gear?”
The events that transpired on June 1 conform more to that narrative.
At around 7 p.m. on June 1, about 100 protesters were met by police officers in East Liberty. The marchers had continued on after a larger protest, with about 1,000 attendees, had concluded without incident outside of Target, and organizers had told people to go home.
The group of protesters, however, started to march down Centre Avenue, holding their signs and chanting. When they reached close to Negley Avenue, Pittsburgh Police had formed a line, clad in riot gear.
After being told multiple times that they were part of an unlawful assembly, police apparently fired a sponge round or rubber bullet, which struck a protestor in the knee, according to videos on social media. A short time later, a loud bang was heard and a tear gas canister was fired into the crowd, at which time some protesters threw water bottles at police, but most of them dispersed. Loud bangs of what appear to be more tear gas and sponge rounds continued to be fired.
All of this happened more than an hour before Pittsburgh’s officially declared curfew of 8:30 p.m.
The police, which had already formed a line, continued to advance. According to videos on social media, police appeared to have pepper sprayed two women who were on their knees. Sources on the ground during the conflict say the two women were trying to get the police’s attention because a protester apparently needed medical attention in a nearby parking garage.
After leaving Centre Avenue, some protesters treated their faces with milk and other liquids to counter the effects of the tear gas.
In a tweet, Pittsburgh Public Safety Department says that a “small group broke off from peaceful march [and] broke windows and threw items at police at Centre and Negley. Officers issued several orders to disperse. Group ignored. Police used smoke and then gas to disperse group.”
According to CP photographer Jared Wickerham, who was on scene for the duration of the march and confrontation, the broken window damage was carried out by a lone actor with a monkey wrench, and was told to stop by several of the protesters marching down Centre Avenue. The lone actor broke the glass door to Villa sneaker shop, close to the corner of Penn and Centre, and after being told to stop, then smashed a window at Dollar Bank next door.
Protesters also deny throwing rocks, and said the police fired rubber bullets and tear gas before any water bottles were thrown. Videos on social media also show this, and Wickerham confirmed these sequences of events, as did reporting from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Andrew Goldstein.
That night, police officials defended their account that force was necessary, claiming water bottles and rocks were thrown at them. Initially Mayor Peduto backed up the police account of events, but later admitted the police reports were wrong, and announced independent investigations of the events on June 1.
“We used the best available information in order to be able to present what our findings were. And they were wrong,” said Peduto on June 4. “And that’s why we’re at the point of an OMI investigation.”
Harris acknowledges there could have been mistakes made in communication between police and city officials, and notes that police often have “more information than the rest of us do.” But he says that confronting protesters and police appearing in militarized gear can up the ante to a level that is counter-productive to dispersing a crowd, especially one that is largely peaceful.
SWAT officers near the intersection of Centre and Negley avenues following a protest in East Liberty on Mon., June 1 – CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
SWAT officers near the intersection of Centre and Negley avenues following a protest in East Liberty on Mon., June 1
“The general rule is that when you resort to higher levels of force, it simply ratchets things up, it does not quiet things down,” says Harris. “The closer you get to showing up that you are ready for armed conflict, when it isn’t really at that stage, the more tension becomes inflamed, and the greater the chance that things can go wrong.”
Harris also understands that these current protests might be relatively new ground for police attempting to crowd-control and to escort large masses. The protest on May 30 was Pittsburgh’s largest protest in some time, more than 3,000 people, and it was a direct action against police brutality, not a topic unrelated to police.
Harris says that the George Floyd protests also appear to be following a slightly different playbook, at least for the first few days of protesting. He says that the protest playbook for many years, but not necessarily specific to Pittsburgh, was having direct coordination between those running the demonstrations and police.
“This is where we’re gonna lay down and traffic, this is where we are gonna get arrested, that kind of stuff,” says Harris.
He says that style of protest can help to avoid things going sideways, but also notes the U.S. Constitution protects the right to peacefully protest even without coordination. Harris adds, “Maybe we have people who are more angry” about the George Floyd death and the general state of the country right now, and says the Pittsburgh protests “could be more organic” than is typical.
For example, a protest organizer during the main march with 1,000 people on June 1 told CP that they were the police liaison for that march. But when that main march broke up and the group of a hundred continued to march down Centre Avenue, police formed the line and told people to disperse over an hour before curfew. It’s unlikely the people marching down Centre coordinated with police, though they are not required to.
In the end, Harris says that while the protests do appear more organic in nature than usual, and that police confrontation to the protesters can make things more tense, he says, “We are all learning this together” and notes that the police haven’t had a confrontation with protesters since June 1. He’s hopeful those confrontations and use of force won’t continue as the protest continue.
“You want to be careful about trotting out the force when you don’t really have to,” says Harris. “It doesn’t intimidate, it inflames.”