Largely peaceful Pittsburgh protests see moments of police violence

For Carnegie Mellon students who are not currently in Pittsburgh, or who have been unable to attend any of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, it may be difficult to understand how the city's protests have played out from afar ー social media clips capture brief moments, and some information dispersed from the the city and local media outlets have been heavily disputed by attendees. The Pittsburgh protests this week, attended by thousands, have been almost entirely peaceful thus far, with little to no evidence of protester escalation, despite initial reports from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and the Chief of Police Scott Schubert to the contrary.

The first of the handful of protests this week was held in East Liberty on Monday, June 1. Protesters carried signs, locked arms, and stopped at intersections around the neighborhood. At each stop, organizers and attendees spoke to the crowd through bullhorns and a PA system. One woman told a story of her family’s experience with police brutality. Organizers urged protesters to remain nonviolent. At a stop in front of the Home Depot in East Liberty, “Oh, Freedom” by The Golden Gospel Singers played over a loudspeaker as the crowd raised their right fists.

Throughout the march, chants rang out: “black lives, they matter here”; “back up, back up, we want freedom, freedom, all these racist ass cops, we don't need 'em, need 'em”. When the march concluded in front of Target, there were police with rifles on the roof. An organizer said “alright, now go home.” Not everyone did: a smaller group of protesters continued marching down Centre Avenue toward Shadyside.

This group was met by Pittsburgh police, who ordered the group to disperse and declared the assembly unlawful over a loudspeaker. Videos on social media appear to show that protesters held firm, but did not instigate conflict with police. After more loudspeaker warnings, the group was fired upon with rubber bullets and bean bags, and canisters of gas were launched. The crowd scattered.

That night, the City of Pittsburgh held a press conference to discuss the events of the day. The information they told reporters at the live-streamed press conference differs greatly from protester accounts and videos of the altercation. City officials made little differentiation between the group of protesters on Centre Avenue that was met with police and a smaller group that went toward Station Street after the original protest concluded, painting them both as violent.

Mayor Peduto said that he had attended the protests, and that from 4 to 7 pm, he “witnessed peace,” but after he left, he said, “what ended up happening from 7 until 8 was very different.” Peduto cited “separate groups” splitting off from the main protest for “violence and destruction” and the altercations with police, which was used as a justification for use of force. In Peduto’s described timeline, it was “after the first volley of bricks at police officers” that police officers used “smoke, not gas” to disperse the crowd. As a reason for the police response, Chief Schubert said of the protesters, “they’re not going to a picnic, they’re throwing bricks and rocks at our officers,” an argument that was made repeatedly to say that protesters instigated the conflict. Video evidence does not support this claim.

Chief Schubert also told reporters that the city knew “they were gonna loot East Liberty at 8 o’clock,” another reason that supported an increased police presence as the curfew loomed Monday night. Wendell Hissrich, Director of Pittsburgh Public Safety, said, “they were going to break into the businesses, destroy the businesses, and we were not gonna let that happen.” Officers described the protests as largely peaceful, with outside agitators causing trouble. “Some of it’s pure anarchy,” one officer noted.

City officials claimed Monday night that the city did not use tear gas at the protest, but instead “smoke” and other “chemical munitions.” This claim has been walked back by the city, which now admits that tear gas was used.

Many in the comment section of the livestream of Peduto's press conference voiced their concerns with the information shared: “LIARS”; “So [Peduto] has 'proof' but he can't show it due to 'contractual' obligations to the [Fraternal Order of Police]”; “There was no bricks being thrown. I witnessed the whole thing first hand.”; “If there was no video you could get away with these lies. But there are.”; “Was it rocks or bricks? And why is it there is NO VIDEO FOOTAGE of this on any social media???”; “I was in the tear gas so you cannot lie to me." One reporter tweeted a photo of “the tear gas canister a Pittsburgh police officer threw past my feet.”

On Wednesday, June 3, after confirming many of the police’s claims about the incidents in East Liberty, Mayor Peduto issued a press release requesting an independent review of the events by the Office of Municipal Investigations and the Citizen Police Review Board. “Without question, there is a difference of opinion about what happened that day and the appropriateness of the actions of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police,” he wrote.

Another large scale protest was held the day after the march in East Liberty, this time starting in Market Square downtown. It was put together by the same organizers, who led a march through downtown, across the Tenth Street bridge, through Southside, and back, sitting down in intersections chanting passionately. One organizer reminded people over a loudspeaker: “this is a peaceful protest.”

As the group of protesters marched past the Allegheny County Jail toward downtown, incarcerated men could be seen raising their right fists in support, and banging on their windows. One protester shouted, raising his hands up, “this is for you!”

The protest concluded peacefully in Market Square, where organizers got the crowd to disperse in different directions. No arrests were made.

The next protest put together by the organizers of these two is on Sunday, June 7th. Other separately organized protests are planned throughout this week and for this weekend.