EdBoard: The inevitable risks of demonstrating

On Tuesday, April 18, a crowd of people gathered on the campus of Pitt to protest a debate being held between Michael Knowles, a transphobic political commentator, and Brad Polumbo, a right-leaning, libertarian journalist. The protests garnered much attention when law enforcement became involved after a series of small incendiary devices went off. The editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette condemned the actions of the demonstrators, as did an opinion piece in NewsWeek.

The debate was the third in a series of speaking events held by Pitt student groups to discuss trans identities. As Tartan EdBoard has said before, and as we will continue to affirm, trans identities are real and are not up for debate. Anti-trans rhetoric is being used as a divisive culture-war issue, and the safety and well-being of trans individuals are being affected as a result. It is of particular importance that we emphasize this, because trans individuals are a very vulnerable population due to this recent rise in bigotry.

Knowles' specific claim which caused outrage is his belief that "transgenderism" must be eradicated. This phrasing allows him to hide behind the defense that he was merely advocating against the "ideology" of transgenderism, not the elimination of individuals. It was a carefully crafted statement that fed into the very real and prevalent exterminationist rhetoric against trans people, while affording him plausible deniability. We don't believe that people owe civility to those who advocate exterminationist rhetoric against their community, and we believe that the anger and aggression of the protestors at Pitt is justified.

Around 250 people gathered to protest the event at around 5 p.m., with chants and speeches to rally the attendees. But by 7:30 p.m., city and campus police had shut down the streets and buildings around O'Hara St and Thackeray Ave after a series of smoke bombs and fireworks were detonated. In addition, an effigy of Michael Knowles was set on fire in the street.

When a protest makes this turn it very rapidly becomes a very different situation. A fire is unpredictable; crowds around fire can become unpredictable, and such a crowd can cause police to become unpredictable. Smoke bombs and fireworks (despite being considered harmless enough in Pennsylvania for teenagers to purchase), can nonetheless be frightening and cause a crowd to react in bad ways. Loud incendiary devices can also be mistaken for gunfire or explosives.

The situation had resolved by around 10:08 p.m., when Pitt Police gave clearance for people to re-enter the buildings that had been on lockdown. While the situation ultimately proved relatively harmless, there are some important points to make about this event.

In the summer of 2020, Portland, Oregon experienced some of the longest and most confrontational demonstrations against the police in U.S. history, as the city was gripped by over 100 consecutive days of protests and riots against police brutality. The most dedicated contingent of protestors developed strategies and formed networks to distribute resources, because sustaining such protests for an entire summer required tremendous effort. Obviously Portland is an extreme case, however, it serves as a historical reminder that aggressive demonstration tactics require a special set of considerations. Sustainable collective effort is what makes the most effective demonstrations, and if one chooses to participate in such a protest they must be extra considerate of their own safety.

Furthermore, in the midst of a protest with unpredictable actors and high tensions, misinformation can rapidly spread. This is very easily shown by the emergency alert sent out by Carnegie Mellon at around 8 p.m. on Tuesday. The subject of the email contained very few details, but implied that a building had collapsed. At the time, it was only known that an "incendiary device" had been detonated at the protest.

Thankfully nobody was hurt at Pitt this week, and the willingness of people from around Pittsburgh to stand against transphobia is heartening to witness. However, it always remains important to be vigilant and cautious at such gatherings, especially at ones with the potential to become unpredictable.