An account of the first days of the protest, how CMU is complicit in police violence
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN on Memorial Day has sparked thousands of protests in cities and towns across the globe. Police violence has never been as visible as it is now, and the video of George Floyd's murder at the hands of a white officer obviously resonated in the current environment, saturated as it is with dire projections of economic ruin, death by virus, or now — death by cop. The tinder was laid by a disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic which put millions out of work, and by the lack of response to police murders and brutality extending back decades.
At every turn in the recent uprisings, the police have raised the stakes, gassing and beating peaceful demonstrators across the country. Now, ordinary people, rather than flinching from the occupying forces, continue to risk a COVID-induced death to show their opposition to their reign of terror.
In Pittsburgh, it was no different. The protest on Saturday, May 30, that eventually sparked a riot resulting in 44 arrests and 60 businesses damaged in Downtown Pittsburgh was peaceful throughout until the police left a police car to be vandalized. They rushed in with mounted officers, and eventually, sent in battalions of riot police armed with 40mm ballistic rounds, bean bags, and chemical weapons.
Before the police car was destroyed, the march proceeded peacefully throughout downtown Pittsburgh, with marchers holding signs, chanting in support of Black lives, and remembering the victims of police brutality like East Pittsburgh resident Antwon Rose II, who was murdered by police two years ago. The march stopped at street intersections, circling in the space and listening to speakers. The only tense moment came when a man with a megaphone interrupted the speakers with an exhortation for people to vote in the Democratic primary for the progressive congressional candidate Jerry Dickinson, who was also participating in the march.
This was not received well by the crowd, and the man was quickly confronted by organizers of the march, shouted down, and pointedly ignored by the crowd. The march snaked through Downtown, with protesters sitting-in, raising fists, and creating a general sense of solidarity and mutual anger at a brutal system of oppression. Once the march had made it to Centre Avenue next to PPG Paints Arena, at the foot of the Hill District, the organizers attempted to disband the protesters, to some success. The majority of the crowd, however, remained standing on Centre Avenue, enjoying the nice sunny weather and feeling of solidarity after months of struggling under the quarantine.
Eventually, my group and I drifted to a fence further up the hill, which provided a nice view of the protesters below. From there, I was able to see the crowd congregating around a police car that had been marooned next to the sidewalk. There was some activity in the crowd, which quickly intensified when multiple mounted officers began riding through it, before being driven off by protesters. They retreated to the top of the hill, where they could be seen standing next to an ambulance. Meanwhile, the crowd, now angered by this escalation of force, began destroying the car in earnest, before lighting it on fire. The burning car put an end to things for a few people, but the crowd mostly just gave it some space, as live ammunition began periodically exploding.
Some people began dragging construction signs and debris to form low barricades, and as the car started burning lower and the helicopters kept circling, we began making our way out of the area and headed home. Someone warned us that riot cops were “at the top of the hill,” so we headed up a different direction, cutting back to Centre Avenue in the end. Along the way, we saw the ambulance and the horse cops up close, along with three or four SWAT police in military camouflage. We originally thought they were National Guard, but the indiscriminate lettering on their vests made it possible to identify them once we were close.
Upon reaching the top of the hill, we were greeted by what appeared to be about a hundred police mustering in front of the Zone 2 police department and the parking lot of the neighboring Ebenezer Towers. The entire area was shut down by police, some redirecting traffic, others in camouflage standing on the roof of the police station with rifles. The mood of the police seemed extremely cheerful, with officers smiling and laughing to one another, waving at us as we took pictures and video, and holding up cell phones to either take selfies or pictures of us recording them. After about 15 minutes, several sprinter vans and paddy wagons filled with riot police rushed down Centre Avenue, and the riot police in the parking lot lined up, put down their visors, and began marching down the hill. We all made our respective walks home safe and sound and un-gassed.
The protesters remaining had no such luck, and neither did the protesters at the peaceful march two days later in East Liberty. This one featured helicopters hovering low over buildings, SWAT troops in military dress on top of the Target, and police surrounding the protesters throughout the march. After the leaders of the relatively spontaneous march told people to disperse, I left the area, exhausted and on edge. The people who stayed, including several friends of mine, continued marching down Centre Avenue, before being confronted by a line of riot cops. These officers, after telling protesters that their peaceful assembly was now “unlawful,” shot tear gas and 40mm rounds into the crowd, striking and injuring multiple people. My friends helped a man who had been shot in the face by a 40mm round, who was bleeding so heavily they “couldn’t tell if he was black or white,” helping him into a nearby parking garage until someone came by with a car that could get him to the hospital. Following this violent police riot, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto initially stated that the attack came in response to violence caused by “a splinter group” before calling for police reform and investigations into the officers’ use of force a few days later. The protests since have stayed remarkably peaceful, the police keeping their distance and refraining from attacking the marchers.
Pittsburgh’s response to the mass expression of rage at a violent and destructive police force has been alarmingly violent and destructive. The shows of force by the Police Department have been disgusting. At every march, at least one police helicopter hovers over throughout, drowning out speakers and surveilling marchers. At one recent sit-in, a fixed-wing surveillance plane operated by the state police circled continuously, in addition to the choppers. Protesters have been attacked with chemical weapons and dangerous projectiles in response to light property damage and peaceful demonstrations alike. Militarized troops point weapons at unarmed demonstrators, loom ominously in the sky, and harass Pittsburgh residents recording their brutality, charging two women with felonies for allegedly throwing water bottles from their balcony while they simply recorded a protest, according to the Pittsburgh City Paper. It is an obvious lie, intended to intimidate people keeping a record of their depravity.
As the police show their role as an occupying force ever-more baldly, we at Carnegie Mellon should keep our own complicity in the police state’s ongoing reign of terror well in mind. Carnegie Mellon’s “Metro21: Smart Cities Institute” works with the Pittsburgh Police Department on “Predictive Policing” algorithms, used to “predict crime hot spots,” which have been criticized for “[giving] racially biased policing methods the appearance of objectivity, simply because a computer or an algorithm seems to replace human judgment,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The police also make huge use of cheap surplus military equipment, which one study found "fails to enhance police safety or reduce crime.” All it does is intimidate minority residents and erode public trust in the state. Carnegie Mellon’s own cozy relationship with the military and contractors like new Board of Trustees member and missile systems company CEO John Pranzatelli raises questions about the university’s contribution to the increasing militarization of our society. Carnegie Mellon is as much a part of the community as anything else in Pittsburgh. The university owes it to the city to help end police violence. That means ending relationships with the police, supporting police defunding efforts, and contributing to minority communities.