09/22/2009 08:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

G-20 Diary: Exercising or Exorcising Rights?

Let's start with the disclaimer that I'm not only a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, but also an active volunteer and board member for my local chapter. And if I seem prejudiced in favor of First Amendment rights, so be it.

The G-20 summit meeting is a mere 36 hours -- from Thursday morning to Friday afternoon -- but the legislative and court battles over free speech and protest issues have been going on for months, intensifying in the past week as more people come into town.

One of the big tussles has been about the out-of-town protesters camping in local parks. At first, as a Pittsburgh resident and taxpayer, I agreed with our wunderkind Mayor Luke Ravenstahl that camping in city parks just isn't allowed, given the lack of facilities. OK. And then I heard that camping is routinely permitted for such folks as the antique car owners in the Vintage Grand Prix -- not exactly the kind of people who couldn't easily afford a local hotel. Despite that precedent, the camping restriction has held, and local churches, schools, community groups and even private citizens have opened up their property and hospitality to the incoming protest groups. But police harassment follows even these perfectly peaceful people as well as the peaceful protesters they're trying to help, as outlined in an ACLU federal lawsuit, including:

▪ Police told Bail Out the People last week that they could not canvass door-to-door without a permit in the Hill District. The City Code does not require a permit and it would be unconstitutional to have such a requirement.

▪ Police told Bail Out the People on Friday that they could not use amplified sound from a vehicle driving around the Hill District without obtaining a permit. The City Code does not require a permit for such activity....

▪ On Saturday, Pittsburgh police told people at Carnegie Mellon University's outdoor camping space that all students without CMU ID's had to leave. CMU administrators arrived on the scene and countermanded the City Police directive...

Read them all. They're a scream, especially the snafu that police had to apologize for, blocking protesters with a permit from marching on a city street past the publicly owned David L. Lawrence Convention Center that officers claimed was "private property."

And this is still more than 36 hours before the real action begins.


To follow up on yesterday's post about the anarchists' party in my neighborhood park. The all-day drizzle let up in time for the festivities from beginning to end. There were more baby-strollers than speeches, and probably more "reporters" than undercover cops. Since the actual site was right across the street from a hospital, there were plenty of local workers, plus a contingent of the local trendezoids and a scattering of the local locals, all outnumbered by the out-of-towners.

The police did indeed show up: a full multi-passenger police van pulled up the wrong way on a narrow one-way street while an all-lights-on police car pulled over a Seeds of Peace motorist for failing to signal properly. Really. Meanwhile, a large "Budget Rental" van, with two police officers in the cab, blocked the already-tricky intersection during the entire 15-minute incident.

But what is likely to make the newscasts is the tale told by regular-Pittsburgh-guy Don Sullivan. He was watching TV at home, a rowhouse north of the university district, when the police knocked at his door, asking for an explanation of an extension cord from his house to his van. He was recharging a battery. Duh. Then they asked him, a middle-aged, unremarkable-looking (no disrespect meant) white guy for identification in his own kitchen. Being like most Pittsburghers who respect the law and, especially since April, feel a kinship with local police officers, he readily complied. The officers seemed embarrassed. They were really looking for G-20 protesters, who were crashing elsewhere on the block. Not that Mr. Sullivan was going to tell them where.