By Michael Rubinkam
PITTSBURGH — Police used all the nonlethal tools at their disposal to thwart protesters at the Group of 20 summit this week, firing bean bags, hurling canisters of smoke and pepper spray, using flash-bang grenades and batons and deploying a high-tech sound-blasting device meant to push back crowds.
It was all a bit much for civil liberties groups and protesters.
They decried what they called a heavy-handed and unwarranted police response, saying riot officers focused on largely peaceful, if unsanctioned, demonstrations when they should have been paying more attention to small groups of vandals that smashed windows of city businesses.
"It's not just intimidation, it's disruption and in some cases outright prevention of peaceful protesters being able to get their message out," said Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "In a week when we need freedom of speech more than ever, free speech died in Pittsburgh this week."
He added that "the deployment of police seems to be more geared toward suppressing lawful demonstrations than actually preventing crime."
Hundreds of riot police broke up an impromptu gathering Thursday night in Schenley Plaza near the University of Pittsburgh campus, where large numbers of university students mingled with smaller groups of protesters, including anarchists.
The plaza is a quarter-mile from the building where world leaders were assembled, but the dignitaries were gone by the time police declared the gathering illegal and fired canisters of pepper spray and smoke.
Legal observers at the gathering saw police surrounding, chasing and arresting students who weren't involved in the protest, said Paige Cram, spokeswoman for the National Lawyers Guild, a liberal legal-aid group. She called the show of force "an ominous spectacle."
Franklyn Smith, 58, a mental health case manager who was protesting at Schenley Plaza, said police tackled him.
"He threw me to the ground. He kept smashing my face into the ground. Then about two or three other cops came over. They jumped on me," said Smith, who was released from the city jail around 7 a.m. Friday and went straight to the ER for treatment of a badly bruised face.
A video posted Friday on YouTube shows a group of Pitt students briefly trapped on the outdoor stairwell of a campus building, evidently exposed to gaseous pepper spray and unable to move because riot police were blocking the bottom and top of the stairs. The students had been standing on a second-floor balcony, observing the clash between police and protesters on the street below.
Around the same time, a few blocks away, windows were smashed at some 10 businesses. Police made 42 arrests near the university, but it wasn't clear if they caught any of the vandals.
Experts say that anarchists successfully deployed a tactic in Pittsburgh that they have often used at other protests, leading a large group of people toward police, then slipping out of the crowd to commit mayhem elsewhere.
University of Pittsburgh spokesman John Fedele said police had a difficult task Thursday night because a small group of people bent on causing destruction sought cover in the larger crowd of Pitt students.
"It is regrettable if any innocent bystanders - including any Pitt students, in particular - were harmed in any way. It is fortunate, however, that no one appears to have been seriously injured," he said in a statement.
Pittsburgh Sgt. Lavonnie Bickerstaff would not answer questions about police deployment or use of force, but Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has praised officers for their work to minimize property damage.
And with so many world leaders in the city, authorities had to gird for a possible act of terrorism, not just perform crowd control.
"The mayor made it clear.... that our officers responded quickly and effectively. He's proud of the job our officers are doing," his spokeswoman, Joanna Doven, said Friday.
But Sam Rosenfeld, chairman of the Densus Group, an international security consulting firm, faulted police for what he said was a too-aggressive posture that might have incited the crowds on Thursday. Rosenfeld, who was in Pittsburgh this week observing the protests, said police were unable to distinguish between peaceful protesters and the relatively few bent on causing trouble.
"We see the switch gets flicked and the situation escalates," said Rosenfeld, who did praise police for avoiding mass arrests.
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Friday's "People's March," meanwhile, attracted some 3,000 people, but the organizers had received a city permit and the protest did not result in the kind of chaos seen Thursday.