Perhaps the most compelling feature of the Pittsburgh preparations for G20 has been the apparent attitude in Pittsburgh of, “It won’t happen here,” characterized by a range of people I have spoken to in that town as the local government’s approach of ”dancing through the raindrops.” Obviously we will know whether that risk management strategy will have been effective by Saturday.
This attitude is dangerous – the local government can argue that it took all necessary precautions to warn people of the threat, but even with less than a month to go the warnings and preparation advice was basically to, “prepare as though it’s a snow day,” and to “have pre-drilled boards available for the windows” just in case. Whether you subscribe to the idea that there will be significant direct action protest in Pittsburgh or not, underplaying to the population the seriousness of the disruption is simply not meeting the duty to care for one’s citizens.
Monitoring blogs, vox-pops and other media has been illustrative. It’s clear that generally the population of Pittsburgh believe that there will be some home-grown protesting and maybe a few out of towners, but nothing like the trouble nor the numbers for London. While there are unlikely to be the absolute numbers, total numbers are almost irrelevant. I understand that there’s a government estimate that there will be between, “40 to 60 rock-throwers” in Pittsburgh. Using that figure and applying the standard math that in any crowd up to 5% are prepared to be violent and that an additional 20% will participate if there are no apparent consequences to their action, that gives us a minimum of 160 people ready to act violently given the chance. 160 people whose actions will be planned and coordinated in advance, exacerbated by all those prepared to conduct direct actions not involving violence. 160 people for whom the very best result will be to create violence with the police and to lead the police to over-react and act against whole crowds as though they are all violent protestors.
By the time the next 96 hours are over we will know whether the direct actions forecast for Pittsburgh eventuate, and whether the Pittsburgh PD and their volunteer attachments manage to engage, maintain a de-escalated posture and focus on those with violent or vandalism-based tendencies, or whether they repeat the mistakes of their predecessors at other NSSEs.
The last six months have seen a lot of changes that will affect how Pittsburgh is judged. St Paul’s RNC, the last NSSE, was an example of how not to do it, and yet the violence there received comparatively little attention or post event coverage, let alone ”lessons learned.” So what has changed?
• The protests in Tehran, the suppression of non-violent protestors by violent means and the President’s statement relating to the violent suppression of peaceful protestors.
• The pushing of civil rights back into prominence, not least by the Attorney General. Widespread perceptions of civil rights abuses are likely to force an investigation, and a properly conducted investigation must include examining the role of the DHS as being at least a contributory cause of the problems.
The global financial crisis continues to bite, and protests in response have grown. Those protesting the “GFC” are not the “wild hippy protestors” that mainstream America are not too fussed about if they are suppressed, rather, there will be an element of the protestors who will be “middle America.” These are the law-enforcement supporting population who will take being suppressed by the police badly. They are not experienced at protesting, and so their responses if there is trouble will be unpredictable. This happened in London in 1991 when the Metropolitan Police underestimated the anarchists and over-reacted against their tactics, which were to cause an over-reaction against the whole crowd. This duly happened.
I have waxed lyrical about the factors that have contributed to the bad handling of protests in the past, and the solutions that are needed for the future. In a nutshell, these are engagement, transparency, accountability and responsibility taken by all parties. There remains little signal that this will happen in Pittsburgh; while I hope that all goes well, I have little confidence at this stage that anything but a broad streak of luck will lead to that outcome.
I can only hope that the next sponsors of a NSSE will have the foresight to see what went wrong in St Paul, Denver, LA, New York, Miami and potentially Pittsburgh, and to learn from those mistakes.