Pittsburgh Police Brutality @ G20
September 30, 2009
Sickening account of a woman attacked for helping students escape brutality.
Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: brutality, oakland, pitt campus — admin @ 8:17 am

Somewhere between eleven p.m. and midnight on Thursday, I was returning to my residence hall (the Litchfield Towers) with several friends, having just walked a friend back to Sutherland. Last I had been on central campus, several windows along Forbes had been smashed by anarchists, and rioters and students had been given an order to disperse from Schenley Plaza, which had subsequently been gassed. I would not know the particulars of Thursday night's chaos – the gassing of Forbes, the students rushed from the Union lawn, the blocking of all the buildings in the Quad – until the next morning, but I could see one thing that disturbed me. The Litchfield Towers were locked so that, while students could exit the building, they could not get back in.

Lock people out of Litchfield Towers? But people LIVE there! And what about all of the students in the Quad and out on the patio, who were being surrounded by riot police and had virtually no other safe indoor location to which they could retreat? I didn't think it was right for students who went out to rubberneck – or simply chose the wrong night to come home late – to be locked outside in the developing war zone. So when a nice guy inside the building responded to our frantic knocking and held open the door for us, I seized upon his gesture as the easiest and least controversial way of making myself useful in the midst of the chaos.

So I held the "out" door open. First I did it on the Forbes side, with the help of a similarly-motivated stranger. We choked on some tear gas, wrung our hands over the students who insisted on running OUT into the madness instead of IN to the lobby where it was safe, and spent a lot of time demanding news from bystanders. But when the police eventually advanced all the way up to the doors, we were able to usher every last screaming Pitt student past us into the lobby before going in ourselves and shutting the door safely behind us, putting the walls of Towers Lobby between the students and the police.

Empowered by my success on the Forbes side, I crossed through Towers Lobby and held the door open on the Fifth Avenue side of the patio, where a scene nearly identical to the one on Forbes – police performing some show of force, students going out to gawk, and said students being unable to get back into the building – was taking place. Here as well was I aided in my efforts by a kind stranger, and my heart goes way out to him; he was dragged off by police a split-second after I was and I never saw him again. If he's reading this, he has my sincerest thanks – and apologies.

I was never expecting to be arrested. First of all, I never heard an order to disperse on the Fifth Avenue side of the patio. Possibly I was on the other side when the order was given, or possibly an order was given by an individual officer, without the aid of the Scary Truck Voice (with hundreds of screaming students between the police and me, I never would have picked up on an order to disperse given physically by an officer.) Second of all, just a few moments earlier I had performed the exact same gesture on the Forbes side, and police, although only feet away from me, had not interfered with me at all. I didn't see why they would want to. As far as I was concerned, I was helping people to disperse.

So even when the police rushed the patio, I wasn't afraid until I realized – after seeing an officer seize and arrest a student who literally had one foot over the threshold – that unlike the police on the Forbes side, these guys didn't want to herd students into the lobby. They wanted to arrest people.

It was not until that instant that it crossed my mind that I could be arrested for what I was doing. I didn't have to worry about it for very long, though, because about a split-second later, I was thrown to the ground and handcuffed.

The officer who arrested me did not tell me to stop what I was doing. He did not tell me to get inside. He did not say "come with me; you are under arrest." If he had told me I was under arrest, I'd have put up less fight than the storefront windows along Forbes Avenue. But without saying a word, the officer grabbed me by the arm and forced me down onto the pavement, skinning both my knees but thankfully not my face, and twisted my arm behind my back.

I remember my primary thought as I was flung on the ground being: I hope he doesn't start hitting me with a stick. He didn't, which makes me one of the lucky ones.

I was marched onto the street corner across the street from the patio, outside the Frick Center for International Studies, where forty-some riot police were detaining twenty-some of my peers, and held there for about an hour, which I spent befriending the two girls next to me – two friends who had picked the wrong night to come home late from a party – and becoming increasingly indignant. It was one thing to be intimately searched by an overcompensating female officer whose first words to me were, "If you have anything that's going to poke me or prick me you'd better tell me now, because if I get stuck by something your head goes off the wall," but I have a very special grudge against my arresting officer. He called me "babe" and "dear" as he cut my zipties off (No, officer. I'm sorry, but we cannot be friends.) and, an instant before we were photographed together for documentation purposes, he grinned and said, "Don't look beat up, or I'll get in trouble."

I fumed. Don't look beat up? Are you kidding me? Photograph my skinned knees, asshole, because you threw me on the ground! I weigh ninety-nine pounds with my shoes on and I'm wearing a goddamn sundress. I must look awfully dangerous to you with your riot gear and two-hundred pounds of muscle. Me and my depraved, door-opening ways. Tracey Hickey, Renegade Bellhop. The new face of terrorism. What the hell.

(I did not actually say this, because, despite the stereotype of people who get themselves arrested by riot police during the G20, I am not a moron.)

And then there was the matter of my dress. I was wearing a strapless dress and cardigan, and in all of the excitement the former had slid down, not far enough to be indecent, but way further than I was comfortable with. "Please," I said to my arresting officer (can I call him my AO?), "My dress is falling down. I can't reach it in these things. Can you just button my sweater down?" He didn't respond. "Excuse me?" I said to the police officer holding Brianna. "Please? It wouldn't be a problem if you could just button up my sweater..." He too refused to acknowledge me until I was near tears and just on the brink of flashing everyone, whereupon he summoned a female officer who gave my dress a curt upward yank and fastened exactly one button of my sweater. Only when they temporarily cut off my zipties to take my purse from me was I allowed, after plaintively asking permission, to utilize my free hands to button my sweater all the way.

Eventually I was loaded into a police wagon with three other girls, including the two I had befriended, and four dudes. There were two actual rioters among us: Lauren, known on campus as Bike Girl thanks to widely circulated footage of her throwing her bicycle at an officer who repeatedly shoved her as she was pedaling by, and the guy we later discovered was responsible for the broken windows on Forbes. As for the rest of us, three were being held on charges of trying-to-get-back-to-one's-dorm; one was accused of taking-a-picture; one (yours truly) was slapped with first-degree holding-a-door-open, and one was ready to plead guilty to not-running-fast-enough. We were driven around in what felt like a giant, bumpy circle for probably half an hour – zip-tied, unseatbelted and toppling into each other at every turn or stop. Then we were parked in some facility and left in the wagon for another thirty minutes.

When we had been languishing the wagon for long enough to merit serious concern that we would shortly run out of oxygen, the other girls and I were led into a holding facility, where I was delivered into the custody of an officer who immediately looked me up and down, wrinkled his nose, and derisively said "You look like you're dressed for church, not some fucking protest." (This was the only time I couldn't restrain myself from snapping at the police: "I am NOT a protester.") I was transferred from zipties to metal handcuffs, which was merciful because metal handcuffs don't hurt if you have thin wrists and I was no longer cuffed behind my back. They searched me again, asked me for my information for a third or fourth time, and then took about a hundred years to fingerprint me, because apparently my fingers were too cold and sweaty to register. While they were printing me, they kept up a running snide commentary about the fidgeting of one of the girls who had been in the wagon with me – she had had to go to the bathroom since before the arrest, which by now was two hours ago.

We sat, handcuffed, in what was essentially a waiting room for three more hours, exchanging names and "offenses." None of us had been told what we were charged with, but I had been able to catch a glimpse of one of the forms they filled out, and saw that my charge was "failure to disperse" (or, as my AO had said to his superior: "We were arresting everyone who was out there, and...she was out there.") From talking to other detainees who had been able to see their forms, I gathered that "failure to disperse" was the charge most likely to result from having done absolutely nothing.

Most of my fellow-outlaws were Pitt students, and although I was unable to totally let go of my righteous indignation at being knocked down on the patio, I realized that I had gotten off easy. The girl next to me had been slammed against the wall; her over-shirt had ripped, and she had been so close to the canister of tear gas or pepper spray or whatever-it-was when it exploded that she had gotten large quantities on her skin, which sported burning red patches. The guy next to me, (the paddy wagon buddy arrested for taking a picture) who had been severely beaten, was bruised and bloody in the face, and his thumb was broken – but he was independent media, so he seemed to be used to it. A few chairs down there was a student with a giant welt on his back from a rubber bullet. I had picked a good day to be a skinny white girl – most of the male detainees were bruised, and judging by my AO's aggressive attitude, I would bet that if I weren't such a lawsuit waiting to happen he would have beaten the hell out of me. I could only pray that the boy holding the other door – my partner-in-crime – had been taken with minimal force.

Time elapsed, as slowly as it does in any waiting room, while I grew steadily angrier and more apprehensive. The police weren't even pretending to know or care what was going to happen to us ("When will I be told the charge?" "When you go before a judge." "Am I going to see a judge?" "Maybe.") I had absolutely no certainty of my rights – I had a vague idea that I couldn't be detained without charge for longer than forty-eight hours, but five hours ago I'd had a vague idea that holding a door open was not a punishable offense. And the police had told us that we would NOT be provided with a ride home, a prospect which had me PANICKING. I am a freshman in college! I do not have a car, nor do I know anyone here with a car; I had little to no idea where I was or what buses went from there to Oakland, I had no cab fair, and my parents live near Philadelphia. I had been arrested for virtually nothing, and with excessive force, and I was bored and stiff and thirsty and handcuffed and it was nearly five in the morning and I had a recitation at ten, because it takes more than a little martial law to shut classes down at the University of Pittsburgh.

I was released almost precisely at five a.m. along with all of the other failure-to-disperse cases, without my charge, a summons, or an explanation. Contrary to what the police had said, we were (thank God) given transportation in the form of a Port Authority bus. I was held for a total of five hours – two in zipties, three in handcuffs – searched twice, and read my rights zero times.

As of today, I have two skinned knees, a bruise on my head, and the dubious sort of instant celebrity that results from getting pinned to the Towers Patio in front of hundreds of your peers. Thanks to some amateur filmmakers shooting from a dorm window, about six hours elapsed before I went from The Girl Who Got Arrested to The Girl Who Got Arrested On Youtube. I have absolutely no idea if I'm going to be tried for anything, and I've heard more than one rumor that I'm going to be expelled.

I am waiting on a statement from the University of Pittsburgh. Considering that students were gassed in residence halls, blocked from getting to their dorms, beaten, maced, and chased down the patio with unmuzzled dogs, I can only assume that the University does not plan on pretending nothing happened. To what extent was the action of the riot police sanctioned by the University? Do they condemn the show of force? Do they condone it? University of Pittsburgh, what do you have to say about all this?

Tom Usher

About Tom Usher

Employment: 2008 - present, website developer and writer. 2015 - present, insurance broker. Education: Arizona State University, Bachelor of Science in Political Science. City University of Seattle, graduate studies in Public Administration. Volunteerism: 2007 - present, president of the Real Liberal Christian Church and Christian Commons Project.