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Planned rally could spotlight Pittsburgh’s new protest rules

July 29, 2018
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A woman raises her in front of stopped traffic after more than 150 people took over the Parkway East in both directions, Thursday, June 22, 2018 to protest East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld East fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose, a Woodland Hills High School honors student.

Pittsburgh’s new guidelines on where protesters can assemble, and where they can’t, could see its first test Friday morning with a planned rally beginning 11 a.m. outside the Allegheny County Courthouse on Grant Street.

The event was to be held to protest the death of Antwon Rose, the unarmed teenager who was shot and killed in June by an East Pittsburgh police officer.

The new guidelines released Thursday allow Pittsburgh police to arrest protesters who block key roadways and intersections.

Rose’s death has touched off a series of demonstrations in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities. City officials so far have given protesters free rein to block streets and disrupt traffic to exercise First Amendment rights.

City officials still plan to protect protesters’ rights but will not permit demonstrations that block critical highways, intersections and access to hospitals, special events and tunnels and bridges.

Demonstrations in June and July have spilled out onto the Parkway East and major arteries in the city, including Route 28, Grant Street, Liberty Avenue and the Roberto Clemente Bridge. Protesters have blocked rush-hour traffic Downtown and vehicles leaving a Pirates game on streets around PNC Park, refusing to allow drivers to pass.

Police have arrested a driver who plowed through demonstrators near the ballpark.

Nine major streets, including the Parkway East and Routes 28, 51 and 65, are off-limits for protesters along with nine intersections, mainly Downtown and on the South Side. A complete list is available here.

In addition, the city will prohibit blocking seven key corridors known as “yellow zones” and all school zones during morning and evening rush hours, including Smithfield, Grant and Stanwix streets and the Boulevard of the Allies. Police will permit demonstrations in those zones after rush hour ends, but only for 15 minutes.

The policy permits officers to prohibit protests in other streets if necessary to protect public safety.

It requires police officers to warn protesters who violate the “red zones” and then issue three orders to leave before breaking up a demonstration.

“Any acts of violence against persons or damaging of property shall result in immediate police action,” the policy reads. “Mass arrests should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Instead, targeted arrests of protesters and/or clear leaders should be prioritized.”

Christian Carter, 18, of East Liberty, a prominent figure in the demonstrations and founder of a group dubbed the Youth Power Collective, said he was unsure if demonstrators would follow the new guidelines.

“They’re just trying to control where we protest and how we protest,” he said. “I’m not sure if we will be going to these places, but it is something for us to be aware of so we are keeping everyone safe.”

Robert Swartzwelder, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge 1, said he had yet to review the policy, but he saw no immediate union concerns after a reporter briefed him on the main points. He noted that city code prohibits the blocking of any street without a permit. 

“It sounds to me as if the city is trying to compromise in allowing protesters to be heard but not allowing demonstrations in certain areas,” he said. “It’s too early to tell how this will work out operationally. I think it may create confusion when you’re talking about targeting protesters.”

Police will deploy specially trained officers as crisis intervention teams to coordinate with protesters during demonstrations and promote open communication between organizers and police personnel. They will attempt to meet with protesters before and after demonstrations to address concerns.

Police and public safety personnel will also adopt de-escalation tactics proven to reduce tension and enhance safety during demonstrations, according to the city. Public Safety personnel will work with community leaders for input into the policy.

Clarification: This story was updated to better reflect the details of the event.

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