Pittsburgh mayor, public safety director defend city’s new policy on protests

July 31, 2018
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An increase in violent confrontations between protesters and the public prompted Pittsburgh to issue new guidelines stipulating where demonstrations can and cannot occur, city officials said Friday.

Mayor Bill Peduto and Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said they would continue to allow demonstrators to block city streets -- even though such assemblies require a city permit -- but cautioned that police would arrest anyone who refuses to leave critical roadways and intersections that have been designated as off limits.

The fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager Antwon Rose by East Pittsburgh police Officer Michael Rosfeld on June 19 touched off numerous demonstrations in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities.

“Over the last several demonstrations, we have witnessed almost tragedies, and we’re trying to prevent that from occurring,” Hissrich said when asked why new guidelines were issued. “It was escalating, in our opinion, and that was our concern. I witnessed where motorists were actually being held against their will, encircled by protesters, and that’s the makings of a potential tragedy.”

He was referring to confrontations between protesters and the public in the North Shore and South Side in June and a demonstration last week in which marchers surrounded a vehicle on Grant Street in Downtown Pittsburgh and refused to let it move.

Vic Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, noted that Pittsburgh allows the blocking of streets for such things as its annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade and other events that receive city permits. He said the new guidelines could be considered unconstitutional because they don’t state that they apply specifically to events without permits.

“I think this would pass constitutional muster if they just put the caveat in that this applies to people without permits,” he said. “I think Mayor Peduto and his police deserve a lot of credit for allowing the protesters to have their say.”

The mayor said the city discussed the guidelines with the ACLU and the Pittsburgh Citizen’s Police Review Board beforehand and spent a lot of time reviewing protests that have happened in other cities and U.S. Department of Justice suggestions.

He said Pittsburgh has allowed protests to occur without a permit because it helps to defuse confrontational situations. He said the same rules would apply to any group, including neo-Nazis and the KKK.

“We could have policies that would prohibit all streets to be blocked and just provide certain free speech zone,” Peduto said.“There are some municipalities that have that policy. We’re not doing that.”

As Peduto and Hissrich spoke from the mayor’s office in the City-County Building, demonstrators gathered across the street at the Allegheny County Courthouse. Marchers later confronted Hissrich and Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert about the guidelines.

“First of all, they make laws they don’t even follow, yet they expect us to follow a set of guidelines that aren’t law,” said Nicky Jo Dawson, a prominent figure in the demonstrations. “These guidelines are coming down from the same people who want to oppress us.”

She told protesters to ignore the guidelines.

“I do not need any of you today to abide by these guidelines because they are not laws,” she said shortly before protesters marched to Market Square.

Under the new rules, demonstrators are prohibited from blocking nine major streets and nine intersections classified as red zones and they cannot protest along seven corridors during rush hour. Protesters blocked part of the Smithfield Street corridor, which is on the list, for a few minutes Friday after rush hour.

“It is absolutely critical for the safety of the city for areas to be open, and in those areas, if protests do encroach upon them, there will be a system of three warnings over a 12-minute period,” Peduto said. “After 12 minutes, if they refuse to leave that area, they will be arrested.”

He said teams of police officers trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation tactics would mingle with protesters during a demonstration to hear their concerns and attempt to rectify them. Hissrich said it would be helpful if organizers would talk with police before a demonstration.

“Both myself and (Schubert), we’ve approached protesters, and I won’t repeat what was said to us, but over the past several weeks, I don’t think I’ve heard so many obscenities,” Hissrich said.

Peduto said city officials would meet with community leaders and experts in controlling demonstrations to fine tune the guidelines.

“To those that would say this limits their speech, I would ask them to look at other cities, and they will see that this is one of the most liberal policies,” Peduto said.

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