Every year, I send out a Christmas card. But I try and send something a little less like the traditional, boring here’s-my-baby/dog/family-for-your-enjoyment. Last year, I sent out a picture greeting card featuring an ex-marine waterboarding me. A few years before that, I sent out a photo and story about my night inside an inflatable newspaper costume. The year before that, well, let’s just say I have a lifetime ban from that coffeeshop. So, in keeping with my Gonzo tradition, here is the story behind the Christmas card:
So there I was – standing in front of a dozen Pennsylvania police officers in full riot gear, clubs and tear gas ready, with only a press pass to protect me. And even if that press pass was real, reporter credentials didn’t mean anything on the fortified streets of Pittsburgh.
Just minutes earlier, another phalanx of riot cops charged a group of protesters and bystanders a few blocks over. And that was just minutes after police rolled out L-RAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) — a crowd-control device strapped to a military truck that emits a piercing, debilitating tone. This was the first time such a device had been used in the United States.
Yep, the G20 Conference was underway and for the last six weeks, Pittsburgh city officials and the media had scared residents into allowing a small version of a police state right on the banks of the Allegheny River.
“You know, I’m not trying to persuade you,” he began one afternoon over a beer at the local pub. “But you should really take advantage of your days unemployed. They go quicker than you think.”
After Kelly found us a place to stay with a single father who lived near downtown, we packed up my Toyota Corolla with everything needed for a trip into a war zone: sleeping bags, tents, a thousand dollars worth of video and computer equipment, two cases of CDs, a GPS and two bottles of wine from Wal-Mart.
The drive took two days with a stay in South Carolina. When we arrived in Pittsburgh near midnight, our host was waiting outside his home with his two kids. So was half of the neighborhood it seemed; middle school-aged kids screaming and running around the apartment complex, young mothers yelling up to disgruntled young dads, various hoopties with tinted windows pulling in and out of the parking lot.
Our host, Mark, showed us inside a dark house lit only with candles. He informed us the electric company shut off his power a couple days ago.
“I tell my kids it’s like camping,” he said cheerily.
We went out to the car and got our sleeping bags.
The next morning we ventured out into Pittsburgh, which was swiftly turning into a police state. Cops in full riot gear patrolled downtown, patrol cars constantly cruised down neighborhood streets and roadblocks popped up on the bridges surrounding the Convention Center. Even on the public buses, the G20 conference seemed to be on everyone’s mind.
“Man, don’t be around them protests,” one particularly loud man on his way to work announced. “They don’t know Pittsburgh police. They won’t just beat you, they’ll shoot you.”
Most people seemed less interested in the dozens of world leaders coming to town than they were annoyed at the traffic and bus schedule changes. That indifference to the protesters’ message – which basically lamented the fact that a few world leaders were making large-scale, oppressive economic policies for the majority of the world’s population – troubled the thousands of activists who descended on Pittsburgh. Just like any political endeavor, if the people around you don’t care, the opposition can use every dirty tactic in the book to run all over you.
Surprisingly though, that first day, the police largely restrained themselves from interfering in any of the small insurrections on the streets of Pittsburgh. They didn’t block any of the spontaneous marches through downtown. For the most part, they didn’t follow or harass the protesters, who were quite noticeable wandering around with large signs and bandannas over their faces. (The exception to this live-let-live philosophy was an unusual, repressive attack on some Good Samaritans cooking food for demonstrators.)
But that was before the G20 delegates arrived in Pittsburgh; the next day, on the actual first day of the conference, police took a decidedly different approach.
That morning, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl declared no demonstrators would be allowed near the Pittsburgh Convention Center. His order was not by accident; at noon, several activist groups – included the dreaded anarchists — planned to march en masse to the Convention Center under the banner of “Stop the G20!” They never obtained a permit for the march.
Undeterred, the protesters gathered at Arsenal Park in the city’s Lawrenceville neighborhood and at noon, flanked by dozens of police officers, marched toward downtown. They barely got 10 blocks before police stopped them.
The marching protesters, whistling and banging drums, attempted to out-maneuver the cops by zig-zagging through small neighborhood roads, but wherever the demonstrators marched, the police followed — in a much more dramatic fashion. At each major intersection, cops lined up in rows two or three men deep and watched protesters stony-faced. They didn’t need to try and look intimidating – a heavy baton, sidearm, tear gas launchers and a belt full of plastic handcuffs accomplished that handily. When demonstrators left the intersection, police followed behind them, marching in military formation. But as the mostly out-of-town protesters lost themselves among the neighborhood, police trapped them between one line of cops stationed at an intersection and another moving toward them. Once they had a large number of them in an intersection, a military truck moved in. A loud speaker requested everyone, including bystanders, leave the area. An ear-piercing, high-pitched tone followed. It sounded like a cross between a smoke detector and a drill coming from inside your head.
This cat-and-mouse game continued until police began closing in behind the marchers and, unfortunately for us, everyone who had gathered to watch them. Kelly began to feel nervous.
“I don’t know, man,” he said quietly. “This doesn’t look good. Man, I don’t want to get arrested again.”
In September 2008, Kelly explained, he flew up to St. Paul, Minnesota to shoot video of the demonstrations surrounding the Republication National Convention. But on his second day videotaping the protests surrounding the city, police attacked him in empty parking lot. As they tackled him to the ground, he produced his (real) press pass. But the cops didn’t care. He spent a few days in jail before charges were dropped. Apparently, his arrest was not an isolated case. Police had arrested dozens of journalists that week including Associated Press reporters, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and local journalists.
That experience left Kelly a little wary of trusting police to respect the rights of the free press. Now, after hearing his story, I was a little worried, too. These cops definitely didn’t seem like the types to differentiate between the “good guys” and “bad guys.” So, Kelly and I backtracked a bit and power walked across a main artery. But, a few blocks ahead, another battalion of cops lined up across the road. We were surrounded. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I braced myself.
Then, something funny happened. The police didn’t move, stayed in formation and at this imposing line of riot cops, a jubilant crowd formed. They danced, banged on drums, drew pictures and wrote messages in chalk on the street. The cops never made a move, standing expressionless in front of this throng of dancing activists. It was like a yard-wide demilitarized zone. It was here where Kelly and I posed in front of these police officers, unsure if and when they would decide to charge us.
Well, the police did not charge us, at least not there. But a few blocks away, anarchists and cops fought pitched battles in the street like so many G20 protests before. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the only time this week. Over the course of the G20 conference, activists and baton-happy law enforcement squared off until the last delegate left the city.
Someone once said that losing your job is like your girlfriend breaking up with you – there’s stages of anger, denial, depression and inevitably, acceptance.
I’ll admit: I got to acceptance after that first day of sleeping in.
The G20 trip was just one of my adventures over the last year of unemployment. Who says unemployment sucks? After the newspaper laid me off – about the time you received last year’s Christmas card – I enjoyed extended vacations, finished projects put off for too long and enjoyed extended mornings on my porch with a cup of coffee and a crossword.
Unemployment? Naw, FUNemployment!
In the last 11 months, I spent more time with my interesting grandmother, wonderful girlfriend and friends of all sorts. I visited the Florida Keys for the first time, New Orleans for the fifth time, New York for the 10th or 11th time, Des Moines for the umpteenth time and capped it all off with a month-long trip across the country helping my friends shoot a music documentary.
I also wrote 137 blog posts, several pages of short stories and put together a book (that hopefully soon will be published). I helped produce St. Petersburg’s first homeless newspaper while watching my old newspaper falter through bankruptcy and eventually change owners. I read a few books, grew some fine-looking basil plants and learned how to ride a bike.
Then the worst, tragic thing ever happened: I got a job.
It’s not a big deal. I’m writing and editing product descriptions for some well-known online retailers. Copywriting is ot what I spent tens of thousands of dollars on in school, but hey, it’ll do. Although I’m not sure what kind of Christmas card this venture might produce for next year.
But then, again, I didn’t think the coffeeshop would either.