The Battle of Lawrenceville
When the counterinsurgency came to Pittsburgh
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In May 2009, when President Obama announced that the upcoming G20 summit would be held in Pittsburgh, the press corps reportedly erupted into laughter. In Pittsburgh itself, the response wasn’t much different. According to one of the rumors going around at the time, the masters of the universe were meeting in our city because they had been turned down by New York and Chicago. I have no idea if this is true or not, but the rumor says something about the way Pittsburgh sees itself in relation to the rest of the country.
The G20 is an organization made up of twenty of the world’s largest economies (including the United States, United Kingdom, Russian Federation, and European Union). Altogether, it represents over 80 percent of the gross world product and over two-thirds of the world’s population. Of course, it doesn’t really represent two-thirds of the world’s population — it represents the rulers of two-thirds of the world’s population. It provides a vehicle for the wealthy (and the politicians they own) to further consolidate the power of multinational corporations. This power, in turn, will be used to both vacuum up even more wealth and silence the social movements threatening to cut into corporate profits.
An event like the G20 summit demonstrates how police forces work to enforce the established power structure — from the international sphere right on down to local departments. This is the reality of that old conspiracist nightmare, the New World Order.
The G20 came to Pittsburgh a decade after the Battle of Seattle, where over 40,000 protestors forced the 1999 Seattle WTO Ministerial Conference to an abrupt end. This was a key event in the birth of the anti-globalization movement. By 2009, the movement had been dead and then reborn at least once, and the system (the media, law enforcement, and right-thinking, respectable people who would never dream of stepping out of line) had come a long way towards perfecting their methods of handling troublemakers.
In the media, dissent is addressed as if it were a freak snowstorm in April or a lane closure on the Parkway. Protests are treated as a force of nature, with no discernible cause. Never will you hear a simple, common sense soundbite as to why globalization is disliked so intensely. This is insane, because there are so many reasons to choose from. Here’s one that’s short and accurate, if stiltedly academic:
Globalization removes control over local resources to remote insensitive trans-national corporations operating solely on an agenda of profits, underinformed of and with insufficient concern for local effects. It exemplifies the socialization of costs and privatization of profits. (Sourcewatch)
In other words, globalization is the process through which corporations (and their lackeys) endeavor to profit off of every aspect of our lives, making everybody else miserable in the process.
For years, the media has consistently failed to supply the ‘why’ when covering protest stories, so it should be no surprise that so many Americans see protest as unpatriotic and protesters as guilty of some sort of thought crime. In 2009, as the local news programs reinforced the idea that protesters were freaks with no possible motive or humanity, the City of Pittsburgh proceeded to treat them accordingly.
During the week leading up to the event and during the G20 meeting itself, which took place on September 24 and 25, the city used all manner of tactics to prevent people from having a say on the issue of globalization. When demonstrators were denied a permit to use Point State Park downtown for an alternative Peoples’ Summit, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued. A federal judge ordered the city to grant the permit, as well as awarding $96,242.57 in lawyers’ fees and costs.
The ACLU also had to step in when two school buses retrofitted as kitchens — one red, and one orange, belonging to the Seeds of Peace and Everybody’s Kitchen collectives (in that order) — were repeatedly harassed. After being chased around the city, they eventually took shelter in the parking lot of the Trinity Lutheran Church on the city’s North Side, where they fed members of the community throughout the G20 protests. Ultimately, the court ruled that the city had to pay Seeds of Peace and the Three Rivers Climate Coalition (a local climate justice group) $143,000 for their trouble. As was bound to be the case with our flawed legal system, this was too little, too late.
In the run-up to G20, anybody, no matter how innocuous, could’ve been subject to police harassment. On the Monday before the summit, Dan McCloskey — the founder of the Cyberpunk Apocalypse Writers Collective — woke up in the middle of the night to find a line of police vehicles in the street, stretching an entire city block, bumper-to-bumper. In addition to the cops at the front door, more traipsed through the backyard, poking around in the compost. When Dan produced the deed to his house, the officer in charge seemed confused. He was confronted by a house of writers living cooperatively but had clearly expected a dangerous cell of radical squatters. When Dan asked why they were at his house at all, the officer in charge couldn’t really answer the question. They were there to crack skulls, not explain themselves.
“Well,” one of the cops said. “You know, the G20’s coming.”
Another added helpfully that the collective must have done something to be placed “on a list.”
Kristian Williams is an activist in Portland and the author of the book Our Enemies in Blue. During a recent interview, he offered several examples of police activities that do absolutely nothing to prevent crime, from racial profiling to the infiltration of benign progressive groups by informants and undercover officers. A lot of policing “just doesn’t seem to make any sense from a law enforcement perspective, or a public safety perspective,” he says:
If you want to understand what the police do, and this is true really at any level — the officer on the beat, all the way up to policy decisions — you’re better off not thinking of it in terms of crime-fighting, or law enforcement, or any of that sort of “cop show” kind of stuff. What you need to do instead is look at the existing distribution of power in a society. And in general, the police are going to behave in ways that protect the position of powerful people and keep powerless people at the bottom of the hierarchy. Once I had that realization, all of those things that I was talking about sort of just fell into place.
The popular conception of the war in Vietnam is that it was merely a guerrilla war — meaning that American soldiers, with superior technology and firepower, were hopelessly outnumbered and eventually worn down by spunky men and women in black pajamas and conical hats. But in reality, there are many ways in which Vietnam was different than the wars that preceded it, ways in which it was a preview of things to come.
Historian and journalist Nick Turse covers this in depth in his book Kill Everything That Moves. The genesis of the book was Turse’s discovery, in the National Archives in Washington DC, of records pertaining to something called the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, “a secret Pentagon task force that had been assembled after the My Lai massacre to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” In his book, Turse describes how “atrocities were committed by members of … every major army unit in Vietnam.”
There’s only so much killing a squad, a platoon, or a company can do. Face-to-face atrocities were responsible for just a fraction of the millions of civilian casualties in South Vietnam. Matter-of-fact mass killing that dwarfed the slaughter at My Lai normally involved heavier firepower and command policies that allowed it to be unleashed with impunity.
The military established, in other words, “a veritable system of suffering” that was meant to break the spirit of the people of Vietnam.
Between 1965 and 1972, the CIA in Vietnam coordinated a sci-fi, dystopian torture and assassination machine called the Phoenix Program. This state-of-the-art counterinsurgency program was largely carried out by the American, Australian, and South Vietnamese militaries, while the CIA called the shots and mapped the social networks of the “Viet Cong Infrastructure” — an ominous-sounding term that came to encapsulate anyone in South Vietnam who objected to the U.S. presence, from hardcore VC operatives to union and religious leaders.
Author and journalist (and poet) Douglas Valentine has called the Phoenix Program “Vietnam’s silver lining,” not without irony. As Valentine explains in his seminal work The Phoenix Program, “Central to Phoenix is the fact that it targeted civilians, not soldiers. South Vietnamese civilians whose names appeared on blacklists could be kidnapped, tortured, detained for two years without trial, or even murdered, simply on the word of an anonymous informer.”
The Phoenix Program ended before the Vietnam War did, but the lessons live on wherever the American empire exerts itself, whether abroad or at home.
Three decades later, when the Pentagon realized that the war in Iraq wasn’t going to be won with airpower, it turned to America’s urban police departments for counterinsurgency training. For instance, the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California partnered with the Salinas Police Department to test counterinsurgency domestically before taking it overseas. Also around this time, the military started sending troops to Los Angeles to observe anti-gang policing. The deployment to Los Angeles is not incidental — it was there in 1966 that the first SWAT teams were organized by future LAPD chief Daryl Gates to utilize the lessons of Vietnam in their fight against the Black Panther Party and other leftist groups.
In the 1960s there was a slogan: “Suppose They Gave a War and No One Came?” These days, looking at how the police respond to protest, my thinking runs on parallel, if more ominous lines: What if the government declared war on its citizens, and nobody noticed? After looking at the militarization of our police departments and the booming prison population, it’s clear that this has been happening, right under our noses, for quite some time now.
Of course, there’s a major difference between the Second Battle of Fallujah and the Battle of Lawrenceville during the G20. As far as I know, no live ammunition was discharged in Pittsburgh when cops in riot gear, including National Guard, state troopers, Pittsburgh city police, and a smattering of officers from other police forces around the country faced off against a large faction of Black Bloc anarchists.
After the police established a perimeter between a massive protest march and the convention center downtown, the anarchists took off in the other direction, turning an inevitable slaughter into the closing chase from Benny Hill. The streets that day were thick with tear gas, while an LRAD sound cannon, mounted on a Lenco BearCat armored vehicle, gave lots of us headaches that afternoon. Incidentally, this was the first time — but certainly not the last — that the less-than-lethal weapon had been used at a protest in the United States. All this cat-and-mouse happened while lower-middle-class civilians watched from the stoops and front doors of their row homes in amusement (or perhaps bemusement).
The nearly 5,000-member security force included 2,500 National Guard troops who had recently returned from active duty in Iraq.
And it isn’t just DHS-designated National Special Security Events that call for this kind of policing. It’s happening everywhere, all over the country. In the worst neighborhoods, counterinsurgency is celebrated as being a novel approach to an otherwise inexplicable problem.
In May 2013, 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl praised “counterinsurgency cops” in Springfield, Massachusetts. The story made a stunning comparison between Springfield and Basra, Iraq: Both were “failed areas” that had been taken over by street gangs and militias, respectively. Instead of asking how this could happen in the United States, Stahl spent the segment celebrating a “small team of elite troopers, most of them war veterans” for bringing the battle home to the birthplace of Dr. Seuss. While the North End of Springfield is undoubtedly better without AK-47-wielding gang members patrolling the streets, you could watch a year’s worth of 60 Minutes without learning how it ever got that bad. Or how the counterinsurgency cops are just a sorry band-aid that allows the rotten system to remain in place.
At the end of the segment, Stahl says that later in the year, Massachusetts State Trooper Mike Cutone was going to Afghanistan to help the Army train troops with the lessons he learned practicing counterinsurgency in southern New England.
The counterinsurgency genie’s been let out of the bottle, and it isn’t just used by small groups of cops in rough neighborhoods. Back here in Pennsylvania, gas companies drilling the Marcellus Shale have hired psychological operations (psyops) experts to handle communities resistant to fracking.
“We have several former psyops folks that work for us at Range [Resources],” a spokesman for the company told the audience at an industry conference in 2011. A representative for another company, Anadarko Petroleum, implored people at the same conference to “Download the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, because we are dealing with an insurgency” in gas patch communities.
None of this would be of any surprise to Douglas Valentine.
“Counterinsurgency is the idea of structuring a society in a particular way,” he says. “There’s a philosophy behind it, and the philosophy basically is that a few elite people are in a position to determine what society’s gonna be, what it’s going to look like. And they are gonna reward themselves for doing this, and in the process of doing it they’re going to create a narrative which justifies the inequality that they create.”