It's ironic that the summit was over before the police and public last week had their nastiest G-20 encounter -- nastiest and most unfortunate.
Security, understandably, was tight in the days leading up to and during the global meeting. As we and others said repeatedly in the weeks prior, better for Pittsburgh to be over-prepared than caught unawares by those who would turn a free-speech moment into anarchy.
For the most part, the city, which was assisted by thousands of visiting police and military, walked a careful line in ensuring safety, protecting property and observing basic rights.
Then came Friday night.
A growing crowd, ultimately estimated at 400, drew a large contingent of police to the grassy area at Schenley Plaza. Earlier in the day, individuals at the permitted "People's March to the G-20" passed out note cards promoting a nighttime rally at Schenley. At one point a person was on a loudspeaker and about 200 civilians were in the plaza.
Police ordered the crowd to disperse, but some stayed to chant at the officers. Earlier in the evening, University of Pittsburgh students received text and phone messages urging them to keep away and reminding them of a police-protester clash that had happened Thursday. Despite warnings that conditions might be deteriorating in Oakland and that students should stay near their dorms, many ventured out -- not as demonstrators or vandals but as curiosity seekers, despite repeated calls by police to clear the area.
Police said the crowd eventually swarmed onto Forbes Avenue, blocking traffic. Authorities said they gave the first of eight orders, over 15 minutes, to disperse at 10:42 p.m. In time, according to various accounts, officers closed in on several sides of the throng in the vicinity of Forbes, Bigelow Boulevard and the Cathedral of Learning. That's when the episode turned ugly, with young people feeling trapped, some stumbling to the ground and 110 getting arrested.
Among those arrested were several journalists, including two Pitt News photographers and Post-Gazette reporter Sadie Gurman, who was trying to leave the scene.
While not much of the police response in the prior week was controversial, there is plenty from Friday night that is worth examining.
Why did so many civilians say they felt encircled by police, with no reasonable way out? Why did some claim property was taken from them, including a video camera which then had its lens broken off?
Was such a display of force necessary to disperse this largely nonviolent, nonprotesting student crowd -- or did its sheer size provoke just the kind of reaction the city had sought to avoid?
It's no surprise that complaints have been filed with the Citizen Police Review Board and also with the city's Office of Municipal Investigations. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and police Chief Nate Harper need to launch their own investigation and hold any rogue officers accountable.
While it's easy to say that many of the students would have been better off had they heeded Pitt's warnings about steering clear of the streets, it's hard to argue that the bulk of these arrests were necessary. These cases should be examined individually, and those that do not involve violence or property destruction should be dropped (and, indeed, the district attorney dropped charges in a handful of cases yesterday).
Even the night after a global summit, there is a right to assemble and a right to speak out and a right to cover the news. How that all went wrong in Oakland on Friday must be explained before anyone pops the bubbly in the G-20 afterglow.