Police gassed students on second-floor patio of residence hall during G-20

By Lindsay Carroll

Bella Salamone watched as rioters lit a Dumpster’s trash on fire a couple of blocks away from… Bella Salamone watched as rioters lit a Dumpster’s trash on fire a couple of blocks away from Forbes Hall.

It was around 10:20 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 24 — the first of two days that Pitt’s campus would see police and protesters face off during the G-20 Summit protests.

Salamone, a 17-year-old freshman, had a clear view of the protesters and the Dumpster fire from her dorm’s balcony on the sixth floor of Forbes Hall, at the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Semple Street. She and at least 100 other residents stood on balconies and the building’s second floor patio to watch as police officers pushed protesters back on Forbes Avenue toward Downtown, away from central campus.

Forbes Hall is home to about 232 students — mostly freshmen honors students — on six floors. The first floor of the Forbes Hall Pavilion houses the Health Book Center. Above the book center is a large patio with tables and chairs overlooking Forbes Avenue with doors to the second floor. The patio does not have street access.

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By the end of the night, police had released three cans of OC riot control gas onto the second floor patio of Forbes Hall, and Salamone was in the emergency room.

As students, city officials and community members struggle to understand police and protester actions on Pitt’s campus during G-20, the events at Forbes Hall represent the controversial police action that occurred.

An unexpected crowd

At around 4 p.m. that day, a small crowd of people — mostly students and some families — gathered in Schenley Plaza. They hoped to watch President Barack Obama’s motorcade drive around the plaza and into Schenley Park, where a G-20 dinner was to take place at Phipps Conservatory later that evening.

The motorcade never came. Protesters and hundreds of police officers, however, did.

Some of the residents of Forbes Hall, including Salamone and freshman Rob Gyory, joined hundreds of other students who came to watch the interactions between protesters and police at the plaza.

The crowd grew larger as hundreds of people, many of whom seemed to be local students, gathered to see what was happening. Protesters assembled at the front of the crowd, pushing the police back to the bridge which leads to the park. By around 6:30 p.m., police released riot gas to disperse the crowd.

Many students ran toward the plaza, but others stayed while protesters continued to confront the police line. Salamone and her group of friends left the plaza to hang out and do homework.

A parade of mounted officers came to push the crowd back onto Schenley Drive, in between the Frick Fine Arts building and the Carnegie Library. The police gradually formed a barricade extending from the sides of the library to Frick Fine Arts.

Mike Matula, a freshman living in Forbes Hall, came to the plaza around 8 p.m. At this point, the police presence had become a spectacle. College-aged people posed in front of the lines of stoic police officers in riot gear. Some smiled awkwardly or gave a thumbs up to their friends bearing cameras — presumably, taking a generation’s worth of Facebook profile shots.

Matula decided to go back to his dorm room around 9 p.m. Within half an hour, much of the plaza was surrounded by police officers. A group of around 30 to 40 protesters danced and sang protest songs in defiance of the police line, which slowly pushed the crowd to the other side of the plaza, by Carnegie Library.

Back at Forbes Hall, Salamone heard someone yell something about a Dumpster being lit on fire. She and her friends went to their room’s balcony to watch.

Matula overheard someone talking about the fire as well and went to investigate.

Fire down the streets of Forbes

On Fifth Avenue, a separate group had formed near the Graduate School of Public Health on Thackeray Avenue by 10:19 p.m. The group marched down Atwood Street, took a few Dumpsters from an alley and pushed them into the intersection near the Rite Aid on Forbes Avenue.

At 10:21 p.m., a sprawling crowd of marchers near Joe Mamas restaurant paraded around an overturned, flaming Dumpster. Salamone and others at Forbes Hall watched as rioters marched away from them and toward Schenley Plaza.

The rioters broke windows at the Pitt police substation underneath the pedestrian bridge by David Lawrence Hall. They crossed the lawn of the William Pitt Union and traveled up Bigelow Boulevard, turned right on Fifth Avenue and then turned onto Craig Street.

Police caught members of the group on Bellefield Avenue, where they made at least one arrest around 10:37 p.m. — the time when city police played a recording that ordered the crowd to disperse.

Matula, who had left Forbes Hall to investigate, said the street was flooded with curious students and other bystanders.

“[It] would remain that way until the police removed them,” he said.

As he walked down Forbes Avenue, he saw that protesters had overturned the Dumpster. He noticed several broken shop windows. He went to the William Pitt Union lawn and saw police beginning to assemble. He watched as they drove in with a Long Range Acoustic Device, a loudspeaker that sits on top of a police truck and emits messages or sounds loud enough to induce hearing loss.

At 10:37 p.m., police played a pre-recorded message through the LRAD that declared the crowd in Schenley Plaza an “unlawful gathering” and said it had to disperse, or risk arrest or attack with lesser weapons.

Matula returned to Forbes Hall after hearing the message. He turned on the news. He watched the police surrounding Pitt’s campus near the Cathedral of Learning and the Union through the channel’s live feed. When he saw that the police were three blocks away from Forbes Hall, Matula went out onto its second-floor patio.

The asthma attack

Around 11 p.m., Salamone stood on her balcony and watched the street below. She saw a group of protesters trying to resist the police line that advanced toward Downtown. The protesters couldn’t make headway and were pushed back to Semple Street.

She couldn’t see the patio from her balcony, but she saw police throw a canister of OC gas into the crowd that had assembled there.

Gyory stood on the Forbes Hall patio with a group of about 50 to 80 people, some of whom leaned over the edge to watch what happened on the street below.

Many others stood watching from the balconies of their dorms, which surround three sides of the patio. Some look directly over the street.

Matula was on the patio, too. He and Gyory both said they never heard a warning telling the crowd on the patio to disperse before the canisters were thrown.

Salamone said she’d heard rumors that someone on the patio yelled, “Let’s riot!” or that a protester tried to run into the hall, prompting the police to disperse the crowd.

She said she saw someone throw the canister of gas back into the street – the people on the patio didn’t want to be exposed to the gas, she said, adding that she thought that prompted the police to throw two more canisters onto the patio.

“When we saw the canisters fly, we all ran in right away,” Gyory said.

Gyory worked as an emergency medical technician in his hometown near Allentown, Pa.

He went to the first floor to check on someone who he’d heard had been hit by a rubber bullet and was waiting for an ambulance when police released the gas. An officer in riot gear prevented Gyory and other residents from leaving the hall. The officers let only the two people waiting with the person to stand outside the front door.

Gyory decided to check other floors. He went to the sixth.

There, he found Salamone. She was hyperventilating, surrounded by a group of women on her floor who tried to calm her down.

‘It feels like your eyes are melting’

Oleoresin Capsicum spray, commonly known as OC gas or pepper spray, is used for self-defense and riot control.

The vapor is derived from the capsicum, or red pepper, plant. It inflames the areas it hits, resulting in pain and discomfort so that “many victims lose their capacity to resist,” according to a National Criminal Justice Reference Service report given to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2000.

Being exposed to OC vapor raises blood pressure and can affect breathing, but according to the report, the gas does not cause serious breathing problems such as asphyxiation. However, the report did not address other health conditions, such as asthma.

Matula said he thought OC gas felt similar to how he imagined tear gas would.

“When you inhale it, your lungs and throat itch, and you can’t do anything but cough,” he said. “If it gets in your eyes, you become partially blind and it feels like your eyes are melting.”

When police released the gas, Matula ran and the others on the patio stampeded back into the building.

“The situation got panicky very fast,” he said.

Matula was several feet from one of the grenades when it hit the patio.

“I ran to my bathroom on the sixth floor and flushed my eyes and choked for five minutes,” Matula said in an e-mail. “The third floor had windows open out of which the students had been looking. It was filled with gas, and the students living on the third floor became refugees for several hours while it cleared.”

Gyory started to roam the residence hall. When he found Salamone surrounded by some of the other women from her floor, he started giving them directions.

Salamone was able to breathe, but she was coughing and hyperventilating. Gyory said he didn’t want to help her directly because of legal complications that can result from giving aid while off duty, but he helped tell the women what to do. One of them was a lifeguard and had training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Salamone said she hadn’t experienced an asthma attack since she was younger. She coughed and her limbs felt tingly because of the lack of oxygen. One of the two Forbes Hall resident assistants called an ambulance, she said. Firemen gave her oxygen while she waited.

She changed into pajamas so she wasn’t in clothes contaminated with the pepper spray. EMTs transported Salamone to the hospital, barefoot and without her cell phone. She still has her hospital bracelet.

“The nurses seemed pretty stressed,” Salamone said. She said they told her several other people had the same reaction after being exposed to the OC vapor.

UPMC didn’t respond to phone calls requesting comment on the number of people who went to the emergency room that night.

Salamone received an IV and stayed in the hospital for about an hour until campus police drove her back to the hall, which she said she felt grateful for. She got home early in the morning — she said maybe around 3 a.m., although she said her perception of time was skewed — and slept through her first lecture. But in two days, she felt she was back to normal.

City and University officials investigate

Citizen Police Review Board Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger, who is leading an investigation of police action during the G-20 Summit, said the board received 68 complaints about police action. She was unable to comment on specifics of those complaints, but she said the board will continue to accept them. It is also working with University officials to hold a town hall on Pitt’s campus about the arrests.

City police spokeswoman Diane Richard said she hadn’t heard of the incident at Forbes Hall and couldn’t give a statement about it because she wasn’t there.

“I am not certain that your sources are totally accurate in their indication that the city police fired OC [gas] in the dormitory area to disperse a crowd,” Richard said.

Richard said she would ask Paul Donaldson, Pittsburgh deputy chief of police, about what happened and ask for a response. She said the deputy police chief would respond “at his discretion.” The Pitt News e-mailed and called the police three times but received no further comment.

Neither Forbes Hall residence assistants nor Residence Life officials were allowed to comment on what happened at Forbes Hall, but Pitt spokesman John Fedele said the University is working with the city police to investigate all incidents that occurred on campus during the G-20.

“It would be premature for us to comment on it while the investigation is ongoing,” Fedele said, speaking for Vice Chancellor of Public Affairs Robert Hill.

‘A lot of misunderstanding on everybody’s side’

While she was in the hospital, Salamone worried about people she knew who were stuck elsewhere on Pitt’s campus and couldn’t get to their dorms and other buildings.

There was some chaos in Forbes Hall, she said. It was dark out and things seemed “crazy,” she said.

She said she felt as if the events of the night were part of a larger problem that wasn’t necessarily the fault of police officers, and she understood where they were coming from ­— especially if the police who threw the canisters were from out of the area, or if they thought Forbes Hall was an apartment building rather than University housing.

“The police were put into weird positions,” Salamone said. “I think it was a lot of misunderstanding on everybody’s side.”

Gyory said he felt people standing on the patio would have gone inside if police had told them to. He understood the police might have been afraid of onlookers. He said that people applauded police as they went by the hall to show their support but didn’t see anything that may have prompted police to throw the first canister.

“Without any sort of warning whatsoever, I think they definitely overstepped their bounds,” he said.