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Student-organized, anti-police brutality protest spans city, lasts four hours

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Student-organized, anti-police brutality protest spans city, lasts four hours

By Danielle Fox and Harrison Kaminsky / The Pitt News Staff

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Hundreds of Pittsburghers set out on Friday night to show the city “what democracy looks like,” marching for eight miles in the December rain.

Roughly 400 protesters with signs, posters, megaphones and banners gathered in Schenley Plaza around 5 p.m., according to police. It was a mix of high school and college students, Pitt faculty and community members. Some had their faces covered in Guy Fawkes masks, bandanas and ski masks. Others’ faces were unobstructed and warped only by their emotion. Immediately after the first protest rallied and finished, a smaller group of about 200 protesters proceeded down Forbes Avenue onto Parkway East to Downtown, South Side and then back to Oakland at around 9 p.m.

The anti-police brutality rally was Pittsburgh’s fifth in three days, and police did not interfere with any of the protests. 

Joan Mukogosi, 16, a Winchester Thurston School student from Squirrel Hill, said she and her high school friends were discussing recent events in Ferguson, Mo., and the Eric Garner case in Staten Island, N.Y., in which the police officer who placed Garner in a fatal chokehold was not indicted. 

Wanting to “do their part,” Mukogsi said they began organizing Friday’s protest. 

Mukogosi is listed as a host with four others on a Facebook event created two  Saturdays ago, which garnered more than 1,000 RSVPs by the day of the protest. Pittsburgh Students Against Police Brutality is listed as the organization responsible for running the protest.

Mukogosi led the first wave of the protest, which began at 5:54 p.m. and ended at 6:02 p.m. The marchers looped around Bigelow Boulevard, Fifth Avenue, South Bouquet Street and back to the original meeting spot in Schenley Plaza. Traffic was not stopped in Oakland because of Pitt police detours.

“This will not be a violent protest. That is not for us,” Mukogosi said, addressing the crowd.

As Mukogosi began to dismiss the protesters, a portion of the group began a die-in, lying down in the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard. She instructed the crowd to get up, adding through a megaphone, “We’ve got to peacefully disperse. I don’t want conflict.” 

At this point, the crowd split in two; one half left the area, and the other half reformed to return to the streets. Mukogosi did not lead this second wind of protests. 

Police trailed the second group. As street signs fell behind them, it became unapparent where their march would end. At 6:13 p.m., the protesters neared the end of Forbes Avenue, shouting to each other to “tighten up” and “prepare to take the freeway.” 

Although the mood was initially tense, after five or six protestors secured Parkway East ahead, the rest of the group exuberantly barrelled down the ramp that led to the road, preparing to “shut it down.” 

Despite the heavy rain, energy was high throughout the night. Each new road or neighborhood the group overtook on their four-hour march became a victorious battle ground, and the group stopped several times to dance on their spoils, while singing the chorus from DMX’s “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” “Stop, drop, shut ‘em down, open up shop. Oh, no. That’s how ruff ryders roll.”

Davon Magwood, 28, a comedian from Bloomfield and protest organizer, said the protest would move out of the way in case of an emergency, and would not interfere with response services, such as ambulances or fire crews. 

“We don’t want to stop services. That is an excuse they use to keep us down,” Magwood said. 

Officers were also prepared to escort an emergency vehicle through the protest if necessary, according to Pittsburgh Police spokeswoman Sonya Toler.

Pittsburgh city police allowed the protest to carry on for the length of time and distance that it did, Toler said, because it is the department’s policy to allow protesters to exercise their First Amendment right of freedom of speech.

Toler said there were no arrests, and no confrontations or incidents were reported. Overall, she said the department did a great job handling the protest.

While proceeding toward Downtown, the protesters stopped traffic on the Parkway around 6:40 p.m.

At 7:20 p.m., the protesters reached the Smithfield Street Bridge, chanting, “Take the bridge! Take it back!” and moved toward Carson Street. 

Although on the move, the group took several moments to stop, catch their breath and raise morale. Julia Johnson, one of the protest leaders, delivered a speech about America’s “system of oppression” as the protesters stood outside the Allegheny County Jail. 

“We see you! We see you!” the group turned and shouted to the barred windows before continuing on their route. 

Community members greeted the protest largely with claps of approval, confused faces or, occasionally, a fist raised in solidarity. At one point,two girls even jumped off a bus to join the protest as it reached South Side.

More than five police cars rode ahead of the group as they took E. Carson Street, chanting “indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail” and “Whose street? Our street!”

The group stopped on 12th Street, danced on 16th Street and held a moment of silence at the intersection of S. 18th and E. Carson streets, as bar patrons watched. 

Here, Johnson told the crowd to look around them and “Look who is fighting for your life,” at 8:09 p.m. before the protesters crossed the Birmingham Bridge back to Oakland.

Enjoying their “victory lap”, as Magwood put it, protesters reached the Pitt police outpost across the street from the Litchfield Towers on Forbes Avenue at 8:50 p.m. 

A protest leader called out, “We are at the Pitt police station. Do we have a message for them?”

The crowd began chanting, “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher directed a statement to the University community regarding the recent demonstrations on Dec. 4, in support of the students, faculty and staff who are “channeling their anger and outrage in positive ways that can and will make a difference.”

 “As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ Gallagher quoted, then continued. “Injustice is a cause for outrage. Certainly, I feel that way.”

 Although in support of student demonstrations, he asked students to forgo easy anger that brings distrust and fear to the cause.

“Through peaceful demonstrations, open dialogue and discussion and through community service,” Gallagher said, “our students are highlighting this important issue for others and advancing understanding in productive ways that can start to heal and make a difference.” 

Protest leaders had planned for the participants to enter the Hillman Library silently, keeping their hands in the air in protest, but a security guard would not allow entrance at the main door on Bigelow Boulevard. 

“This is for your security,” he shouted, as he struggled with a few protestors to shut and lock the doors. 

After failing to enter the library, the protesters held hands once more on the Hillman Library steps, singing the words “Organize, organize, organize.” 

“You are cold and tired, but you are alive,” Johnson said to the protesters before dismissing them for the night, at approximately 9 p.m. 

“This is not a moment. This is a movement,” Johnson said. “You took the city back tonight, but it’s not done.”

Magwood said he was proud of the protest, and its length said “a lot about our generation.” 

“People say we are lazy. They say our generation doesn’t work for anything,” Magwood said. “And, here we are putting in the work for justice.” 

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Student-organized, anti-police brutality protest spans city, lasts four hours