Power Shift: Activists Occupy PNC Bank, 7 Arrests

Photos by Bob Donaldson / Post Gazette

Photos by Bob Donaldson / Post Gazette

by Molly Born / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh police today arrested seven people protesting PNC Bank outside the U.S. Steel Tower.

Police spokeswoman Diane Richard said more than 1,000 people gathered in Downtown Pittsburgh this morning for a rally related to the Energy Earth Action Coalition Conference and the group splintered several times.

After some went to the county courthouse and some to the City-County Building, a group went to the Steel Tower about 2 p.m.

Ms. Richard said in a press release that officers from the city’s Zone 2 station in the Hill District “established a dialogue with the protesters in an attempt to have them leave the building on their own.”

When the protesters remained, police peacefully arrested Walter Sullivan, of Philadelphia; George Lakey, of Philadelphia; Benjamin Shaprio, of Youngstown, Ohio; Michael Gagne, of Wallingford, Pa.; Ammy Brimmer, of Yardley, Pa.; Karen Leithner, of Bryn Mawr, Pa.; and Johannah Cordonhill, of Bryn Mawr, Pa.

The arrests came after nearly 1,000 environmental activists protesting fracking and mountaintop coal removal marched from Pittsburgh’s North Shore this morning and weaved their way through Downtown.

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A couple dozen anti-drilling activists set up shop inside Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s office, saying they would not leave until he promised to hold multiple open meetings regarding proposed drilling under county parks, among other things.

Mr. Fitzgerald entered and left his office multiple times during the protest. At one point, he ducked into a colleague’s office to give a brief press conference to the media before addressing the protesters en masse.

“I know I’ve met a lot of you many times,” Mr. Fitzgerald told the group, which had grown in size to several dozen people by the mid-afternoon. “Schedule an appointment.”

“This is our meeting!” several protesters shouted back.

Privately, Mr. Fitzgerald said he doubts anti-drilling activists really want public meetings at all.

“They just want to stop it,” he said.

The executive made a point of entering his office through the front door each time, albeit while flanked by sheriff deputies. He wanted to hear them, he said.

The protesters packed up and left shortly after Mr. Fitzgerald’s announcement, declaring victory.

“We brought attention to the issue,” said Mel Packer, one of the protesters occupying the office.

The protest marked the final day of Power Shift’s youth climate movement national conference that’s training young people to protest against coal mining, fracking for natural gas, and nuclear power.

“The people united will never be defeated,” the group chanted as it marched across the Roberto Clemente Bridge into Downtown, carrying colorful signs and joined by a small marching band.

They marched onto Fort Duquesne Boulevard and proceeded to Ninth Street, Liberty Avenue, Sixth Street, then back across the Clemente Bridge to Allegheny Landing by about 1 p.m., Pittsburgh police said.

“We have to interrupt the process before it’s a done deal,” organizer Ben Fiorellio said.

When the Power Shift march down Liberty Avenue reached Sixth Street, about a third of the protesters split off and headed up Fifth Avenue on an unapproved parade permit route to the Allegheny County Courthouse. They entered the courtyard and rallied around the fountain spouting pink water for Breast Cancer Awareness month.

After several rounds of chants that brought courthouse workers to the windows, a contingent entered the courthouse, passing through security and metal detectors.

According to Devon Cohen of Lawrenceville, a march organizer and member of the Shadbush Collective, which is part of the anti-fracking organization Protect Our Parks, nine protesters were staging a sit-in in Mr. Fitzgerald’s office and 40 move were outside the office in the hallway.

“The parks are public land and a lot of the decision-making process has been pushed through in closed-door meetings, private meetings, between Fitzgerald and the shale gas drilling companies,” Ms. Cohen said. “The public needs to be educated and needs to have a say in whether it wants that dirty industrial process in the parks.”

The rally was not without its counter-protesters.

Members of the Boilermakers Local 154 held “Stop the War on Coal” signs at the end of the Clemente Bridge. Craig Rossiter, 53, of Mt. Washington, said the union wants clean coal technology and that the young people protesting need to understand that “when they turn their light switches on, it comes from coal.”

“You can’t take coal out of the equation at this stage of the game,” he said.

A Consol Energy barge served as a backdrop on the river for the much of the rally, turning around to show banners on either side that read “Welcome to Coal County” and “Support American Energy Support American Jobs.”

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