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Permit to parade isn't important to protesters

| Monday, Aug. 17, 2009

A protest march is planned from Oakland to Downtown Pittsburgh on the second day of the Group of 20 summit, even as the city warns participants they might not get permission for it from the Secret Service, organizers said Sunday.

The Garfield-based Thomas Merton Center and its Antiwar Committee plan a rally starting at noon Sept. 25 in Oakland.

At 2 p.m., participants hope to march down Fifth Avenue toward Downtown and the City-County Building, where they plan to speak out against what a statement from the Merton Center called a "lack of opportunity for public input at the upcoming G-20 summit."

From there, groups plan to march to the Federal Building at Grant Street and Liberty Avenue for another "speak-out" and will attempt to march down 10th Street to a point one block away from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, where the international summit of government and finance leaders will be conducted.

But questions remain about whether the marchers will receive the permits allowing the Oakland rally and march Downtown.

According to the center's statement, Pittsburgh officials have said "they can't guarantee the group's right to march because the Secret Service will be taking over the event."

Pete Shell, a member of the Merton Center's antiwar committee, said he hoped the city would advocate for their right to hold the rally and march.

"We want the world to see that Pittsburgh is a place where democracy is practiced and the right to assemble and dissent is allowed," he said.

Nadine Brnilovich, the Pittsburgh police special events coordinator, said local officials can't approve or deny any applications for special events until the Secret Service decides where it will set the security perimeters for the summit.

David Meieran, an organizer for Three Rivers Climate Convergence, said the lack of action on protest groups' permits makes it hard to organize events. Without official permission, the date and time of events can't be openly announced, making it difficult to attract participants from out of town, he said.

If the details are announced before obtaining official permission, he said, authorities could use that information to stop them.

Edith Bell, local coordinator for the Women's International League of Peace and Freedom, said her group also is seeking a site where they'd be permitted to gather.

With their permits in limbo, protesters face a dilemma, she said: Should they keep struggling to find an approved place to protest or fall back upon proclaiming their First Amendment right to assemble without being sanctioned by the city or Secret Service?

"With the denial of permits, it's going to be more chaotic," Bell said. "By not being able to get permits, we're forced to go without."

The Merton Center is anticipating thousands will take part in the march, requiring the closure of Fifth Avenue and Grant Street as they move, but doesn't anticipate it would cause any problems if the permits are granted.

"We've had many, many marches in Pittsburgh, mostly anti-war marches, and we've always been peaceful and legal," Shell said. "It's not going to be any different this time."

The center plans to keep the march nonviolent by recruiting many "peace marshals," veteran protesters who keep the crowd calm and instruct others on how to avoid conflict, such as ignoring counter-protesters, Shell said.

Participants will be joined along the way by "feeder marches" from other groups, such as the women's antiwar group Code Pink, and the environmental advocacy group Three Rivers Climate Convergence.

Shell said several speakers are scheduled for the rally at Fifth and Craft avenues in Oakland, including Code Pink National President Madea Benjamin.

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