Pittsburgh George Floyd protest ‘hijacked by small group,’ turns violent

Hundreds of protesters march down the streets of Pittsburgh demanding justice for George Floyd (Pittsburgh Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

By Brittany Hailer

PITTSBUGRH — At 2:30 p.m. Pittsburghers on Saturday gathered for a “Justice for George Floyd” rally at the intersection of Liberty Avenue and Sixth Street.

From there, a choreographed march of thousands -– men, women, and children of all races –- echoed through Downtown Pittsburgh. The crowd chanted “I can’t breathe” and “Whose streets? Our Streets.”

Signs read “White Silence = Violence;”  “White People: You should be here,” and a painted guitar read “Do not suffocate these songs of sorrow.”

Around 3 p.m., organizers gave an elegy, urging the crowd to repeat the refrain, “I breathe for them” after reading the names of other black men and women murdered by police: George Floyd, Antwon Rose, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, among others.

Most demonstrators wore masks and many had children. People passed out fruit, granola bars, water and free masks. Police kept their distance for much of the protest until the crowd gathered at the Lower Hill outside the Epiphany Catholic Church on Washington Place.

Previously bottlenecked for most of the march, the crowd spilled out into the Lower Hill around 4:30 p.m. Five police officers on horseback stood by a police car parked outside the church. As the crowd continued to spill out, protesters flooded the streets and as a consequence, surrounded the mounted police.

This is where tensions rose. A small group of protesters began chucking water bottles at the mounted officers and their horses. Others urged the demonstrators to stop. The police stood their ground as long as they could, before driving into the crowd–almost plowing over dozens–as they fled to safety.

Their post abandoned, white protesters (despite the pleading of black protesters to stop) smashed the windows of the cruiser and spray painted it.  Two other men jumped on top and raised their fists. Later, the vehicle was set on fire. There seemed to be a split in sentiment in the crowd: many cheered, fists in the air. The organizers of the protest insisted, “It is time to go home.”

A Pittsburgh Police car is set on fire outside of PPG Paints Arena Saturday afternoon (Pittsburgh Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

As more people grew nervous, they ushered women and children away from the vehicle, “Get back!” they warned. One man shouted, “There’s ammunition in that car! It is going to explode!”

Dozens ran to the nearby parking lot where the protest shifted into a somber vigil. The silent crowd watched as the vehicle continued to burn. Black smoke billowed as the carcass of the car popped and ruptured with explosions.

As of this printing, Downtown Pittsburgh was locked down and a curfew in effect until 8:30 a.m. on Sunday morning.

“Get back!” people urged.

And others, “Where do we go?”

Several individuals tried to block Washington Place with sandbags and signs and a few minutes later, the rest of the group standing by, removed the barricade.

Rumors started to fly, “The police are coming in busses “ and “They’re going to gas us.” Across the parking lot there was silence, a sort of shock as to how things had escalated and where to go from here.

A black man in his thirties sat on the ground and said, “If they gas me, I won’t make it. I won’t be able to breathe.”

At a press conference a short time ago, Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert said: “It’s a damn shame they took advantage of the death of George Floyd. This was a peaceful protest hijacked by a small group who brought youths into the group. White males dressed in anarchist attire.”

Brittany Hailer is a reporter for The Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared