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At G-20 march in Pittsburgh, no rest for the weary

A day after a clash between police and protesters, thousands gather peacefully while officers in riot gear stand ready on the sidelines.

September 26, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter

PITTSBURGH — The People's March had just reached the edges of Steel City's downtown, at the halfway point in the three-mile protest, and Robert Shepherd's feet ached with each step.

The gray-haired former bookstore clerk was one of several thousand peaceful demonstrators who took to the streets of Pittsburgh on Friday to call attention to a host of ills they attributed to the economic policies of the world leaders convening at the Group of 20 summit.

It had been four decades since he had marched across college campuses to protest the war in Vietnam and to fight for civil rights. The frayed Army jacket was long gone, though his concerns over foreign conflicts remain. But what keeps him up at night is more personal.

It's the healthcare debate. He lost his insurance plan when he lost his job at a college bookstore 26 months ago.

"I wanted the chance to speak out," said Shepherd, 59. "I wanted to be part of history."

So the Pittsburgh resident pulled on black dress pants, a forest-green polo shirt and scuffed leather shoes and headed out the door Friday morning, joining friends waiting in the crowd in the city's Oakland neighborhood. Among them was Edward Black, a 77-year-old with cerebral palsy.

Around 11:30 a.m., Shepherd started walking. A yellow-and-blue placard declaring his support for single-payer healthcare dangled from his neck as he pushed Black's wheelchair through the crowd.

The quiet pair moved through a city on edge. A day earlier, 66 people were arrested after an impromptu march turned into an ugly clash with police that stretched well into the night.

Authorities were determined to quell any repeats. From the sidelines thousands of officers, clad in riot gear and clutching wooden batons, eyed Shepherd and his fellow protesters through scratched plastic visors. Curious locals, standing six- and seven-deep behind the police, watched and waited.

The march, organized by the Thomas Merton Center, a Pittsburgh peace organization, steadily grew to nearly 5,000. By early afternoon, the parade surrounding Shepherd and Black along 5th Avenue was part political angst, part Cirque du Soleil.

The air smelled of sweet incense and sour bodies. People waved handwritten signs in the air, pleading for jobs, railing against war, pushing for Americans to fix the economy and "Eat the Bankers."

One young man, carrying a "consumerism is evil!" sign, browsed through protest posters that were selling for $10. Shepherd stepped around bicyclists and navigated his friend's wheelchair around pet-owners walking their dogs.

Walking a few feet ahead of Shepherd, Tsering Wangdi yawned. This was the second protest he's walked in as many days. The Tibetan-born man, 32, said he marches for his family: His father, he said, died after being held in a Chinese prison.

Wangdi rented a car and drove the nearly 300 miles from his home in Philadelphia to the protests to denounce the Chinese government as world leaders gathered. He'd spent the last few days sleeping on a cot inside a church, eating donated sandwiches and bowls of noodles.

"[I] wonder how much farther we have," Wangdi said to himself as he and other marchers passed through shadows thrown by the skyscrapers. A few city workers, who hadn't been sent home earlier in the day, peered out the windows from their cubicles.

Shepherd was wondering the same thing. "Another mile or so," he said, stopping to take a break.

Shepherd is a stocky man with a beard that still holds a hint of his auburn-haired youth.

He glanced at a group of young men, clad in black, their faces covered with handkerchiefs, an anarchy symbol scrawled on their pant legs. They looked like many of the people who had been arrested the night before, whom TV crews had filmed throwing rocks at police.

Shepherd's forehead wrinkled in consternation. The crowd pressed in on the wheelchair. He wondered if he'd made a mistake.

Then a gap opened, leading to an empty side street. Shepherd pushed his friend's wheelchair into the space and kept walking.

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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