Mean Streets of a G20
I was in Pittsburgh for the G-20 summit and it was all about the rich countries, in bad financial shape, telling the next 12 or so wealthy countries: let’s share the power and the bills. That’s the way of the world. But the city of Pittsburgh got a passing notice from us parachute-journalists as well.
PM in Flight
India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, hates flying about. So he zips in and out of world powwows. But because of his health, he and his staff and accompanying 26-strong press party have to make short stops to (Frankfurt) and fro (Geneva) from Pittsburgh. These were very short indeed. Security didn’t even allow us to keep our checked baggage – and most of us did little more than file stories.
The Air India staff were gracious, but the 747 was a shabby affair. The seats went down so low they nearly touched the knees of the passenger behind. I had sense of patriotic embarrassment when the 747, its white paint turning a dirty yellow, was lined up with the jets of others. Couldn’t they have painted it? One of the journalists said,that going by the existence of ashtrays in the plane, “it was probably bought in the late 1990s.”
Lock down city
This is only the second time that a G-summit has been held in a non-capital city. And Pittsburgh, a city whose economic decline has now troughed, is down to 300,000 people and a police force of 900.
Unsurprisingly, the arrival of 4000 world leaders, diplomats, media and other riffraff made the city a target-rich environment, for terrorists and anti-globalisation egg-throwers. So the city imported security wholesale. By the time Singh & Co arrived, personnel from 62 different agencies had been drafted to protect the city. Which is why moving around, even with a couple of security passes, was an impossibility.
I suspect any terrorist was probably still trying to figure out where Pittsburgh was by the time the two-day summit was over. But protesters were present on the city fringes in motley numbers: human rights activists, goth anarchists, climate change types and so on. Not that any of them came close to the actual meeting sights given the rings of security.
Macy’s and mace
Just two hours before we were to be all carted off to the airport to leave, I decided I had to make a desperate dash to the downtown area and buy something for my daughter. So I walked across a bridge and headed for the Macy’s, one of the few shops that I was assured would be open.
Downtown Pittsburgh vaguely resembled a movie scene: one were aliens have driven out the civilians and it’s deserted except for the odd DarthVader-dressed soldier. There were knots of locals at the street corners, boggling at the sight of mounted policemen or an armoured car.
When I went into a pharmacy, I found all the staff standing on stools and watching the spectacle outside. Business was slow, adrenaline was fast.
Macy’s had a police tape around it. “Crime Scene: Do Not Cross.” I was weighing whether my daughter’s gift against a short spell behind bars when I noticed some Pittsburgers calmly lifting the tape and walking in.
Inside, the multi-storeyed building was empty. I found the kids’ section manned by an elderly black lady. “Given you are working a crime scene,” I joked. “Getting customers is tough.” She didn’t know what I was talking about. And began wailing when I did. “I should have stayed at home, oh lordy,” she said.
As I headed back to the hotel I passed through a demonstration. About 75 singing protesters were surrounded by 100 media people and several hundred riot police in front of the city council hall. The main danger I saw: large piles of horse droppings everywhere.
Journalists who fly with the prime minister get a goodie bag at the end of the flight – leftover alcohol, a carton of cigarettes and strange duty-free debris. But this flight we got something special – prime ministerial birthday cake. Singh turned 77 on our return flight and so he popped out, namasteed and left a white cake. It didn’t even say “Happy Birthday” and was mouth-puckeringly sweet. The stewardess complained, “We don’t give such cakes icing if its done by our catering service. But this one was picked up in Pittsburgh.” At the only bakery open in the city I suspect.
However, what was important was that Singh had signed a new world economic order, at least on paper. One of his former advisors told me, “He’s very pleased with himself.” Not bad for a man who, his guards tell me, has difficulty judging the distance of the steps he has to take when he disembarks from an airplane. Hence the two people who sandwich him between them as he goes down. And here I thought it was to stop snipers.