Downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Hundreds stood in silence at the steps of the county courthouse while Christian Carter, a recent high-school graduate and organizer of his school’s walkout for gun violence, read from a poem by Antwon Rose, the 17-year-old black teenager who earlier that week was shot in the back by police as he ran away from them, unarmed.
“I am confused and afraid / I wonder what path I will take / I hear that there’s only two ways out / I see mothers bury their sons / I want my mom to never feel that pain,” he read, and the crowd let out a collective groan. “I am confused and afraid.”
Shortly after responding to a shooting the night of June 19, East Pittsburgh police spotted a car they say resembled one seen leaving the scene with bullet holes in its rear windows. When police pulled the car over to conduct a traffic stop, Antwon and another young man ran from the car. An East Pittsburgh police officer shot Antwon three times in the back as he ran away unarmed, as a harrowing video taken by a witness showed. The officer responsible for the shooting, recently identified as Officer Michael Rosfeld, has been placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation. Police later determined the car carrying Antwon prior to his death was a jitney, or informal cab, and had no involvement in the prior shooting.
The rally’s organizers—which, among several, included Youth Power Collective, a group launched by the organizers of Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts high school’s walkouts to protest gun violence—called for an open investigation into the circumstances that led to Antwon’s death. The speakers made frequent reference to the history of gun violence and police violence in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Summer Lee, Democratic candidate for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, reminded the crowd that five other students in the Woodland Hills School District have lost their lives to gun violence since September 2017. Attorney Joel Sansone, who in 2014 represented 18-year-old Jordan Miles after three undercover police officers wrongfully arrested him as he walked to his grandmother’s house, beating him until his face was swollen and bruised, reminded those who had gathered about the long-running epidemic of police violence in the city.
“It was almost 20 years ago that I stood by the coffin of a 12-year-old black boy named Michael Ellerbe. Not far from here, they shot that boy in the back. He was unarmed. All he had in his pocket was a piece of candy,” he said. “I’ve been in this struggle for 35 years. There was no crowd for Michael Ellerbe. There was no crowd for Jordan Miles. You people are here because you know what’s happening,… I’ve been waiting 35 years for you people,” Sansone told the crowd. “Where have you been?”
The night before, hundreds of protesters had shut down Braddock Avenue, the street in front of the police station in Pittsburgh East, where Rose had been shot. By 7 pm, all traffic on the street had stopped. Confused motorists exited their cars to observe the growing numbers accumulating at the intersection, where the protesters made speeches and led chants. They stayed long into the evening, even after the rain began to pour. “Minorities, and not just black people, but minorities feel like the police are the biggest terrorist group in the nation,” Taylor Williams, 23, told The Nation. “It feels like we back in the 1800s, and we modern day slaves.”
A volunteer trauma response team led by Rev. Paul Abernathy in partnership with the Allegheny County Health Department provided “psychological first aid,” to the members of the impromptu protest. “In the aftermath of gun violence, our communities are held hostage to their own fears, the uncertainty, certainly the wounds that run very deep,” he said. “[It’s] not just one incident, but another chapter in a very long, sad story”
At the rally the following afternoon, where Rose’s poem was read, activists called on Pittsburghers to vote District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. out of office. “This is a referendum on District Attorney Stephen Zappala,” Jasiri X of 1Hood Media told the crowd, calling him to account for failing to bring charges against police officers accused of using excessive force in the past, and charging the unarmed black survivors of police violence instead.
In 2012, Zappala declined to press charges against three police officers accused of brutally beating Jordan Miles in 2010, while Miles’s charges, later dismissed by a judge, included resisting arrest and aggravated assault.
Similarly, Zappala did not charge the police officers responsible for shooting and paralyzing unarmed black man Leon Ford during a 2012 traffic stop, but did charge Ford with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, escape, and resisting arrest. Ford was acquitted of the aggravated assault charges, and Zappala ultimately dropped the others.
The organizers also called for a county-wide civilian police oversight board, citing the vast bureaucratic complications and loopholes that come with the county’s 130 self-governing municipalities.
The demographics of registered voters have impacted the legal system, activists pointed out. “I had a jury of all white people,” said Leon Ford, who addressed the crowd in an emotional speech. “A jury pool of over 100 people and zero African Americans. Some people told me it was a conspiracy. When I asked them if they were registered to vote, they said no. So how you gonna be on my jury pool if you ain’t registered to vote?”
The mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh’s Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, had stood in the rain at the protest the night before. “I knew the young man. He actually appeared in my campaign commercial. He volunteered at my wife’s store, the Free Store in Braddock,” he said. “The folks here are understandably angry and upset, and they’re taking it to the street. And I think only good can come from that.”
Fetterman’s campaign ad features Antwon alongside a young man Fetterman said he considers a “fourth son.” Now, he said, the image of him and Antwon side by side is a testimony to “the tragedy of their divergent paths.”
“[That young man] is heading to George Washington University this fall on a full scholarship,” he said. “And we’re out here grieving [Antwon’s] death.”