George Floyd Protests: Pittsburgh’s checkered past with excessive force, explained

Officers with tear gas and “non-lethal” projectiles line up across from protesters on Saturday, 5/30/20 (Pittsburgh Current photo)

By Brittany Hailer

PITTSBURGH — Two days after the May 30 “Justice for George Floyd” rally, Pittsburgh clergy of every cloth gathered and prayed at historic Freedom Corner in the Hill District. They later marched to the City-County building with a police escort.

Roughly 48 hours earlier, a peaceful protest was rocked by violence. Police officers used tear gas and “non-lethal” ammunition rounds on protesters. As the event continued to devolve into chaos, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Police Chief Scott Schubert and other officials classified the protest as once peaceful until it was “hijacked” by individuals described as “white, male anarchists.”

But during the June 1 march, at Freedom Corner, the Rev. Brian Edmonds, pastor of the Macedonia Church of Pittsburgh, addressed that notion clearly and succinctly.

“Some are seeking to hijack the narrative. I came here today to declare that the narrative will not be hijacked!” Edmonds said, “Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota, said that the protests now–the rioting and the looting–are in no way connected to the death of George Floyd…That’s like telling someone who comes back from war, ‘Your PTSD is in no way connected to what you saw in the foxholes.’”

Edmonds explicitly called out Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert. He criticized their response to the protests.

At that May 30  press conference, 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.”

Edmonds strongly disagreed.

“It creates a red herring argument that now allows us to chase the anarchists and says that once we get the anarchists then we’re good,” he said. “But it causes many to forget that was not the cause of the problem in the first place. Don’t you dare chase down the red herring … without looking at the deeper pains that are on the inside that have reached a boiling point … We are standing up and saying, We can’t breathe!”

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

So, what is the narrative of the most recent Pittsburgh protests? To answer that question, you need to venture back much further than Saturday afternoon to even begin to find the answer.

The 1990s saw a train of tragic deaths of young black men at the hands of local police: Jonny Gamage, Jerry Jackson, Deron Grimmit all lost their lives. Those cases and others led to the voter-formed Citizens Police Review Board, a civil lawsuit and eventual consent decree against the city by the U.S. Department of Justice.

But by 2010, the use of excessive deadly force by police in Pittsburgh experienced a renaissance. Police actions of the past 10 years have reignited the distrust between police officers and many in the community.

If you want to know why the death of George Floyd has hit Pittsburghers so hard, recent history is a good place to start.

Brenda Tate, a life-long Hill District resident, protected her community as a police officer for 40 years. George Floyd’s murder sickens her, a fear that ruptures from deep down. A fear she recognizes as a mother of two Black men. A fear she recognizes as a police officer who has stopped other incidents from turning violent.

“You might ask why is diversity important at a time like this? It’s important because, if just one BLACK officer was present, he/she would have viewed Mr. Floyd as a human being, a brother, uncle, cousin, or father and STOPPED IT. I know this to be true because my mere presence on many scenes has allowed me to change the outcome of many similar unstable situations,” Tate wrote to the Pittsburgh Current.

(Pittsburgh Current photo)

At the “Justice for George Floyd” rally on May 30 thousands of protestors chanted: “They don’t lynch us in the trees, they kill our babies in the street.”

Tate admitted that it was extremely difficult for her to express her thoughts on what George Floyd’s death means for Pittsburgh. His murder echoes memories and traumas that the Black community in Pittsburgh has had to survive, overcome and process, time and time again. The video depicting Floyd’s death was brutal, she said.

“In my entire 40-year career in law enforcement, I have NEVER witnessed anything this brutal that resulted in the death of a citizen at the hands of a police officer. The closest I can get is Jordan Miles,” she said.

Jordan Miles: In 2010 he was an 18-year-old in Homewood taking a walk to his grandmother’s house, where he often slept. Three plain-clothes officers stopped him, claimed  a  bulge in his pocket was a gun, and insisted he hand over “drugs, guns and cash.” Miles was beaten bloody. Punched  more than 20 times before being handcuffed face-down in the snow. Then, the beatings continued. Miles believed he was being mugged. His photo after the incident shows a face ballooned and swollen beyond recognition.

The three plain-clothes officers never identified themselves as cops. Not until after he was in the police van did he realize he was being arrested.

(Pittsburgh Current photo)

Leon Ford. In 2012, he was 19 when Pittsburgh police pulled him over for running a stop sign. Despite Ford producing all of the proper ID, Officers continued to insist he was a Black suspect with a similar last name. During the traffic stop, a police officer shot Ford in the spine, paralyzing him for life.

On March 30, the day of the “Justice for George Floyd” rally, Ford tweeted: “I remember Jordan Miles was beaten by officers in my city, I wasn’t [a] mover. A few years later I was shot by officers from the same department. What I’m trying to say is don’t wait until it happens to you or one of your loved ones before you get involved.”

Antwon Rose II. Pittsburgh saw police violence again in June 2018 when Antwon Rose II was shot three times in the back in East Pittsburgh by Police Officer Michael Rosfeld. The 17-year-old   Rose was unarmed and fleeing the area when he was shot.

Following the shooting, Rosfeld was charged with criminal homicide. After a 4-day trial, the former officer  was acquitted on all counts.

Terrell Thomas of ACLU Pennsylvania contextualized Rose’s murder for Black Pittsburghers.

“They want us to live in a place where the cops can shoot our kids in the back 3 times and justify that?  The people have said enough is enough,” Thomas said. “They want us to live in a place where this oppressive police army descends into our community, harasses our people, takes them off to jail for little to no reason?”

On May  30, the crowd chanted, “They don’t lynch us in the trees, they kill our babies in the street” until white protestors vandalized and lit a police vehicle on fire.

Pittsburgh media and the Mayor’s administration were quick to condemn the violence perpetrated by the white activists. Yes, Black demonstrators pleaded for the white group to stop. But, many, including Thomas, believe that vandalizing and demonstrating is an act of resistance.

Thomas wrote to the Pittsburgh Current:

“In the protests on Saturday, May 30th in response to the death of George Floyd, our Mayor, though having made statements in support of “peaceful” protests, decried the riots and looting that took place downtown, which he admitted was initiated by white individuals.  The Pittsburgh Police department under his watch shot rubber bullets, flash bombs, pepper spray, and tear gas at protestors that included Black and white individuals. He then ordered a curfew for two nights.”

“In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr, wrote ‘the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods.’

“All of the actions taken by the Mayor or under his leadership are counter to improved community-police relations and police accountability reform.  It is hard to watch such actions being taken, when across the country, the Mayor of Minneapolis was able to acknowledge that riots were “not only understandable, but right.” Where is that sentiment from our Mayor?”

(Pittsburgh Current photo)

Day Bracey, who is a standup comedian and craft beer columnist for the Pittsburgh Current, witnessed violence by the Pittsburgh Police on March 30. Twice, Bracey tried to report a white man in a Ford Mustang who was driving into protestors in attempts to run them over. The police did nothing with his reports. He continued to film the protests after the police car was set on fire in the Lower Hill.

Once Downtown, he found a group of mostly Black demonstrators who were cornered by police. Tear gas, flash-bangs and brute force rained down on the small group. Bracey began filming and told the protestors to put their hands up.

“Tell them not to shoot!” he screamed, hoping to demonstrate to the officers that the crowd was peaceful.

Police tear gassed Bracey and the crowd. He’d run out of milk used to counteract the effects of the gas, because he’d been handing it out to others who needed it. That’s when Brittney Chantele, a local hip-hop artist and activist appeared to shower Bracey in water.

“It was like an angel appeared,” he said.

But what Bracey observed was this: The peaceful demonstrators met violence and brutalization, while the white looters down the street experienced no repercussions. Bracey maintains that Market Square had virtually no police surveillance.

“If these protests proved anything, it’s how much shit white people can get away with. The government has no problem bringing in violence to maintain the status quo” he said.

Chantele, who came to Bracey’s rescue led demonstrations across the city after the death of Antwon Rose II. She told Pittsburgh Current on May 30, “I want it to be very clear, though, that I was only down there briefly to give aid for protestors tear gassed.”

Chantele fears the day she gets the phone call that her brother or father has been killed by police.

“I have privilege with my skin being white as a biracial person. I don’t fear for my life because of my skin. I fear for my family and friend’s life. For me, it feels like it is no longer an “if” – it is a “when” I will receive a phone call saying my dad, brother, uncle, aunt, cousin, or friend was murdered by police,” she wrote.

Chantele wrote about the exhaustion of Black Americans and how that is something white Americans can never fully understand.

“George Floyd’s murder has sparked marches and riots across the world – rightfully so. Black people are TIRED. If you are white, really let that sink in. What does it mean to be tired of seeing your people unjustly murdered by police? What does it FEEL like? The truth is, white people really can’t fully know or understand”

(Pittsburgh Current photo)

The grief and pain Black America endures every day, week and year compounds into a collective decry of the police brutality and racial injustice. Social media ripples and swells with voices acknowledging a system that is not, in fact, broken, but created exactly in a way to oppress, and kill, people of color.

Bret Grote, co-founder and legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a Pittsburgh-based public interest law firm, doesn’t believe the current police force system is capable of reform. According to Grote, prosecuting the police officers who kill is a start, but more must be done.

“They are predators, a threat to public health, agents of racial terror,” Grote wrote, “Prosecuting the perpetrators matters but it does not begin to scratch the surface of how apartheid must be fought. Shrinking the budgets of all police, reducing their numbers, eliminating them en mass, and building up alternative working-class institutions of transformative justice is the only way forward if we are serious about racial justice. That requires mass disruption and strategic organizing. Any politician who stands in the way, which is virtually all of them, has to go.”

Brittany Hailer is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared