By Ryan Deto
PITTSBURGH — On July 28, Pittsburgh Police were seeking help from the public in identifying two suspects for a crime relating to a Black Lives Matter protest that had occurred two months prior. The police even solicited local media to help bring in these suspected criminals. The alleged crime: spray painting the outside of some Downtown businesses.
“Pittsburgh Police seek to identify 2 women accused of spray-painting Downtown businesses during protest,” reads a July 28 headline from KDKA-TV.
This search for crimes of vandalism comes as part of the months-long Black Lives Matter protests in Pittsburgh that started after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police officers after being arrested for using a counterfeit bill. Marchers and protesters have honored Floyd, as well Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot and killed by Louisville police after they entered her home while she was sleeping.
Protesters are also remembering local Black people killed by police, like Antwon Rose II, a 17-year-old who was shot and killed by police in 2018 in East Pittsburgh as he was fleeing.
The Pittsburgh Police’s recent calls are part of a fairly large effort to arrest and charge seemingly as many people as possible who allegedly committed crimes during the city’s ongoing BLM demonstrations.
Initially, police arrested many people on the same days of the region’s two largest protests: May 30 in Downtown and June 1 in East Liberty. But they have also followed up and filed or sought charges days, and sometimes several weeks later, against several additional protesters, some charged for throwing water bottles. They even filed several felony charges against well-known organizers and march leaders.
These recent charges and identification requests have come after the vast majority of the dozens of protesters arrested on May 30 and June 1 had all their charges dropped by the Allegheny County District Attorney. Activists believe police are targeting protesters and are being overly aggressive in these new charges. Pittsburgh Public Safety officials reject this assessment and say they support First Amendment rights, and are charging those who are not protesting peacefully.
But a specter is hanging over the region. One that feels as if allegedly committing crimes like vandalism, throwing objects, or shouting protest slogans that can be deemed threats is something that must be efficiently and swiftly quashed. Meanwhile, actual death threats made by counter protesters and extremists against BLM demonstrators and trans people in the Pittsburgh region are not only largely ignored by local media, but downplayed by other local police departments. And investigations into alleged police misconduct of deploying sponge rounds, tear gas, and pepper spray at protesters in Pittsburgh have yet to result in any disciplinary actions against officers.
Some progress in police reform has been made at the city level, but other more bold action demanded by advocates is being delayed or rejected. Understandably, the size of the BLM demonstrations has waned in the two months since it first started with a few thousand people taking to the Downtown streets. But in other ways, it has expanded, to suburban communities and sometimes altered its scope beyond protesting just against police brutality. But as the movement has expanded, and lessened in intensity, it appears more susceptible to being weakened by the police and police allies.
All told, there have been at least four prominent Black Lives Matter protester organizers arrested on several felony charges. Attorney Paul Jubas is representing some of the prominent protesters who have been charged recently by the Pittsburgh police. He told WESA-FM on July 27 that, “The discussion is being shifted away from the criminality of law enforcement officers to, now, the criminality of protesters protesting the criminality of law-enforcement officers.”
Three of the protesters charged with felony riot charges include people who have been leading BLM and pro-LGBTQ protests for years. Chrissy Carter, who has led many of the protests over the killing of Antwon Rose II, was arrested on July 22 in relation to events that happened on June 24. Dena Stanley, founder of local pro-trans group TransYOUniting, was arrested on July 24 in relation to events that occurred on June 20. Nique C., who has led dozens of BLM marches before and after the death of Floyd, was also arrested in late July in relation to events that occurred on June 20 and 24.
The events on these days surround a Downtown bar called 941 Saloon. According to TribLive, on June 20, two men were told to follow the bar’s dress code, which banned baggy pants, hoodies, and “gang-related insignia,” among other clothing. Stanley allegedly arrived at the bar that same day and objected to the dress code and then said, “We will shut this business down,” according to the criminal complaint. According to police, employees said that Stanley also said they would “burn this place to the ground” and “blow out all the windows.”
On June 24, protesters held a large demonstration outside of 941 Saloon, calling for the bar to end its dress code, which they called racist. During this protest, according to the criminal complaint, protesters “duct-taped and tied several pieces of cloth to the front door,” which kept employees and security guards inside from leaving, and that protesters were “shouting threatening remarks” to those trapped inside. Protesters also jumped on top of a security vehicle parked outside of the bar.
These events led police to charge Carter with felony riot charges and misdemeanor harassment and false imprisonment charges. Stanley and Nique C. were charged with felony riot and terroristic threat charges. Carter and Nique C. were given non-monetary bonds, but Stanley was given a $50,000 bond.
Police reports, and the subsequent news stories that followed, have not reported that a security guard at 941 Saloon closed and locked the door before protesters had a chance to enter the bar. Claims about patrons and employees being “trapped inside” also might be a stretch. Protesters did tape up dozens of protest signs to the front windows and doors of the bar after they were locked out, but there appears to be a back door and fire escape for 941 Saloon that both exit out to Exchange Way, an alley behind the bar. All businesses on that section of Liberty Avenue in Downtown have backdoors to Exchange Way.
Giuseppe Bagheera, a protest organizer for Black, Young, and Educated, told WESA-FM that the three people arrested are Black and LGBTQ. Bagheera acknowledged the alleged threats against 941 Saloon, a gay bar, but also questioned the seriousness of the charges against the protesters.
“We say terrible things as humans, but we don’t mean it all the time … And we also regret it a lot of the time,” Bagheera told WESA-FM. “So it’s not something that we need to be arrested for.”
It’s true that threats don’t always lead to arrests, and one publicized death threat that occurred recently in Shaler Township apparently has yet to produce any charges. On July 25, a man was caught on video shouting “kill transgenders” repeatedly at a BLM demonstration that took place outside of Shaler Area Middle School. According to an organizer, there were at least two trans people in attendance. Pittsburgh City Paper shared the video with Shaler Police and asked if they would be pressing charges against the man, but they never returned a request for comment.
The Pittsburgh Police reject any assessment that they are targeting protesters. A police spokesperson told WESA-FM in a statement that, “People who peaceably participated in the same public demonstrations and did not commit criminal acts were not charged. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police respects the rights of people to exercise their First Amendment rights.”
But, Allegheny County Black Activist/Organizers Collective issued a statement recently saying it believes that Carter and other Black activists arrested are being targeted. The collective is calling for their charges to be dropped and notes the irony of Black activists being charged during a movement specifically against overly aggressive police tactics.
“This practice has not stopped, despite our call to end the over policing of our community,” reads the statement.
On June 1, Pittsburgh Police confronted BLM marchers in East Liberty, and fired tear gas, sponge rounds, and pepper spray on protesters. Video evidence and first-hand accounts show that police fired first on protesters, and then some protesters threw water bottles in response. There were 22 people arrested after this protest, and all of those people had their charges dropped by the Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.
“Until such time as we have evidence that is substantial and relevant, it is not appropriate to move forward with those complaints,” said Zappala spokesperson Mike Manko on June 19. Because of the events carried out by Pittsburgh Police on June 1, the city is facing a class action lawsuit by protesters who accuse officers of “escalating a peaceful protest into a scene of pandemonium, panic, violence, and bloodshed.” The city’s Office of Municipal Review and the Citizens Police Review Board have opened up investigations into the events of June 1, though results of those investigations have not yet been announced.
Even so, police continue to look for suspects in relation to the June 1 protests. On July 20, Pittsburgh Police shared photos of a Black man they say is holding a brick and say they are seeking help in identifying him because they claim he threw bricks during the protest.
On Sat., July 26, a protester was pushed twice by Pittsburgh Police officers on the Birmingham Bridge during a BLM protest, according to a viral video on social media. The protester was apparently recording video on their phone and walking towards the middle of the bridge, when police trotted to cut them off. On the second push, a Pittsburgh Police officer uses a baton and the protester is shoved with enough force into a jersey barrier that they fell to the ground.
The video was posted just one day before Pittsburgh City Council was set to hold a fact-finding meeting on police reform. Several public officials, including Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert, were invited days beforehand to testify, but the meeting was abruptly canceled on July 27. According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ashley Murray, city council President Theresa Kail-Smith was asked by participating parties to postpone.
In June, the Allegheny County Black Activist/Organizers Collective delivered a list of demands to city and county officials that included calling for Fraternal Order of the Police Lodge #1 president Robert Swartzwelder to step down, reallocating budget funds from police to community investment, and demilitarizing local police agencies. One of those demands was also ending the targeting of Black organizers, activists, and community members. The collective believes this practice has gone back to last year when two prominent Black activists were arrested for separate actions related to protests at Pizza Milano and an Exxon gas station in the North Side.
Other cities across the U.S. have taken some bold steps to reform and even defund the police. Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, is working toward abolishing its police police department and replacing it with a community safety department. Seattle has taken steps to defund its police department.
However, arguments in Minneapolis and Seattle to reform or defund the police may be more convincing than Pittsburgh, when considering the rate at which each city solves serious crimes. Seattle’s homicide clearance rate in 2018 was about 57%, and Minneapolis’ was about 56% in 2019. Clearance rates are the rate at which police departments submit charges for crimes to prosecutors. Both of these are below the national average, which is about 62% for homicides.
The Pittsburgh Police department has relatively high homicide clearance rates. In 2018, the department’s homicide clearance rate was 71%, and in 2019, it increased to 80%. This is while overall crime has dropped in Pittsburgh. Police here can make claims that their methods are working in reducing crime, even as the police budget has increased.
And while a recent Fox News poll shows 57% of Pennsylvanians support the BLM movement, 84% support their local police departments. That’s the environment a police-reform movement is up against in Pittsburgh.
Statistics aren’t the only obstacles to convincing Pittsburghers to back police reforms. Some local media companies have seemed almost giddy to help the police in their quest to charge protesters.
Not only did KDKA-TV run a story about how the police were looking for two women accused of spray-painting businesses during a protest on May 30, Pittsburgh’s most-watched TV news station has also run several stories asking the public to help in identifying suspects involved in crimes during protests on May 30 and June 1. One story from July 21 asked the public to help identify five people who had allegedly thrown objects at police during a protest on May 30, with photos provided by the police. One man was accused only of throwing water bottles. KDKA-TV did not include details in this report about how police also fired sponge rounds, tear gas, and flash grenades at protesters on May 30.
More than 60 people were arrested in connection to the protests of May 30 and June 1, but more than 90% of them have had all their charges dropped by the Allegheny County District Attorney. Even so, Pittsburgh Police continue to put out calls to arrest protesters accused of crimes.
Jasiri X of advocacy group 1Hood Media said in a Zoom town hall on July 28 that charges against protesters are indicative of a police culture that rarely looks to initiate communication and mediation of broader issues around police reform or protests.
“I would think somebody would want to call them in and say, ‘Hey, can we meet? Can we talk? Can we learn about your demands? Can we see how we can maybe come to an understanding on how we can move this city forward?’” said Jasiri X. “They’re met with police, folks are getting felony charges for a protest where nothing happened, nobody was injured, nothing was hurt, and now all of a sudden, you’re charging people with felonies, and it’s just really par for the course in this city.”
And this apparent push to arrest and identify protesters accused of crimes comes as local media is largely ignoring threats made against BLM protesters.
Not only has other local media not covered the incident in which the Shaler man shouted “kill transgenders” at a group of BLM protesters, details about threats made by a South Hills man named Kurt Cofano have also gone unreported by other local media.
In July, Cofano was arrested in Mt. Lebanon for having 30 homemade bombs in his Mercedes Benz. Local and federal law enforcement arrested Cofano for having the bombs, and for making threats online to blow up buildings in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. However, CP reported that Cofano also made online threats of physical violence against BLM protesters in Pittsburgh. These threats were not acknowledged by federal law enforcement officials, nor were they included in any news reports two days later when federal charges were filed against Cofano.
Through all this, Pittsburgh City Council has passed some police reform bills, which mayor Bill Peduto will sign. Council recently passed bills to enact a hiring freeze and reallocated that money meant for hiring ($250,000) to a Stop the Violence Fund. Council also passed bills banning chokeholds and the city buying surplus military equipment.
But advocates want many more reforms passed, and say that council proposals to reallocated funding are not robust enough. On the county-government side, police reforms have had even more obstacles. Allegheny County Councilors, even Democrats, are still largely backing police priorities over the demands of advocates. Nine Democrats joined three Republicans to reject a county bill that would have banned police from using “less lethal” weapons like tear gas and sponge rounds. The bill failed by a 12-3 vote.
Allegheny County Councilor Nick Futules (D-Oakmont) spoke in opposition to the bill in July, and he said police officers needed the “less lethal” weapons and accused protesters of participating in an “onslaught” in East Liberty, in reference to the events of June 1 that resulted in all 22 arrested protesters having their charges dropped and the city being sued by at least six protesters for the police’s actions.
County Council also still hasn’t created a county-wide police review board, and the bill to create a review board failed last year.
Conversations and rhetoric around police reform and Black Lives Matter have changed thanks to wide-scale protests. Corporations are starting to embrace the message. But the battle for meaningful police reform in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County still appears a ways off, and made harder when some of the movement’s organizers are charged by police.
“Here are Black folks, queer folks, saying, like, ‘We want a better opportunity, we want justice, we want more resources,’” said Jasiri X during a recent town hall, “and [instead] we’re met with riot police, and we’re met with charges to try to silence us.”
Ryan Deto is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.