By Atiya Irvin-Mitchel
PITTSBURGH — A few weeks ago, prior to a trip to the grocery store with his family, Jerry Dickinson says he hesitated before wearing his face-mask out in public.
On April 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that citizens wear face-masks out in public to slow the spread of COVID-19. But standing at 6’1 and weighing 200 pounds, as a black man, Dickinson feared what could happen to him should he be perceived as a threat.
“My entire life I’ve been taught not to wear masks, but I’m also required to do it for public safety,” said Dickinson, a Constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “But then, on the other hand, I’m thinking, am I gonna be harmed by this? We’re seeing this all across the United States people are being thrown out of businesses for wearing a mask or being beaten by police for wearing a mask.”
During its weekly 1Hood Media and Urbankind Institute discussion on “What Black Pittsburgh Needs to Know About COVID-19” the panel invited Dickinson and Brandi Fisher of Pittsburgh’s Alliance for Police Accountability to unpack what has changed and what has stayed the same about policing during the pandemic. Specifically, what that has meant for black people.
When talking about arrests, Dickinson said that the enforcement issues were a symptom of largest disparities in the criminal justice system and of the broader prison industrial complex.
“Those who are being arrested and held in custody and placed in prison at higher rates are disproportionately affecting African-American communities,” Dickinson said. “The results and data is always striking but it’s not surprising given what we know about the criminal justice system here in the united states.”
The anxiety that Dickinson mentioned was echoed by the rest of the panel who expressed frustration about instances in Michigan and in Pittsburgh where white protesters stormed the capital with AK-47s with no pushback from law enforcement.
Dickinson hopes that one of the many things the pandemic forces officials to reevaluate is the criminal justice system and would lead to a complete overhaul. Dickinson advocated for assisting recently released inmates to avoid recidivism and treating the problems that led to the incarceration to begin with.
“Having people thrown behind bars and left there without rehabilitation services we are now thinking to ourselves, ‘this is not the right way,’ we need restorative justice programs,” Dickinson said.
Dickinson is challenging veteran incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-18th District, in next month’s primary.
Within his self-described progressive platform is support for Independent Police Review Boards, reforming sentencing guidelines, and banning solitary confinement. Policy, he believes, should always start at a grassroots level, and was disheartened that more elected officials weren’t more willing to engage directly with their constituents and about their needs.
“We need to be having these honest conversations in our community,” Dickinson said. “Congresspersons and elected officials should be going into communities and having conversations on the issues affecting our loved ones and then utilizing that as a way to influence the policy decisions that can be made.”
For Fisher, although disproportionate enforcement of social distancing in black and brown communities is cause for concern, another source of anguish for Fisher is who hasn’t been released from Allegheny County Jail since the pandemic began.
“We were all advocating for releasing people from prison and excited about the idea that people’s health concerns were being made a priority, but then you look at the numbers and you find that black people didn’t benefit from that really,” Fischer said.
Previously, the Pittsburgh Current reported that at the beginning of March 2020 black inmates made up 63.5 percent of the population at the ACJ. As of the end of April, the percentage went up to 67.3 percent.
Fisher said the numbers were more evidence that Allegheny County officials didn’t care about black lives.
“People talk about conspiracy theories, but history proves that we’re not crazy,” she said.
She pointed to the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study and disproportionately negative outcomes for black patients as examples. “Covid-19 has not been any different,” she said.
Furthermore, she criticized the conditions inside of the jail which she believed further harmed already vulnerable individuals.
“People who have mental health issues are housed in solitary confinement, that is the way that they house in ACJ when we know that solitary confinement exasperates mental health [issues],” Fischer said.
Having just come from a protest calling for the release of black mothers from ACJ, Fischer was also frustrated with the differences in how protesters are treated. Fischer recalled that while the protest she’d attended took place entirely inside cars attendees were threatened with citations and had their license plates taken down.
Ultimately, Fischer told the panel that the only way forward was to vote out elected officials who failed to advocate for black residents.
“It’s time now not to only call these people out, but we’ve just gotta get them out of office, I’m over having conversations,” Fischer said. “When you’ve already shown me you don’t care about black people, I don’t need to sit down and talk to you anymore. If somebody clearly showed you they don’t respect your mother you wouldn’t ask them to show her more respect, they’d have to go. These politicians, they have to go.”
Atiya Irvin-Mitchel is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.