By Atiya Irvin-Mitchell
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Due to Election Day, the weekly “What Black Pittsburgh Needs to Know About COVID-19” town hall was scheduled to take the week off. However, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the protests here and throughout the country that have followed, panelists agreed the town hall should go on.
In an hour-long conversation where panelists highlighted Pittsburgh’s history, elected officials’ responses, and their own emotions, 1Hood Media and the UrbanKind Institute held a discussion on what Black Pittsburgh needed to know about protests.
To start the conversation panelists spoke candidly about the toll George Floyd’s death had taken on them personally. Jamil Bey, ceo of the UrbanKind Institute, admitted that he’d only been able to bring himself to watch the footage of Floyd’s death a few days ago.
“It was during that time I thought, ‘I don’t know that dude, but I know that dude like he’s my brother,” Bey said. “It resonates and this is what folks who aren’t us don’t get and why when we see this it’s going to get emotional.”
“We haven’t had a chance to breathe, just real talk, since all of this happened,” Walker-Montgomery said. “None of us, the black activists have had a chance to breathe and really process it because we’ve been chasing protests and chasing activists and trying to figure out who’s doing this and how we can help.”
Panelists pointed viewers toward resources such as Steel Smiling and the Center for Recreational Change for mental health services during this time.
Shifting to the tone of protests, panelists worried that fixating on whether or not protests were peaceful, distracted from the larger issue.
“If we’re making you super comfortable with how we’re speaking about this, then we’re not irritating anything,” Cheryl Hall-Russell, president of B3W “We’re not pushing for change.”
Additionally, Fawn Walker-Montgomery, the co-founder of Take Action Mon-Valley, argued that focusing on respectability and being palatable to white observers wasn’t compatible with long-term goals of protests.
“It’s impossible to make us look human to white people or to be nice to white people or we’re all in this together kind of attitude that some protesters are kind of taking,” Walker-Montgomery stated. “That’s not our goal for being there. Our goal for being there is to seek justice, is to seek liberation for black people.”
Bringing the conversation into local focus Walker-Montgomery was frustrated with the way she’d recalled being treated when participating in protests related to police brutality and conditions at the Allegheny County Jail vs how armed residents protesting the quarantine were treated by Pittsburgh Police.
“Just a month ago white people were protesting because they wanted haircuts, they were armed. They had assault rifles and they were standing next to police officers,” Walker-Montgomery recalled. “We protested in our cars and for Antwon’s and we got the dogs, we got aggression.”
Over the weekend Jasiri X, CEO of 1Hood Media, was present at the protest that took place in downtown Pittsburgh. From his recollection, it was the police’s militarized response to protests that caused escalation at both protests that took place over the weekend.
“We know it was a white guy that did it[set fire to the police car], but at the same time if the police had left us alone…to me people just wanted to show real emotions and real frustrations and if the police just leave folks alone,” Jasiri X said. “It only started to pick up when the police began to move upon the protest in a militarized way.”
He’d also pointed out that on May 31, despite the 8:30 curfew set within the city officers started attempting to disperse the crowd in East Liberty at 7:30.
“What I saw was a beautiful protest, everyone was kneeling down on Penn, it was very well organized, but at 7:30 p.m. Pittsburgh Police made the decision that because we have this imposed 8:30 p.m. curfew that they had to shut it down,” Jasiri X stated. “From every video I saw, it was the police initiating.”
More than that, Jasiri X expressed frustration with the city’s response and with the hedging of politicians and actors who identify as progressive.
“In these bigger cities what you see is these “progressive” politicians, these progressive democrats that have given power over to the police to organize like a miliary against American citizens,” Jasiri X explained. “We can criticize Donald Trump and what he said, but we’re actually seeing that same mentality happen locally by people who claim to love us and support us.”
The panelists also criticized Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto for his response to protests and his own history.
“He’s been relatively quiet through Covid-19 and all the rest of this we’ve not seen a lot of him,” Hall-Russell observed. “I saw him at his most aggressive yesterday when he came out to East Liberty to defend the police actions.”
Hall-Russell added that it was unfair of Mayor Peduto to call on protesters to police potentially violent protesters.
“I have no problems with them showing up to make sure they don’t hurt other people,” Hall-Russel explained. “I was just dumbstruck that suddenly he got a backbone when it came to talking about defending the police, I’ve not seen him show that kind of enthusiasm when it comes to black folks.”
Jasiri X pointed out that under Peduto’s regime as mayor Pittsburgh rates of black maternal mortality and black unemployment hadn’t improved. The panel went on to lament the Office of Equity appeared to be all talk and no action. Furthermore, Jasiri X expressed frustration that the city’s own Civilian Police Review Board lacked the power to compel police officers to testify.
“If you instill policies that would prevent police brutality and police murder, we wouldn’t have to protest,” Jasiri X asserted. “Part of why folks are out there and frustrated is because Pittsburgh itself is not only one of the least equitable cities in the country, but because it’s gotten worse for black people. George Floyd was the match that lit something that was already burning.”
The panel was disappointed that it’d only been two years since Antwon Rose’s death and the only change had been the East Pittsburgh Police Station’s closing. Furthermore, they referenced issues such as the grand jury report which said Fraternal Order of Police President Robert Swartzwelder impeded police shooting investigations and the inability to track the records of police misconduct from department to department that gave Pittsburgh the potential to be Minneapolis’s position.
“If you’re just going to allow police to brutalize folks with impunity, eventually a situation’s going to take place that’s going to be videotaped and all hell is going to break loose in your city,” Jasiri X said. “So I hope that whoever sees that in Pittsburgh we are close to something like that happening.”
It was at this point the panel turned its focus to the role that white allies and white observers had to play.
“This is where for me white folks, really have to do some soul searching, because if you’re outraged by somebody spray painting a damn Maria Lemieux statue and not the death of Antwon Rose II, not the death of black bodies on the ground, but you get riled up over a statue we have a real problem,” Jasiri X said.
The panel called on white people who considered themselves allies to the cause for black liberation to not only perform allyship when it was convenient.
“This allyship has to move to a more active level. I don’t want you just standing behind me and whispering in my ear that you hope I’m okay,” Hall-Russell said. “I need you to stand beside me or in front because quite frankly black folks ain’t gonna dismantle racism, that’s your job. And your organizing has to be about being anti-racist.”
Walker-Montgomery criticized pictures of police hugging and marching with protesters because, she argued, the photos weren’t the same as systemic change. Furthermore, she said, they could also be considered performative due to the violent turn the police interactions took during protests.
“That’s not real action,” Walker-Montgomery said. “You marching with me, but then you go and kill me in the next breath doesn’t make any sense to me, we have to demand real action. And from our white allies as well.”
She added that it was imperative that white people talk to other white people about being anti-racist and raising children who wouldn’t grow up to commit racist acts of violence.
Ultimately, the panel explained that it was necessary not to police the reactions of the black community not only to the recent killings but to experiencing racism.
“If you wanna come out of your mouth and tell us how we should respond to 400 years of oppression, murder, and rape that you didn’t have to go through you should stop right now,” Jasiri X said. “We’re not listening.”