By Annabelle Hanflig
Pittsburgh Current Intern
The event, organized by The Atlantic as part of their Race + Justice event series and held at the Ace Hotel in East Liberty on Friday, offered conversations between Atlantic staffers and prominent Pittsburgh community members, activists and elected officials. Topics of discussion ranged from reforming the criminal justice system to building solidarity across cultures in the wake of tragedy. Anchored by the death of Antwon Rose II and the Tree of Life shooting, these discussions simulated what could happen when widespread calls to “talk” about the impact of oppressive systems are answered.
The first conversation between activist and rapper Jasiri X and Atlantic managing editor Adrienne Green took on the future of justice in Pittsburgh and what acquiring it will look like.
While Jasiri X said he’s seen improvement in the conversations surrounding the issues that face his community since co-founding 1Hood in 2010, little change has been made to secure tangible results. He mentioned the disparities in the treatment of former East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld and Zaijuan Hester, who pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated assault and firearms violations in the drive-by shooting that preempted Rose’s death.
Rosfeld was immediately able to return home on a $250,000 unsecured bond after his arrest in the death of Rose in June of last year, while Hester’s secured bail was set at $250,000 cash.
When asked how he’d bring necessary changes to fruition moving forward, Jasiri X focused on legislative solutions. A proposed county council ordinance instating a countywide citizen police review board was on his docket, in addition to changing the use of force laws that dictate how and when officers can employ deadly force.
“All we want is equality, all we want is justice, all we want is equal rights,” he said. “That shouldn’t be a lot to ask, particularly if you have a country that says, ‘[these are] the ideals,’ but doesn’t live up to them.”
The following discussion focused on reforming Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system with speakers equipped to pursue legal modifications themselves. Brandon Flood, the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, Summer Lee, the State Representative for Pennsylvania’s 34th district, and Turahn Jenkins, who waged an unsuccessful primary against District Attorney Stephen Zappala joined Atlantic senior editor Ron Brownstein on stage.
“Politics starts on the street,” Lee said. She encouraged audience members to create change and move the hands of her colleagues by being brazenly vocal about the changes they’d like to see. This sentiment was echoed by Jenkins, who said he was inspired to make the only challenge to the office in 20 years after he realized he couldn’t make the systemic change he believed was desperately needed while in his role as a public defender.
“I got tired of begging for justice,” Jenkins said.
In his eyes, the current district attorney’s office isn’t focused on finding justice or seeing people as more than the crimes they’re accused of committing.
“I would just hope people would continue to stay engaged and realize how important these offices are that impact each and every one of us, whether you’re the witness of a crime or a victim, or [if] you’re an actual defender.”
Flood, a formerly-convicted felon who now heads the agency tasked with arranging all pardons in the state, said he believed that oftentimes the people with the most experience in the criminal justice system are the ones best suited to reform it. He also mentioned the danger of those in positions of power making decisions that impact people with experiences they’ll never be able to relate to.
“Who better to analyze where the inefficiencies lie in the clemency process than someone who went through it as an applicant?” he asked.
The next conversation between Allegheny County Criminal Justice Coordinator Ed Mulvey and MacArthur Foundation Criminal Justice Program Manager Bria Gillum, highlighted efforts to reduce over-incarceration and why the issue disproportionately impacts people of color.
“Deciding it’s racially biased is the first step, it doesn’t get us to the solution,” he said.
Mulvey suggested tackling overincarcertaion as a system. Zeroing in on specific areas where the disparities are most apparent, he said, is where true change is made. Mulvey also mentioned the abundance and quality of data that could be useful in recognizing such patterns.
Another shift necessary in combating overincarceration is a cultural one, Mulvey said.
“If this were a business, you would look at this every day and say, ‘how can we get better?” he said. “You wouldn’t sit back and say, “we’re making some money this year, this is good.’ Businesses don’t survive that way, public systems shouldn’t try to survive that way.”
Mulvey went on to discuss strategies the county has adopted to address the issue, and how when implemented they positively affected defendants of color more than their white counterparts.
The fifth discussion centered around policing in Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert was asked what he had learned in the year since Rose’s death.
“Just reviewing on when somebody flees from the police. What do you look at for that, what threat does that cause?”
Schubert was hesitant to say whether or not he felt strongly about proposed changes in use-of-force policies. Instead, he doubled down on the fact that his job is to enforce the laws on the books. If those laws were to change, he said, then that would be what he would reinforce.
Schubert also brought up the importance of recognizing the various perceptions of safety in the communities he polices.
“You’ve got to recognize that perception plays a big role,” he said. “I look more to perception than reality of the numbers because if you’re perceiving that it’s not safe [and] that’s what you feel in the community, that’s probably how others feel.”
The conversation turned to the Tree of Life shooting, where Schubert praised the officers who ran directly into the scene for their “selflessness” and touched upon community members who lived in fear of what would happen next.
The final discussion asked five women what it meant to build solidarity in times of tragedy. Pastor and President of Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network B. De Nice Welch, Change Advocacy Founder and Program Director Betty Cruz, Allderdice High School student Emily Pressman and Global Switchboard Program Manager Alaa Mohamed joined Green to share their personal experiences in building bridges of support.
Mohamed presented the juxtaposition between the hashtag #StrongerThanHate employed in the aftermath of Tree of Life and a not guilty verdict for Rosfeld. She questioned what it really meant to be stronger than hate, and what that required.
“I don’t think it’s just a hashtag, I don’t think it’s just posting on social media. I think it’s showing up to a synagogue and creating a human chain, hand to hand around the syangoge to show that we are there, we will protect you physically if any harm comes to you.”
Welch shared her experience connecting with a group of Jewish women standing outside of the Tree of Life synagogue shortly after the shooting. She said she was embraced by the women, and that they wept together.
“There is something about the way women come together that I just love, that im more comfortable with and more familiar with. Where we can cry, talk, hug, embrace, argue, and go on,” she said.
Ever since, Welch and the women have gotten together once a month to speak from their faiths and engage in deep conversations about race. She described it as “the most healing thing in [her] life thus far.”
Those who attended the summit said it served as both a platform to discuss and a precursor to change the systemic issues existing at the intersection of race and justice.
Cheryl Hall-Russell, a researcher and facilitator on issues of diversity and inclusion, was appreciative of the diversity of speakers. She was specifically struck by the conversation on criminal justice reform and how the candor of its participants called back to the likes of King.
“I’m very encouraged by this group of policy leaders who are reminding us of [King’s] tradition and as things are starting to go sideways, that we have to use the systems that we have, whether it’s flawed or not, to try and reserve some of this.”
Hall-Russell hoped that events like this would spur more intensive conversations on issues of race and justice. Diane Matway and Julie Maher, volunteers with Moms Demand Action, agreed. While the pair came to learn more about how gun violence disproportionately affects black communities, they left with new ideas on how to engage with their own.
“I think the biggest thing [I took away] was everybody check yourself and be able to say to your friends and family ‘racism begins at home.’” Matway said. “If we’re able to check the people in our own little groups and say to them, ‘What do you mean by that? Let’s be careful. Why do you think that?” I feel that’s a big start to this.”
Celeste Smith, co-founder of 1Hood and wife of speaker Jasiri X, echoed Welch’s call for impactful conversations without the theatrics. These conversations are necessary, she said, but they have to reach beyond the walls of the Ace Hotel.
“I think [this event is] amplifying what we already know and a lot of times what members of society don’t want to talk about,” she said. “I think what you had was members of the community who are fearless in speaking about these things being given a platform that extends beyond their own.”
Smith was particularly moved by Representative Lee’s ability to question and compel the power structures she herself benefits from. Smith appreciated that Lee could simultaneously hold office and compel attendees to vote her colleagues out if their needs weren’t sufficiently met.
Smith also expressed her appreciation for the moderators that refused to let certain speakers shy away from answering certain questions. When it came to Schubert’s response to the death of Rose, she felt disconnected from his remarks.
“The language of ‘our community’ was not used and I almost asked a question if you consider yourself part of the community,” she said.
Smith concluded that events like the one hosted on Friday provide opportunities to examine the disparities between its attendees, while also pushing to discuss the issues that pull them further and further apart.
“It’s a time where we can no longer ignore certain conversations or act like they didn’t happen, because [they’re] coming to our doorsteps.”