By Rebecca Addison
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
As the world continues to grapple with a global pandemic, thousands have been gathering in neighborhoods across the city to peacefully protest against police brutality in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two African Americans killed by police this year.
At a 4 p.m. protest in Mount Washington today, hundreds lined Grandview Avenue overlooking the city; their chants ringing out over the waters of the Monongahela River.
“No justice. No peace.”
“Hands up. Don’t shoot.”
Sunday’s protest was organized by Pittsburgh, I Can’t Breathe. It served as a memorial for those who have lost their lives to police brutality and systemic racism. Images of the dead lined the fence at the overlook, adorned with white balloons. They included Eric Garner, another Black man killed by police whose final words–I can’t breathe–mirrored Floyd’s own.
“I know you see the balloons but it’s not a birthday party,” said Dasia Clemons, founder of Pittsburgh, I Can’t Breathe. “Each one of these balloons represents the souls lost by police brutality. These are the souls of our people.”
Among those in the crowd today were Deborah and Keith McBroom, two Homewood residents who have been concerned about police brutality since the death of Jonny Gammage, an African-American man who was killed by police officers in 1995.
“George Floyd and other black men have been killed for no reason,” Deborah McBroom told the Pittsburgh Current. “We came out to support this movement. We had to come out. These officers deserve to be in prison.”
Also in attendance were Anton Mack, his wife, and biracial daughter. The family didn’t know about the protest when they decided to walk up to the overlook to see what was going on, but by the end, they held a sign reading “Black Lives Matter.”
“It’s good to see a lot of support and unity,” Mack said. “It’s needed right now at a time like this.”
For University of Pittsburgh student Tanisha Long, this was the second protest of the day. Hundreds gathered on Sunday morning at Point State Park for a sit-in where organizers turned the mic over to the crowd.
“We wanted to flip the narrative of protester violence so we did a sit-down protest,” Long told PC.
Long grew up in Washington County where she says racism is more overt than it is in Pittsburgh. However, she says that doesn’t mean the two regions are all that different.
“In Washington County, it’s blatant and jarring. They pepper their sentences with the n-word,” Long said. “In Pittsburgh, it’s more subtle. You’d think it being more subtle would be better, but if people don’t see it, it’s harder to fight it.”
While racism in Pittsburgh isn’t as “in your face,” Long says it becomes evident when you look at statistics about the city. For example, according to a 2019 article by City Lab, in 2019, the City of Pittsburgh Gender Equity Commission found that Pittsburgh is the worst place for black women to live in for just about every indicator of livability.
That’s a reality Pittsburgh, I Can’t Breathe organizer Clemons hopes to change.
“It’s time for the white and black community to keep moving until we see change,” Clemons said at today’s protest. “Make racism a felony offense. Why? Because racism kills.”
Following the gathering on Mount Washington, the group marched Downtown, crossing the Smithfield Street Bridge before holding a sit-in in Market Square. There they called on the Pittsburgh Police to drop charges stemming from protests in the city on June 1 where 20 were arrested and dozens, including 9 officers, were injured after the protests turned violent.
Thousands have been injured during protests around the country as citizens have clashed with police. In East Liberty on June 1, police deployed tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds.
Recognizing the potential for similar confrontations, there were medics on hand at today’s protest. Other volunteers handed out perineal irrigation bottles for rinsing away tear gas.
As the chants were winding down on Grandview Avenue, shortly before the group made their way to Market Square, one protestor, Kiki Walkes, took a second to answer a phone call from his father.
“He just asked me, ‘are you safe?’” Walkes told the Current.
Walkes moved to the United States from the Bahamas when he was nine years old. Like other Black men in America, during the time he’s lived here, Walkes says he’s had more than a few negative encounters with the police.
“They pull you over. They put you in handcuffs in the back of the cop car for a few hours,” Walkes said. “Then they ransack your car and when they don’t find anything they throw you out like nothing happened.”
One evening when he was walking home while living in West Palm Beach, Florida, Walkes says three police cars surrounded him. Walkes made it home alive that night, unlike Michael Brown, Philando Castillo and Antwon Rose, three of the men remembered at today’s event who were killed during altercations with police.
Still, despite his experiences, the prevalence of police brutality and the cloud of systemic racism hanging over the country, Walkes says he’s glad to be living in America.
“This is a worldwide issue,” Walkes says. “Change has to happen.”