Content Warning: This column contains violent descriptions of language used against the LGBTQIA community.
By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
On the afternoon of Saturday, July 25, I drove up the street from my house in Etna to the student-led Black Lives Matter rally in front of Shaler Middle School. More than 150 people showed up, mostly White folks, to affirm support for their Black neighbors, and show solidarity.
We don’t usually see direct action like this in the North Hills; the fact that this rally was taking place at all was news and something to be celebrated.
Within hours, the events of the day had caught national attention; not because of the work of some badass student activists, but because of the brazenly racist, homophobic, and transphobic cheers being led by one of the counter-protesters across the street – a group of people ostensibly there to support the Shaler Police.
Across from the people peacefully assembling on the grounds to the right on Mt. Royal Boulevard if you are going north, a group of folks on the opposite side of the street had their own rally, called “Back the Blue,” to show support for police.
For now, let’s side-step the implications that come from equating the concepts of “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop shooting us” to being “anti-police.” But we will get there.
As I walked to the school from the adjacent shopping plaza, I saw folks across the street holding “Thin Blue Line” flags and giant “TRUMP 2020” signs. I was thankful they were well down Mount Royal Boulevard; the group was asked to hold their gathering down the street, a good distance away from the BLM rally. This was fine until the speaker program began. The counter-protesters then moved directly across the street from the school and did their best to shout over the speakers, the first was Shaler resident, James Brian. There is something very on the nose about a Black man speaking on a megaphone about his experiences being a minority in Shaler while a handful of White dudes attempt to drown him out screaming “ALL LIVES MATTER.” As one person’s sign read, “If ‘All Lives Matter’ were true, we wouldn’t be here.”
Also, do these same folks roll up to breast cancer marathons yelling “all cancers matter?” Do they scream at firefighters spraying their water hoses at roofs aflame, screaming “all houses matter?”
As a group, we ignored the shouts and listened to the speakers who were incredibly brave for putting themselves out there in an environment that clearly didn’t feel safe. The antagonism and hostility coming from the “Back the Blue” folks had me fearful that someone from our rally would lose their cool and react, which could have turned into a terrifying, violent situation really quickly.
As speakers were thanking all the folks on our side for coming out to support them, their voices were rivaled by the people on the other side screaming over them. The clincher that has caught national attention and headlines: A man began to chant “kill transgenders.” The same man can be heard using other LGBT and racial slurs on video. It was jarring and horrifying.
The video has been shared thousands of times online already, and national outlets have reported about this man’s transphobic threats. Locally, a lot of folks have been trying to identify this man. I am all for that; anyone who uses hate speech in a public forum must be held accountable. If the bigot has a job, their employer should know who they have working for them, because you don’t call for the death of a group of people and not carry around those thoughts all the time.
Another counter-protester said before the rally that he was an EMT, and he would tend to anyone who needed help; he wasn’t picking sides. Well, he did pick sides, literally, across the street from us, screaming “all lives matter” over the speakers, screaming that we were sheep, and he certainly didn’t denounce the asshole who was yelling “kill transgenders.”
Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what oath that man took to give care to anyone who needs it when he became an EMT: he has no business ever putting his hands on an LGBTQ or Black person, as clearly those folks weren’t included when he was shouting “all lives matter.” The research on the racial bias in healthcare is clear on this: a person can’t turn their prejudices off to offer good care.
I’ve seen the angry social media posts and local media articles decrying the actions of this garbage human who lives close to me. I agree: it is deplorable. But what I want to talk about, is every other person, like the EMT, who stood by that man and didn’t denounce him. Because every single person who heard those words was co-signing it. To not denounce it is to allow it and ultimately endorse it. While folks who are hip to the truth understand that responding to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” is speaking in code for “No, They Don’t,” the man who yelled the death threats “broke the dog whistle,” as my friend Matt said astutely. If this group of folks who so vehemently proclaim that “all lives matter” truly believed that, they would have been horrified by these calls for violence. They would have said, “No, this is NOT what we’re doing here.”
They did not.
This really gets to the heart of the matter: when White folks respond to the Black Lives Matter Movement with “blue lives matter,” “back the blue,” “I support police,” or something similar. Those folks often state that they believe that the violent actions police have taken against citizens over and over again were wrong. Yet, if they truly held police and the oath they take in such high esteem, they, of all people, should want any cop giving the rest of them a bad name to get the hell out. We know that less than 2% of police officers are charged when they kill a civilian, let alone serve time for their crime. In June,a video went viral when a few police officers in Buffalo, NY, shoved an elderly man to the ground who posed no threat to them. They even struck him while he was down. Bad apples, right? The rest of their fellow officers went on strike when the two officers were put on leave for their actions. They showed solidarity with the guys who beat an unarmed man.
We have to hold accountable, officers who commit acts of brutality. We have to hold people throwing around hate speech accountable, because that is violence. But just as closely, we need to look at the rank-and-file folks next to them, who aren’t vocally denouncing them and weeding them out. If everyday police officers and supporters of the police aren’t enraged when their own people commit these acts of violence, they are complicit. The implicit must be made explicit: If you don’t denounce these actions, you are endorsing them.
Per Shaler Area Anti-Racist Advocates, please donate to and support these groups:
To support the targeted Black activists: