This summer protests rocked Pittsburgh in the wake of the death of Antwon Rose, an African American teenager shot by a Pittsburgh police officer. At one of those protests on June 22, activist Leon Ford addressed a crowd of hundreds gathered at the Allegheny County Courthouse, calling on District Attorney Stephen Zappala to prosecute the officer who shot Rose.
“I thought that this wouldn’t happen again,” Ford said as tears streamed down his face.
Six years ago this month, Ford faced his own tragedy at the hands of Pittsburgh police officers when he was shot and paralyzed during a routine traffic stop. In the years since, he’s toured the country sharing his story and calling for an end to police brutality. Earlier this year, after a long court battle, Ford received a $5.5 million settlement from the city stemming from that Nov. 11, 2012 night.
Some might see the settlement as a victory. They might have thought Ford would now shrink from the public arena. But he says his fight is far from over.
“After Antwon Rose I went into a deep depression. I had to relive the trauma of me being shot through the trauma of speaking to his family and watching what they’re going through. There’s a lot of pain associated with a life being taken,” Ford tells Pittsburgh Current. “I had to make a decision. do I run away from this or do I step up?”
On Nov. 11, exactly six years from the night he was shot, Ford kicked off his campaign for Pittsburgh City Council. He’ll face off against incumbent Councilor Ricky Burgess for control of the 9th District seat that includes parts of East Liberty, Homewood, Friendship, Garfield, Larimer, North Point Breeze and Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar.
“After the speech I gave Downtown after Antwon Rose, I realized I had to be about what I was talking about. They say, be the change you want to see and over the years I’ve tried to live that,” Ford says. “When people see me, they see hope. I love being an inspiration. I love motivating people. But now I can influence policy so people can know what it feels like to live in a prosperous community.”
(Ford’s opponent Rev. Ricky Burgess did not respond to requests for comment.)
While the issue of police brutality might be what prompted Ford to run, he says it’s not all he’s about. Ford has emerged as a national figure in the Black Lives Matter movement, but he’s also currently studying the venture capital industry in the world of Silicone Valley as an apprentice. He’s also a father and he’s had to learn how to navigate his new reality of being confined to a wheelchair.
His platform, he says, isn’t just about improving police community relations. He’s passionate about affordable housing, a major issue facing Pittsburgh where rents continue to rise and luxury housing developments take over neighborhood blocks. And, he says, accessibility and infrastructure will be the first issues he tackles.
“A lot of people see my story and they automatically assume police issues will be my focus, but they forget I’m a wheelchair user. I have a very different lens of the community from being in a wheelchair. Some things as simple as rolling down the street when I pick up my son from school are difficult because of cracks in the sidewalks,” Ford says. “Another issue is housing. There’s not a lot of housing for people who are wheelchair users.”
Ford doesn’t shy away from the notoriety he’s gained by being part of the national conversation around police brutality. It’s garnered his campaign national support and attention, which will undoubtedly add to his name recognition, but could also help him raise valuable funds. He’s got an army of local support in Pittsburgh, but ultimately, it’s his standing on the national stage that could give him an edge.
“When a municipal candidate has national support, that’s pretty rare,” says G. Terry Madonna, a Pennsylvania political analyst. “There are always candidates who, by virtue of something in their background, develop national support. But as a whole it’s pretty uncommon. It will certainly raise his name recognition and should help him raise money.”
Ford’s story has been featured in national and international outlets like Vice, Ebony, The Independent and Huffington Post. He’s also toured the country sharing his story at colleges and universities like Springfield College in Massachusetts, churches like the House of Hope in Atlanta, and events like the Families Learning Conference in Arizona last year. And this year he was named to Root.com’s Root 100.
“There’s a lot of complexity here,” says Madonna. “You have the emotional issue of what happened to him and how that can translate into overall name recognition. People might be more interested in his story than the incumbent’s record. But it’s still unclear whether that will be sufficient to win.”
In October, National African American bank OneUnited announced it’s new Take A Knee campaign, inspired by activists who have refused to stand during the national anthem in silent protest of police shootings of unarmed Black people and the need for criminal justice reform. As part of the campaign, OneUnited will make a $25,000 donation to BMe (Black Male Engagement) in honor of Ford.
“Rarely do we hear from survivors of police shootings. We selected Leon Ford based on his story of tragedy, survival and now advocacy for positive change, which symbolizes the story of the Black community. He is also a wonderful person,” said OneUnited spokesperson Suzan McDowell via email. “Leon Ford’s positive message, after such a tragic experience resonated with OneUnited.”
In the weeks since Ford announced his campaign, his signs have been appearing in yards across the district and he’s raised more than $5,000 from 75 donors. It might not sound like much but his supporters say Ford’s local support is strong.
“I think he’s substantively a really interesting candidate,” says Ford’s mentor Stephen DeBerry. “I think that it’s great that his support is national. But I think the strongest support he has is local. He has tremendous support on the ground.”
DeBerry is the founder and managing partner at Bronze Investments, a San Francisco-based venture capital fund. He met Ford at a conference in D.C. a few years ago and has served as a mentor to the young man ever since, giving him the kind of business tutelage usually reserved for college classrooms.
“I was startled by the injustice he experienced and I was also startled by how brilliant he is as a person,” DeBerry says. “His story is emblematic of a much bigger point we all need to be thinking about in this country which has to do with, where are the gems that we’re not nurturing, that we’re not uncovering, that we’re not preparing for the leadership that we so desperately need in this country.”
DeBerry brought Ford on as an entrepreneur in residence to give him an inside look at the world of venture capital. It’s a hard world to break into, and DeBerry says the experience Ford has gained there will give him an advantage in any leadership role he takes on.
“He’s learned a lot about how business works and policy and more importantly how to make connections between systemic issues of marginalization and how cities run,” DeBerry says. “He is now being surrounded by a network of folks who can support him. He has a very broad and sophisticated brain trust so that he’s not going through this alone.”
Ford has emphasized that his support cuts across lines of race, religion and sexual orientation. DeBerry believes the reason for this is that Ford’s story resonates with a large swath of the nation, especially those fed up with gun violence, whether it’s at the hands of police, on inner-city streets or in neighborhood schools. And it’s why DeBerry believes Ford can win.
“We have a serious problem in this country around gun violence and police violence and I think this is an opportunity for America to stand up and say we’re going to support people working on this issue and those affected by that. For that reason I expect to see even more national support for him going further,” DeBerry says.
“I think there’s poetic justice in him coming full circle. His response to what happened to him could have gone any number of ways and most of those ways could have been extremely negative. He’s channeling his energy in such a constructive way. And it’s fantastic for him and it’s fantastic for the city. He’s setting a great example to folks all over the place.”