By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
For the past seven months, Christopher West has been sitting in the Allegheny Jail for protesting the murder of George Floyd last spring in Minnesota.
West was indicted by a federal grand jury last year on charges related to the destruction of a police car during a May 29th protest. The Pittsburgh Current reported on West’s situation in November, pointing out that he has been denied bail and, if convicted, faces up to 20 years in prison for kicking the police car. West has been charged in a conspiracy to destroy the police car with people he says he doesn’t know.
“If anyone came within three feet of that police car that day, they caught a federal case,” West said at the time.
But this isn’t necessarily a story about what did or didn’t happen on May 29. It’s about what’s happened since then; actions that bolster the claim about systematic racism in every corner of the criminal justice system. It’s a story about people like Christopher West facing serious prison time and languishing without bond while others are being adjudicated with all of the ferocity of a citation for jaywalking.
“None of this makes sense,” West told the Current during a recent phone interview from the ACJ. “The guy who started the riot that day, just basically walked away with no punishment and then you have the protesters at the Capitol going home on bail and they raided the damn United States Capitol?
“And here I sit facing two decades in federal prison for kicking a police car. Some of the people in these incidents are getting special treatment. And I assure you, it’s not Black people.”
Thanks to overpriced tablets with spotty wi-fi reception, West and other inmates are able to keep up with what goes on outside the walls of the ACJ. So when Brian Bartels –the first person to attack the police car — a 21-year-old white guy from Shaler was sentenced to six months in a halfway house for his role in the happenings of May 29, West heard about it.
Pittsburgh Police and the U.S. Attorney’s office claim Bartels hijacked the peaceful rally.
“His backpack loaded with rocks and spray paint, Bartels came to Saturday’s protest in Pittsburgh to incite violence. Bartels’ actions turned an otherwise peaceful protest into a violent riot that resulted in an evening of destruction throughout downtown Pittsburgh,” said U.S. Attorney Scott Bradyin a June press release. “Anyone who would do the same should know this – if you try to hijack a peaceful protest for your own violent agenda, we will use every tool at our disposal to find you and prosecute you.”
While the rather light sentence may have surprised some, it didn’t surprise West.
“He walked with six months in a halfway house because of the way he looks and where he came from,” West said. “I was out there that day to protest the fact yet another Black man was killed with impunity by police officers. I’m not going to say anything about Mr. Bartels’ beliefs, but he admitted to being an anti-government anarchist. He said ‘fuck the government.’ That’s not what I was out there for.
“He basically got six months on house arrest and he was convicted. I’ve been confined in here for seven months and I haven’t been found guilty of anything. You know what, yeah, I kicked a car door that day but they want to put me away for 20 years for a car.”
Angel Jackon of McKeesport was also protesting on May 29. And although she is free on bond, she also faces serious charges of rioting, looting and throwing a rock. She too, says that despite Bartels “sparked off that riot,” he was treated differently because of his race.
But the handling of Bartels’ case isn’t the only thing that Jackson says is being handled differently. She has also paid close attention to the way that local white defendants charged in the Capitol riots are being treated.
Riley Williams of Harrisburg has claimed that she stole Nancy Pelosi’s laptop and planned to sell it to the Russians. Two weeks ago, she was released into her mother’s custody and ordered to stay off the Internet. Williams’ history of mental illness was mentioned at her hearing. Then, earlier this week, a judge ordered the release of Western Pennsylvania’s Rachel Powell without bail. A federal judge in the District of Columbia has stayed that order and a final decision is pending. Powell entered the capitol on January 6 with a bullhorn and a backpack full of items like knives and gun magazines. Powell has been accused of taking an active role in the insurrection, using her bullhorn to direct protesters where to go.
“We had to sit and watch these people attack our Capitol because they had a goddamned hissy-fit over a man leaving the White House,” Jackson said. “And what happened? The president called them special people. Meanwhile we get called thugs for taking to the streets because another Black man was murdered.
“We have had many of our own young men killed by police and those protests never turned violent. How many times did we march for Antwon Rose without incident?”
West agrees that the treatment given to white Capitol rioters is just another example of an unjust system.
“None of it is right,” West says. “[Riley Williams] is free because of mental illness. But you know what, probably half of the black community suffers from mental illness or PTSD. She got to go home …”
“I suffer from bipolar disorder, but that’s not taken into account. I’m judged on a criminal history that I served my time for. They decide you’re guilty on paper before you ever get your day in court.”