By Caitlyn Hunter
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
All it takes is one simple story. The narrative takes root and blossoms into an unforgiving truth. This news segment is no different and it’s delivery unnerves me:
A brunette in a cobalt blue t-shirt and dangling golden leaf earrings faces the camera. Behind her tall beige grass waves in the wind as green hills of trees and a blue sky scattered with tuffs of clouds provide the perfect backdrop of Americana for her story to the Pittsburgh masses.
“Lorenzo Rulli, whose legal name is Shawn Green was arraigned this morning for his involvement in three separate protests…he faces a long list of charges. He calls himself the People’s Protester…On May 30th when a protest turned violent [Ian] Smith, our cameraman…said he was filming when a group of large protesters surrounded him, grabbed and smashed his camera, and attacked him…Smith told police that Lorenzo Rulli live-streamed the attack on Facebook and in that stream you can hear Rulli saying “Stop that cameraman! Stop that cameraman!” On June 1…police say in a video shot by us, Rulli is trying to block our crew as they record a man smashing the windows of a Dollar Bank…police later showed up to arrest Rulli. On June 24th a protest was organized in Market Square in response to a new dress code put in place by the bar. Protesters rushed the bar keeping others from getting out. Protesters were screaming threatening messages to employees and security guards as they became trapped inside. Police say that Rulli was one of those protesters spotted on video and said to be damaging a parked security car nearby.”
The words “violent,” “attack,” “threatening,” vibrate through me. They resonate within and are disturbing. In the span of a two-minute news segment, another person of color is painted as radical, angry, and potentially dangerous. I am a helpless bystander. I am again a witness to an injustice and I am not OK.
The most haunting thing about this video is the ease in which this story is told; the angle is palatable because of who is telling the story — it’s “Karen.”
We buy this woman’s words because her appearance visually feels safe. Carolyn Bryant Donham’s fabricated story led to the lynching of Emmett Till. Susan Smith and Amanda Knox blamed Black men as murderers for crimes they themselves committed. Amy Cooper tried to call the cops on a Black birder because he had the audacity to ask her to leash her dog. History has shown that it is much easier to publicly name Black men as perpetrators because without proper video evidence we will never question the validity of a white woman’s story. History has also shown that these narratives often have omissions, and these omissions often come at a cost.
This case is no different. What has failed to be mentioned is that in this same referenced Facebook video, Rulli is urging people to stay away from the police car. Before it is on fire he screams “Back up! There are live explosives in this vehicle! If you are hurt there is no one here to help you! Please disperse!” There is no mention that the cameraman willingly walked towards the fire; the same place where Rulli pleaded for people to stay away and urged people to go home saying, “We ain’t here for this shit man! This isn’t what we’re about!” There is no interview, no his side of the story, just as I’m sure the news source would say all would prove to be “alternative facts.”
Last week another prominent Pittsburgh community organizer Nique Craft was charged with a felony to incite a riot and a felony for committing terroristic threats on days that Craft weren’t even in town. In a statement Craft made on Facebook they say, “The past 50 days have taught me I have a strength that is unwavering and I have the support of a community that loves me…I just want to be the superhero everyone seems to think I am.”
I know this protester. They spoke at my friend’s vigil after his untimely passing. I’ve seen them at countless protests hyping the crowd, protecting those who could not walk, or sometimes just being a hand to hold in solidarity. To many locals they are the very epitome of a superhero, especially in times where we all need protection and even I have felt unsafe. While with great power comes even greater responsibility, being publicly outspoken should never be a crime. After all being Black, especially in Pittsburgh, is hard enough.
In a letter to his nephew, James Baldwin once wrote “you were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” Anytime I walk my 23 pound dog along the streets of Regent Square and see oncoming people prefer to cross the street than to engage with my presence, I am reminded that there is an imaginative danger that the Black body can manifest in this country. It’s existence for many bodies of color like my own, will always register as a threat. Anytime I am in a store where wandering eyes of clerks and their incessant need to ‘help me’ is only because I am statistically more likely to steal something in their eyes. Anytime I see someone die as a result of police brutality, where their life is reduced down to their proximity of alleged crimes I see the worthlessness that Baldwin prophetically pointed to.
When Antwon Rose II was shot by Michael Rosfeld, Ann Coulter wrote in response to the media attention his death garnered by saying “I’m glad that Antown did charity work, but isn’t it rather more important that he had participated in a drive-by shooting of two other Black guys 13 minutes before being stopped by a police officer?” Coulter goes on to point out that gunshot residue was found on Rose’s hand, where, obviously in the eyes of this white woman, must be plausible enough cause for an unarmed teenager being shot.
When George Floyd was killed, Black Right-Wing Commentator Candace Owens went on Facebook live and stated: “Only Black people will organize to defend Black crime. Over the last 5 years it has become extremely fashionable to martyr criminals where some people like to compare George Floyd as the modern MLK.”
Owens painted a story of George Floyd as a violent and criminal offender where her evidence stems from reading his arrest reports stemming from 1998. Owen’s testimony overlooks an economic truth where many Black men, like Floyd, are forced to become involved in selling drugs as a seemingly only possible career path if faced with a lengthy criminal record. delineates from the narrative that denied medical intervention needed for an addict. Owens’ platform against making martyrs of criminals fails to acknowledge a larger issue of the ways in which Black people are systemically positioned to face a life of crime. From selling drugs, not going to school, drug addiction, homelessness, or simply protesting, being Black in America is more likely to be potentially linked with incarceration. While Owens cannot be a Karen because of the color of her skin, she knowingly uses the same rhetoric: “Here is a Black man whom we must be protected from not rally behind.”
When Breonna Taylor was brutally shot in her home eight times by three plain-clothes Louisville Metro Police Department officers, it was because her boyfriend was linked to selling drugs thus giving them license to enter her apartment without knocking. Despite being an EMT first responder, something immensely valuable during this pandemic, she was demonized for her proximity to loving someone involved with drugs. While those who killed her continue to walk free, her death is chalked up to being a “wrong place, wrong time” scenario. It speaks to the common eradication of the value of Black life, and overlooks what strengths and accomplishments we create in spite of a system historically designed to make us fail.
I too know all too well about this scenario. In college I was detained at gunpoint by six DC police officers. I was riding in a car with three white people in Southeast DC where our presence in a Black community was profiled as nefarious. While cops stuck their hands down my dress, between my breasts, and in my hair I watched helplessly as my friends were being casually interviewed. The whole time my friends and boyfriend were being asked for their version of the story, police took notes on notepads whereas I was spread against a wall, being called “a lying bitch,” and being asked where I hid the dope. It didn’t matter that I had a middle class background. It didn’t matter that out of all the people in the car I was the only one actually pursuing a college degree. I was simply a Black woman in a car with three white people in a Black neighborhood, and that was a plausible enough reason for people with authority to publicly dehumanize me. Of course, I was lucky to be released that day, as the officers at the time reminded me, but the trauma will never go away. Every day I am reminded that my life can easily be taken away by one false step. When I protest, there is the very real fear that I too could fall victim to the system where even having a doctoral degree would be overshadowed by a criminal record.
It is easier to vilify than to admit accountability. It is easier to traumatize than heal. Mayor Peduto prides himself on Pittsburgh being the most liveable city, but when I watch protestors fall under the thumb of the law or being knocked down by riot police for simply filming, I have to ask, liveable for who? Who are the police protecting and serving if its citizens are met with hostility and felony charges for their outcry against the injustices they witness in their own communities? What progress is truly being made when women like Dannielle Brown have to starve themselves for 23 days just to find answers about her son’s death on a Pittsburgh campus? What Black lives are we supporting in Pittsburgh where men like Romir Talley and Antwon Rose II are being gunned down by law enforcement where their criminality should not equate to death? Fred Rogers famously said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
The news would like to show protesters as the villainous Antifa anarchists who destroy businesses and statues. Protesters are riot hungry, storefront destroying, terrorists. From what I’ve seen protesters are the people who are actively trying to help their community the best way they know how. They have been the ones who put their lives on the line daily so that people, like me, can at least walk the streets a little less fearful than the day before. These are the people who remind us of humanity, who help us to reevaluate the system, who as John Lewis would say “make good trouble,” who have the power to bring about real change. If we begin to make villains of the helpers, then, I have to ask, are we truly being good neighbors?
Caitlyn Hunter is a doctoral student at Duquesne University. She is an adjunct professor of English at the Community College of Allegheny County. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham and resides in the Pittsburgh area.