Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld was acquitted for killing black teen Antwon Rose. This has ramifications for the greater Pittsburgh area.
After news broke late last Friday that former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld was acquitted of murdering the black teenager Antwon Rose II, the reverberations were felt as far away as Virginia, where state senate candidate Qasim Rashid tweeted about the difference in how Rose was treated compared to Tree of Life synagogue shooter Robert Bowers. His tweet was immediately met with a fusillade of replies explaining that there were different police forces involved in the two tragedies: Pittsburgh police and its SWAT unit for Bowers, and East Pittsburgh police for Rose.
The City of Pittsburgh Police (who responded to Tree of Life) are a completely different department than the East Pittsburgh Police. One is highly trained and one is small and under-trained. Not an excuse, simply an important distinction to note.— Maya (@Cinco_De_Maya) March 23, 2019
East Pittsburgh is a small municipality that sits just outside of the city of Pittsburgh. It disbanded its police department in January, largely because of the Rose killing. And while Rashid’s clap-backers are technically correct about the differences between the police departments involved, the spirit of his tweet is still sound. For African Americans in greater Pittsburgh, there is little safety afforded to them when approached by police, whether in cities or suburbs. This is a concern for African Americans in almost every urban setting in the nation, but especially so in suburbs.
For Rose’s case, distinguishing between East Pittsburgh police and Pittsburgh police isn’t entirely clarifying in these moments. The fault line is not between Pittsburgh and its suburbs; it’s between the criminalization of blackness and the exoneration of whiteness. In that regard, the city of Pittsburgh could help bridge that divide if it recognizes that it shares this common problem with its smaller municipal neighbors.
Since Rosfeld was acquitted late last Friday, there have been several street protests across the greater Pittsburgh region, including in its downtown, outside of the courthouse where the trial was held, and in East Liberty, a neighborhood unofficially zoned as ground zero for gentrification in the city. Yesterday, more than 1,000 high school and college students marched through the city to protest the Rosfeld acquittal, chanting that justice had not been served to Antwon Rose II’s family. And again, the place and location of injustice was weaponized on social media, with people emphasizing that it was a Dauphin County jury—located halfway across the state of Pennsylvania—that acquitted Rosfeld, not a jury from Allegheny County, where East Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh are located.
Don’t forget that the #AntwonRose jury was from Dauphin County. Not Pittsburgh. So blaming people from the city for the verdict doesn’t make any sense. Try again.— Frank Pagani (@frankpagani_) March 23, 2019
But one of the planners of the protests, 18-year-old Kahlil Darden, youth and activism coordinator for the Pittsburgh-based organization 1Hood Media, says he and his peers understand that the jury was from another county, and don’t need explanations on how the criminal justice system works. Pittsburgh, as the seat of power in Allegheny County, was responsible for protecting young black people, and also for failing to deliver justice in this case, said Darden.
“We're not just fighting for equality in East Pittsburgh, we're fighting for equality across Pittsburgh in general and across Pennsylvania,” says Darden, who attends Penn Hills Senior High School just outside of Pittsburgh. “Yes, the jury came from Dauphin County here, but everything that had to do with the trial was in downtown Pittsburgh. [District Attorney Stephen] Zappala’s office is in the city of Pittsburgh. The people who made the most decisions and had the most influence over the trial are in Pittsburgh. So when we talk about equality we talk about getting justice not only for Antwon, but for all black people who are victims of police brutality and violence in these communities as a whole.”
For the trial, the district attorney prosecutors called more than 30 witnesses, many of whom personally saw Rosfeld shoot Rose three times, and others who were forensic experts. The bullets pierced Rose’s face, elbow, and back: the last one penetrating his lung and heart. Rosfeld shot Rose as he fled from the pulled-over car where he had been sitting in the back seat. The defense called just two witnesses, Rosfeld and a police use-of-force expert, Clifford Jobe, who testified that it was reasonable for Rosfeld to fire his weapon considering that he was responding to a call that another person in the car committed a drive-by shooting.
Pennsylvania state law affords police officers the benefit of the doubt in these circumstances. The burden is on prosecutors, when police are on trial for shootings, to prove that there was no compelling reason for the officer to fire his gun. The jury foreman Jesse Rawls Sr., a bail bondsman from Harrisburg in Dauphin County, said afterward that had Rose not run from the car, he would still be alive. The message of the Rose case is that you can be unarmed in flight, your back to the police, and a cop will be justified for killing you. The state, two counties, and at least two cities are complicit in that outcome.
It is true, as some have been quick to point out, that Pittsburgh police have more training than the police programs in surrounding smaller municipalities. Much of that training was imposed on Pittsburgh police after the federal government found a pattern of corruption and brutality throughout the department in the 1990s. Pittsburgh was the first major city entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to reform its police department. Meanwhile, there is no uniform police trainings across the state to ensure that small suburban departments are skilled on par with officers from larger city departments. But this is besides the point: What, to the victim of police violence, does it matter what jurisdiction’s name is on the clothes of the officer who shot him?
“The idea that an imaginary line is going to prevent a police officer from shooting me, killing me, and preventing my family from getting justice—if you believe that you haven't been paying attention,” says Jasiri X, chief executive officer of 1Hood Media, and one of the leading organizers of the protests. “When it comes to black people, it doesn’t matter where the police department is.”
In the event of police violence against people of color, the fate of cities and their suburbs are intertwined. Many of the high-profile police killings of black people of the past few years have actually happened in suburbs. But the neighboring major cities in those instances have felt the impacts regardless. The cries of the oppressed do not recognize municipal boundaries.
When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the protests spilled into neighboring St. Louis, appearing in places like St. Louis’s symphony orchestra concerts. Demonstrations held earlier this month in Sacramento, California, to protest the absolving of the police officers who killed Stephon Clark shut down places like the Arden Fair shopping center, the city’s downtown Golden 1 Center, and the “ritzy” East Sacramento neighborhood—nowhere near where Clark was killed. Similarly, ever since Rose was killed last summer, demonstrators have shut down shopping areas, highways, and downtown traffic centers well outside of East Pittsburgh, to make the point that black people are vulnerable to police violence no matter the setting.
“The disruption caused by state-sanctioned violence doesn't belong to us all,” says Dustin Gibson, who organized and participated in police violence protests this weekend and last summer. “A lot of us see it as our responsibility to share that burden with the people that have the privilege of not having their lives disrupted by this. At its core, it’s an interruption of the fallacy that this is all normal. From the center of our hearts, we’re forcing it to the front of people's minds—the people who would routinely just go throughout their days without having to think about any of this.”
When Rose was killed last July, and media reports poured in from across the nation, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto went on Twitter to point out that it was East Pittsburgh police involved in the killing, not Pittsburgh police—the same kind of auto-corrections getting spread across social media today. This was on some level perhaps necessary for fact-checking purposes when dealing with the media, but it was received as a tone-deaf tweet that failed to respect the solemnity of the moment.
Peduto was more measured in his tweets after the Rosfeld acquittal, this time offering “the full support of the city of Pittsburgh” and offering to help with training suburban police departments in another tweet.
Tonight I grieve with Antwon’s family, friends, and the entire community. Words cannot heal the pain so many are feeling. Only action can begin the process, a process that will take work & understanding.— bill peduto (@billpeduto) March 23, 2019
(Part 1 of 2)
No. Pittsburgh Bureau of Police & their SWAT unit are trained & continued to be trained in DEESCALATION techniques & we are one of six Police Depts trained in IMPLICIT BIAS in US. We must have suburban Allegheny Co. Depts trained in same. We will offer to them in few next months https://t.co/BKcKVEe0wT— bill peduto (@billpeduto) March 23, 2019
“This isn’t just an East Pittsburgh issue, this is an issue for Pittsburgh as a whole,” says the teen organizer Darden. “And if we don't address it as a whole and as an entire community, then we’ll just keep recycling and going in circles with what this system has set up for us.”