A Look Into Pittsburgh's History of Protests and Police Brutality

Similar to many cities around the country, the city of Pittsburgh has been hosting protests since the beginning of June. The protests began due to worldwide outrage at the death of George Floyd. Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer. As anti-racism protests have continued throughout the months of the summer and into fall, many Pittsburghers have reflected on the history of protests in Pittsburgh and the impact of police brutality on the black community.

Older citizens feel as if they have been transported back to 1968, right after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Similar to modern scenes in Pittsburgh, the city once erupted in protests. Now in 2020, 52 years after King’s assassination, the country has maintained outrage at the lack of justice for the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, as well as the murder of Breonna Taylor by police officer Brett Hankison of Louisville. One of the groups responsible for the organization of weekly protests every week is Black Young and Educated.

Black Young and Educated (B.Y.E.) is an organization started by 5 teenagers that focuses on educating minority youth about issues that are pertinent to the lived experiences of individuals within those minority groups. Through educating, B.Y.E. hopes to provide accessible opportunities to the minority youth of Pittsburgh. As stated in their mission statement, Black Young and Educated aims to minimize the ignorance surrounding systematic racism and colorism. Through the provisions of support and care, the organization intends to unite the Pittsburgh black community.

The organization has pledged to amend PA Title 18, Section 508, which details excessive use of force by police in Pennsylvania. Through the amendment of 508, organizers hope to increase police accountability here in PA. The current language detailed in Section 508 is subjective, allowing officers to utilize deadly force when they deem fit.

The call to amend Section 508 by the Pittsburgh-based organization highlights the city’s history with police brutality, as well as institutionalized issues the city has yet to recognize.

Jonny Gamage, a man visiting Pittsburgh, died in police custody in Brentwood due to asphyxiation in an incident in 1995. Then, in 1998, Deron S. Grimmit was shot multiple times and killed by a Pittsburgh police officer, Jeffrey Cooperstein. Jordan Miles, an 18-year-old, was walking to his grandmother’s house in Homewood when he was stopped, beaten and arrested in 2010. Jordan was attacked by three white, non-uniformed police officers without probable cause. In 2012, Leon Ford, a 19-year-old man, was pulled over for running a stop sign. Officers misidentified Ford even after he produced proper ID, and, after a struggle, Ford was shot multiple times which ultimately left him paralyzed. Then, in 2018, a 17-year-old named Antwon Rose was shot and killed by a Pittsburgh police officer, Michael Rosfeld, in East Pittsburgh. Rosfeld was acquitted on all accounts of criminal homicide.

Pittsburgh’s black community has endured years of torment and fear due to a racist police force, police brutality and a lack of accountability enforced by the justice system. Even now, in 2020, Danielle Brown continues her 70-day hunger strike in search of answers for the death of her son, Jaylen. Jaylen died after falling from the window of his dorm on the 16th floor at Duquesne University. His mother is seeking transparency surrounding statements made by officers, security guards, resident's assistants, security footage and cooperation with the investigator she has hired. Brown has continued her hunger strike even with deteriorating health in hopes that her voice and those of other mothers that have lost their sons to an unreliable system will be amplified.

Most recently, on May 30th, 2020, the Pittsburgh Police Department shot rubber bullets, flash bombs, tear gas and pepper spray at protesters downtown after a white individual committed acts of violence after hours of peaceful protesting. Mayor Bill Peduto has been condemned by activists and community members for his failure to acknowledge Pittsburgh police’s excessive use of force on May 30th and consistent inability to take accountability for acts of violence.

Even after the excessive use of force used against protesters in May, protests continued throughout June, July, August and are ongoing. Many organizations like Black Young and Educated have utilized social media to spread the word about different actions citizens can take to support the black community and places to attend protests. Additionally, social media has also increased accountability among citizens and officers due to the ability for anyone to stream, record or tape anyone's actions and hold them accountable.