‘We’ve got to work for it’: A year after Antwon Rose II’s death – Little change, but quiet determination

JASIRI X

‘We’ve got to work for it’: A year after Antwon Rose II’s death – Little change, but quiet determination

A year ago, a teen lay mortally wounded in East Pittsburgh — and a cellphone video of his shooting as he ran from a police cruiser hit social media.

Days after that, hundreds of people protesting his death — and demanding criminal charges against the police officer who shot him — shut down the Parkway East for hours.

And days after that, more gathered Downtown, calling for changes in the law, increased police training and criminal justice reform.

Today, the streets are quiet, and none of that change has happened.

But those closest to Antwon Rose II and the aftermath of his death say the groundwork is being laid for the progress they want to see.

• Several legislators have come out in support of a multi-part package that would change the language in the state’s use of force statute; require police shootings be investigated by a special prosecutor appointed by the state attorney general; and require disclosure of information when an officer is forced out of his department.

• Local law enforcement agencies are reviewing polices and procedures, creating new training and talking with the community about what policing should look like.

• More people, and a wider cross-section, are engaged in the process. They not only see the inequity in the criminal justice system (maybe for the first time) but are willing to push to force change.

“We’re having the conversation,” said Jasiri X, a Pittsburgh activist and artist. “We have to take that temporary passion and turn it into sustainable change.

“It’s not going to come. We’ve got to work for it.”

When Antwon’s mother, Michelle Kenney, traveled to Harrisburg to promote the legislation she hopes to have introduced, she was joined on the bus there by a couple in their late 70s, as well as preachers, wealthy and poor, black and white.

Her son’s death got them involved.  “It let a lot of people who never knew learn what African-Americans already knew — that the legal system is not fair.”

Amber Sloan, a local activist who has befriended Ms. Kenney, said that in the lead-up to trial she saw that many white people thought it was automatic that former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld would be convicted for killing Antwon.

The teen was shot three times in the back as he ran away. He was not armed.

When the jury acquitted the officer, “white people finally got to see this is really what happens,” said Ms. Sloan. 

Under Pennsylvania law, police officers are justified in using deadly force when they believe it is necessary to prevent death or serious injury to themselves or others, or if they believe it necessary to prevent a suspect’s escape from arrest.

Antwon had been in a car that had, minutes before, been involved in a drive-by shooting in which a man was shot in the abdomen. He also had an empty clip in his pocket, and there was a gun found under his seat in the car from which he fled.

The jury deliberated for less than four hours.

In the days after the verdict, Pittsburgh officials and local law enforcement braced for protests, and potential violence.

But the protests were muted, and the city escaped unharmed.

That, Ms. Sloan said, was because Antwon’s mother asked that there be no violence.

“She didn’t want to see the city get torn up in her son’s name,” Ms. Sloan said.

Ms. Kenney agreed.

“My concern was if they protested or reacted in any negative way, there would be another Antwon Rose,” she said.  Despite the dropoff of protest, “the reasons, energy and motivation behind it is still there.”

For Jasiri X, a founder of the anti-violence group 1Hood, the student-led walkout three days after the Rosfeld verdict points to continuing progress.

“That’s the thing I am most hopeful about,” he said. “It was powerful.”

The reaction to the verdict for many people was one of shock and upset, Jasiri X continued. “‘I’m outraged. What’s the next step? How do I get involved?”

Some rallied their support around Turahn Jenkins, who ran against incumbent District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. Mr. Jenkins lost, but garnered some 40 percent of the Democratic vote in May’s primary.

That was a strong showing, Jasiri X said.

And over the last year, Ms. Kenney has met with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and other local officials. She has spoken with state representatives and members of Congress.

She has traveled to State College to support the family of another young man, Osaze Osagie, shot and killed by police, and attended hearings on behalf of defendants she believes are victims of excessive use of force.

Ms. Kenney is advocating not only for changes in how policing occurs, but also in how resources are distributed in economically depressed communities.

“It’s kind of hard to keep your kids from getting involved in the negativity, when that’s all that’s out there,” she said. “They’re fighting the odds.”

The law

After Antwon’s death, a small group of state lawmakers said that they felt the case underscored the need for police reform.

“Antwon Rose was every one of our children,” said state Rep. Chris Rabb, a Democrat from Philadelphia who has pushed for some reform measures. “I am a father of two black boys, two teenagers, and I know that it doesn’t matter who their dad is, who their mom is…They are far more likely to be killed by a police officer than anyone else in America, just for inhabiting black bodies.”

Mr. Rabb and others have proposed a variety of measures aimed at changing police training, improving accountability and rewriting the state’s use-of-force statute. The latter has been a primary focus for activists.

“Nothing will ever change until they change that law,” Ms. Sloan said. 

Ms. Kenney said people have to be willing to speak out against officers who violate rights or laws.

“These people can take your life, your freedom, your property,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you want them to be held accountable?”

Some of the bills have been introduced, others have not.

Some in the Capitol have spoken openly about what they believe is a racial divide surrounding the bills.

“We’re not talking about race and racism in the way that we need to. We’re not talking about the fact that not enough of my white colleagues are up here standing with us,” state Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, who is white, said at a rally for the bills earlier this year. “I’m ashamed by the lack of white voices in this argument.”

Others have pointed to policy concerns regarding the measures — which are not expected to come up for votes before the Legislature wraps up the budget and leaves for the summer.

In the House, some Republicans have said they believe hiring practices and policies should be determined by local governments.

“Our members are willing to engage in worthy discussions over how those who abuse power are held accountable, but not at the expense of unfairly burdening the men and women who are willing to make their own sacrifices to keep us safe,” Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Republicans, said in a statement.

In a Republican-controlled Legislature, it may take multiple sessions before bills like these pass, said University of Pittsburgh law professor David A. Harris, who tracks these issues.

“The mere fact that they’re taking initiative is kind of big for me,” Ms. Sloan said. But if it doesn’t pass, Ms. Kenney said: “If we have to go sit in there on the House floor so they can listen to us, then we just got to go in there and take a seat.”

Policing

Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough said that Antwon’s shooting death has forced “the police community to take a hard look at ourselves and recognize that there’s some change needed.”

Some of the most obvious issues, he said, are gaps in training, policy and supervision — particularly among the smallest departments, which are often staffed by a handful of people working part-time and earning a low hourly wage.

In East Pittsburgh, it quickly became clear after the shooting that the police department did not have proper policies and procedures in place to govern how officers were to operate. 

They were criticized publicly by Mr. Zappala about it, and on Nov. 30, officially disbanded.

Since then, more and more small departments and the municipal officials who oversee them have begun to talk about disbanding and moving to a regionalized department.

“People made it clear they did not see this as a problem with one small police department,” Mr. Harris said. “They saw it as a region-wide problem. That’s a major change in thinking.”

Too, Supt. McDonough continued, departments of all sizes have begun to address the need for implicit bias training, as well as procedural justice training.  His department had officers trained in California to work as implicit bias instructors at the county police academy.

Antwon’s death also prompted dialogue with officers on the street.

“We have seen — and some of it was forced — police agencies have had to sit down with members of the community and had some frank, and sometimes very difficult, conversations,” the superintendent said. Having to listen to sometimes “very harsh criticisms” hasn’t been easy, he said.

While they should have occurred a long time ago, he continued, “sometimes a terrible event is the catalyst to force us to have those conversations.”

Patience

Sala Udin, active in the civil rights movement and a former Pittsburgh city councilman, said progress requires continued pressure by the community.

“There’s only so much that public frustration and outrage can do,” he said. “After that, leadership becomes key — black leadership, political leadership.

“Everybody has to take a position. We’re getting closer, but they’re not there yet.”

Mr. Harris said that if the movement relies only on the initial outrage, it will die out.

“I think people who are angered, but also politically organized and motivated, that is the thing that will make change happen,” Mr. Harris said. “There’s evidence this can change things, but it’s probably not something we can look for in a weekend.”

Jasiri X, says change requires difficult, uncomfortable conversations.

“I feel like we’ve been making progress.”

Given the wide array of people who protested following Antwon’s death, it is clear the movement has spread beyond the black community, Mr. Harris said. 

“The political leadership in this county should take note of that,” Mr. Harris said. “If you couldn’t look at those crowds and see this was an important thing for many different kinds of people, then you weren’t paying attention.”

Ms. Kenney hopes that she can sustain the momentum. 

“Some of these battles, we may not be able to complete 100%, but I’m going to do my best to try.”

Originally posted here: https://www.post-gazette.com/news/crime-courts/2019/06/19/antwon-rose-year-anniversary-police-shooting-legislation-pittsburgh/stories/201906180103