Anger, pain, protests rock Pittsburgh after police killing of unarmed Black 17-year-old
By Barrington M. Salmon -Contributing Writer
‘Lethal force should be an absolute last resort, not a first option’
Protestors cross the Roberto Clemente bridge during a evening rush hour march that began in downtown Pittsburgh, June 22. They are protesting the killing of Antwon Rose Jr. who was fatally shot by a police officer seconds after he fled a traffic stop June 19, in the suburb of East Pittsburgh.
The city of Pittsburgh is on edge and boiling hot after an East Pittsburgh Police officer with a checkered past shot and killed an unarmed high school student after police stopped the vehicle the young man was in as a part of an investigation into an earlier shooting.
Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough said officers found two firearms on the floor of the car. He added that they found no weapons on the slain Black teenager. A bystander’s video of the June 19 shooting shows Antwon Rose, Jr. and an unnamed companion jumping out of the car and running away, and Antwon collapsing after being shot three times in the back by an officer identified as Michael H. Rosfeld, 30.
The funeral for the young man was held June 25 and some 200 people came out to show their respects and activists did not protest out of respect for the family’s mourning. His mother told ABC News, in an interview, that the police officer murdered her son.
Antwon’s death set off a series of protests across the Pittsburgh area that drew hundreds of demonstrators, many armed with “Black Lives Matter” signs and shouting “No Justice, No Peace.”
A death and demands for justice
Every day or night since the killing of the Woodland Hills High School honor student, angry, determined residents and groups including the Alliance for Police Accountability, NAACP and ACLU of Pennsylvania—seeking #JusticeforAntwon—have either locked down sections of Interstate 376, the main thoroughfare of downtown Pittsburgh, blocked the Rachel Carson Bridge, protested at a Pittsburgh Pirates game, rallied at least twice at the East Pittsburgh Police Department and trooped to the Alleghany County Courthouse which houses the offices of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr.
And, a Pittsburgh activist said, students at several schools June 21 staged walkouts in silent protest of what many in the city are calling the unjustified killing of a humble, affable and well-liked teenager.
Civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt, who was hired by Antwon’s family to represent them, said he’s hoping that public pressure will force Mr. Zappala to charge Officer Rosfeld but he’s doubtful.
“If you use history as a guide, there is a low possibility that the D.A. will charge Rosfeld. He has a history of not prosecuting police officers regardless of what they have done,” Mr. Merritt told The Final Call during a June 22 interview. “I’ve come to represent the family because I do a lot of this work, especially in Texas where it’s been 50 years since a police officer has been indicted for murder.”
Mr. Merritt has been involved in a case in Texas where police officer Roy Oliver fired a rifle into a car with four Black teenagers driving away from him, killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards. He said members of the community and legal and civil rights organizations applied significant political and economic pressure which led to Officer Oliver being fired and charged with murder. His trial is set to start this summer.
Tia Taylor, left, is comforted by her friend Jameira Mosely during a protest of the shooting death of Antwon Rose Jr. in Market Square, June 22, in Pittsburgh. Both attended school with Rose. Protesters demonstrated June 22 for a third day over the fatal police shooting in Pennsylvania of the unarmed Black teen fleeing a traffic stop as they sought to get the attention of a nation engrossed by the immigration debate, and to pressure officials to charge the officer.
The pressure is mounting on District Attorney Zappala with the protests and an announcement by the medical examiner, who ruled Antwon’s death a homicide.
Under Pennsylvania law police officers are allowed to use deadly force to prevent someone from escaping arrest if he or she has committed a forcible felony, is in possession of a deadly weapon or if that person has indicated he or she will endanger human life or inflict bodily injury if not arrested.
But there’s nothing that he’s learned so far that justifies an unarmed young man running away from the police and posing no danger to them, to be shot and killed, Mr. Merritt said.
The executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania agreed, saying in a statement that it appears Officer Rosfeld “disregarded the basic humanity of this boy.”
“Fleeing from a scene does not give law enforcement the right to indiscriminately shoot young boys or anyone,” said Reggie Shuford. “No one, especially children, should ever fear death at the hands of police. Lethal force should be an absolute last resort, not a first option.”
In the days following the fatal shooting, “police sources” have sought to besmirch the name of the young man, leaking to local media that they have video of Antwon firing a gun and that forensic evidence shows gunshot residue on his hands.
“We expected Antwon to be smeared,” Mr. Merritt said. “It’s patently untrue and we’re calling out media for doing this, calling on them to stop spreading lies. Local law enforcement is engaged in spreading these falsehoods and they have been praising the death of Antwon on social media.”
“I haven’t been in situation where I’m so hard-pressed to find any negative on someone. Antwon was known for his generosity and his altruism. He volunteered to work on political campaigns, food banks and such and was known to hang at a skate park in the White part of town. He had crossover appeal. He played the saxophone and was a hockey player. His mom said he had an IQ of 120 and was already admitted to college. He was gifted and extremely intelligent.”
High school Principal Candee Nagy told a TribLive reporter that Antwon competed in academic competitions throughout high school.
“He was a very intelligent, well-mannered, respectful individual that worked hard to do his best,” she said. “He’s somebody you really recognized as a powerhouse, with the gift he had bestowed upon him as a young man.”
District officials said he scored high on his SAT test and was one English class shy of graduating.
Mr. Merritt said Antwon’s mother, Michelle Kenney, planned to have an open-casket funeral, reminiscent of Mamie Till, whose son Emmett was abducted and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 by White men who beat him and tossed his body into a nearby river for allegedly whistling at a White woman.
Antwon Rose, 17-year-old boy who was fatally shot by police in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Ms. Kenney granted ABC News an exclusive interview where she said that Officer Rosfeld “murdered my son in cold blood.”
“If he has a son, I pray his heart never has to hurt the way mine does,” Ms. Kenney said. “But I think he should pay for taking my son’s life. I really do.”
“My son is dead and I keep saying that, but he didn’t die by accident,” she said. “He didn’t fall off a cliff. He didn’t trip and bump his head. A cop killed him. The same person that should have protected him, the same person who I taught my son to respect and always have the most respect for, never be disrespectful, murdered my son.”
A rogue cop allowed to run free?
Shaun King, an investigative reporter for The Intercept and co-founder and lead organizer for the Justice PAC—which seeks to elect reform-minded district attorneys across the country—has been breaking news for the past several days about Officer Rosfeld.
On June 23, he posted a note on social media saying that a high-ranking official from the University of Pittsburgh confirmed that Off. Rosfeld was fired from the university in January after brutally assaulting a Black student and lying about it.
“That student was the son of the university chancellor,” Mr. King said. “The official told (me) that Rosfeld was a known menace on campus for years and had assaulted several Black students. But the school finally took action when the student was the son of the chancellor. He was sworn in at the East Pittsburgh Police Department and three hours later, he shot and killed Antwon Rose.”
East Pittsburgh Mayor Louis J. Payne told a reporter with the Tribune-Review that Off. Rosfeld had been sworn into the department a few hours before the shooting. Off. Rosfeld said in an interview two days after the shooting that he’s been a police officer since 2011, and worked with other area departments for eight years, including the University of Pittsburgh, Oakmont and Harmar Township. Off. Rosfeld is now on unpaid leave.
Mr. Merritt elaborated on the officer’s alleged past behavior.
“Rosfeld has a history of brutality. He beat students and falsified records,” the attorney charged. “It went unchecked until he assaulted the chancellor’s son. The chancellor pulled video records of the incident. Instead of charging him, they quietly fired him and allowed him to go elsewhere and continue his behavior. The University of Pittsburgh bears some of the responsibility for what happened.”
Pittsburgh resident Bomani Howze said the Steel City is a tinderbox.
“It’s 360 degrees here, really hot,” said Mr. Howze, an investor and activist. “It’s hot for multiple reasons. As spring heats up, old beefs start to cook up. (Up and coming Rapper) Jimmy Wopo was killed in Hill District this week. He was about to be signed by Wiz Khalifa. All of this is happening right now.
Protesters chant "Hands up! Don't shoot!" at motorcycle officers near the head of a line of vehicles stuck on Interstate 376 in Pittsburgh on June 21. The highway was shut down by the people protesting the East Pittsburgh police after the June 19 shooting death of Antwon Rose, a 17-year-old boy fatally shot by a police officer in Pennsylvania seconds after he fled a traffic stop. He did not pose a threat to anyone, a lawyer for the family of the teen said.
“You have misguided youth who are disconnected from the OGs. They’re not afraid and they’re carrying heavy artillery. A day or two later, law enforcement is on edge. Elected officials are fearful that a storm is going to blow out.”
Mr. Howze said elected officials are pressing law enforcement hard to keep a lid on the violence because they’re trying to persuade Amazon to bring its headquarters to the city. Politicians like the mayor are “responding with their interests,” the district attorney is standing for re-election and the public is very aware of the political calculus, he added.
Jasiri X, a Pittsburgh-born rapper and activist, said Black people in Pittsburgh are tired of being taken for granted.
“We walk through America with the understanding that we can be killed at any moment and not get justice,” he said. “Trayvon Martin’s mother got no justice, Michael Brown’s mother got no justice, Sandra Bland’s mother got no justice … We’re expected to just take it. The problem is, who else is expected to be peaceful when you shoot us?”
“I had an interview this morning (June 22) and I was asked how we can cool down the anger of the people—you should be upset, you should be outraged,” he said.
Pittsburgh cops and Blacks: Lingering distrust, antagonism
Pittsburgh-born, Washington, D.C. resident Jamila Bey left Pittsburgh in 2000 because she had determined that the city was no place for a Black person to live or to raise a child.
“Pittsburgh has a long and troubled history with police-involved shootings, and rarely has a police officer been held to account,” said Ms. Bey, a journalist, commentator and mother of a son. “What’s going on here is par for the course. This boy was a saint by all accounts. He was the preacher, the choir boy. He may not even have known what was going on when he got shot.”
“This child, this innocent child, with a bright, brilliant future has had his life cut short. All the mothers I’m in contact with are in despair because this is the kid who you would want as a 17 year old.”
Ms. Bey said she happened to be in Pittsburgh to visit her mother who had unexpectedly fallen ill and was in the hospital.
“I stopped in front of the courthouse and I estimate that there were about 1,500 people out there,” she told The Final Call in a June 20 interview. “We have ‘hunting and fishing cops’ who are back from Iraq and see Black people as the enemy. They live outside of the city and have no interest in the city or the people they serve. This is the pattern here in Pittsburgh.
“(But) people seem to be devoted to the idea that this isn’t about the cop who shot this boy but the system. All of us mothers are resolved that this will go beyond the protests. We need to hit this legislatively, change what they’re teaching at the police academy, for example. This D.A. has made a lot of Black people angry. He is not secure in his position.”
The city’s struggles to get a handle on this problem bear Ms. Bey out.
Pittsburgh is said to be the first big city police department to agree to a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice in the 1990s after federal investigators discovered a pattern and practice of police misconduct. The result was more resources, improved training and broader oversight of the myriad activities and operations among the ranks of the police. But Black Pittsburgh residents say police officers never stopped harassing, brutalizing, profiling and killing them with little oversight or accountability.
The issue of the police-involved killings of primarily unarmed Black men, women and children continues to roil the United States. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Korryn Gaines, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Stephon Clark, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner and Natasha McKenna are just a few of the hundreds of Blacks who have died at the hands of the police or someone acting in that capacity. In almost every case, the individuals who pulled the trigger were not charged and served no time for the murders.
According to the Mapping Violence project, police in the U.S. killed 466 people in 2018. Law enforcement killed 1,147 people in 2017 with Blacks comprising 25 percent of those slain despite being only 13 percent of the population. Fox News notes that since the start of 2018, at least 45 law enforcement officers across the U.S. have died while on duty—with 27 of the deaths caused by gunfire. Various studies show that Blacks are nearly three times more likely than White Americans to be killed by police and are five times more likely than Whites to be killed while unarmed.
The cycle of shootings, outrage and district or states attorneys or grand juries opting not to press charges has fueled strident protests nationwide and equally vocal demands for change. In this case, several civil rights organizations are demanding that the attorney general of Pennsylvania handle the investigation into Antwon’s death.
A recent study illustrates that the wider Black community is affected by these killings. Researchers published a study in the Lancet Medical Journal which indicates that police violence has a direct effect on the mental health of Black adults.
Celebrity hair stylist Fela Sekou was equally caustic when sharing his view of police-Black community relations.
“The relationship between minorities and White, Anglo Saxon Protestants is very hostile and tense,” said Mr. Sekou, who was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Washington, D.C., and Cleveland. “The police are very racist. They’re violent and are a threat to people. A lot of people don’t know it but it’s not just police, it’s the school system and the court system. They have no respect for African American men. Pittsburgh is worse than Tupelo, Mississippi. It’s so blatant there.”
He recalled as a 19-year-old how Pittsburgh police officers stopped him and two friends downtown because a White man had been robbed.
“The victim couldn’t identify us and the police got angry,” he recalled. “We were screaming about our rights and the situation escalated. They searched us and when I asked why we were being arrested, a Black cop came over and punched me in my face. I was beating him up and he used a billy club. We were arrested, the charges were dropped but even now at 46 years old, I have to defend myself (because they never cleared my record).”