When America's "Most Livable City" Kills You
Yesterday my partner and I stayed up most of the night, together on our phones and laptops but in near silence, following the protests on Pittsburgh's I-376 freeway over the police shooting of Antwon Rose Jr. Even though it was late, we raised the idea of trying to head down and join the protest on the freeway, but for several reasons ended up staying. This left a bit of a knot in both of our guts, in addition to the existing pain of Antwon's murder. This is a knot that has become so familiar as to be nearly part of my body at this point. It's a knot that made it hard to sleep.
In my dreams last night, and in my waking hours too, I had the recurring thought of "what if this happened to me?" I actually dreamt it—a sort of dream where everything around me that I assumed to be safe was actually a threat to my life. I am not surprised I had this dream. I tend to process these killings in quiet, private ways, and perhaps write about them if I can get any thoughts together cogently enough. I'm not even sure these thoughts are organized, but with a killing like this occurring so close to home (I've learned I have 3 degrees of separation from Antwon) it's been hard to resist writing something, anything.
I worry about the young black boys whom I've taught over the last couple of years, some done with their first year of high school and some just about to start. I think about one boy in particular in my homeroom advisory this past year who was overcome with emotions on the last day of school and sobbed on my shoulder for a solid minute and told me he's going to miss me. Even though I was the object of his attention, that moment wasn't really about me—it was very clearly a moment about him, of his realizing that he's growing up, stepping out and even closer to this messed up world we are leaving for his generation and the ones behind his. I know he's going to school barely a mile away from where I live, but Antwon's killing makes that distance feel infinitely longer. I worry about my student, who is in so many ways just like Antwon. I worry about all the Antwons out there.
Watching Facebook Live videos of the protests, it's hard to not see the comments people post as the videos play. At this point, it's common knowledge never to go into the comments sections on things like this because it can be so traumatizing. This was true for Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and others. It's a whole other thing when it's in your city and you realize the people saying hateful, heartless things live very near to you—that you've probably brushed shoulders at some point with people advocating mowing down protestors with tractor trailers, or joking about putting snowplows on the front of their trucks and doing 80 mph down the freeway. I think this may have been what gave me such a knot in my gut.
For years now Pittsburgh's been able to gloat about being one of America's "most livable" cities, or a great place for millennials to move to, or a great place for Amazon to open a new headquarters, or some other exciting shit. After crawling out of near irrelevancy from the decline of the steel industry, it's no surprise this city would want to feel good about things like this. But the real question has always been: for whom is this city so livable?
What's not really mentioned enough in conversation with Pittsburgh's purported livability is our history of displacing people of color, the removal of black families in the Lower Hill District to make room for a hockey arena, the history of red-lining that has such deeply etched and pervasive roots in how our "unique" patchwork of neighborhoods came to be—and how this bars the growth of greater equity between predominantly black and predominantly white neighborhoods; what's never mentioned is all the shit Leon Ford went through to get some small measure of justice, or the relative lack of justice Kevin Lockett got, or the gentrification ongoing in East Liberty, or the fact that leaving the East End or crossing over any of our rivers leads to places that immediately and noticeably become less friendly toward black people. Even the popular Democrat mayor here made the city feel less comfortable and less livable in the immediate aftermath of Antwon's shooting.
And then Antwon is shot. And immediately the same tired responses come from this most livable city: why did he run, why was he around guns, he's not a boy he's a man, listen to what cops tell you, wasn't he raised right, what about black on black crime, why don't these people get out of these neighborhoods and away from this stuff, what good is it going to do shutting down the freeway? It is no hyperbole to say that these types of responses come almost exclusively from white Pittsburghers.
It is also no hyperbole to confess that after every high-profile shooting of black people since Trayvon Martin, I've scrolled through my social media and asked myself which of my white friends would miss me if I were ever shot and killed by the police? Who would post something online? Who would march and shut down traffic? Or who would suspect I deserved it? Who would question why I'd run away from a gun and a badge and flashing lights? Who would question how well my mother and father raised me? MLK Jr. famously said, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." There's a consistent segment of my social networks that are always there and vocal and supportive of communities of color when they are threatened and harmed, and I appreciate those people a lot. But I cannot be the only black person who watches these tragedies on the news, notices the ledger balance of reactions, looks around and wonders "Would any of this be different if it were me?" It's no hyperbole to say Antwon himself had this thought, and still suffered what he feared most.
Maybe I am wrong, and quiet white people process and grieve privately too. And maybe we all feel so helpless to change a system hellbent on defending the status quo and resisting change. Maybe white guilt has a paralyzing effect that I as a black man cannot understand. With this shooting backlit by the national outrage of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border, it's possible we are all just totally overwhelmed. Even while writing this blog, a dear friend of mine (who is white) reached out to ask me how I was doing. She too is overwhelmed—but we talked, and I think we both feel modestly better. Allyship is so very important in moments like this.
I didn't go protest because I am overwhelmed, frankly, and I don't know if I'm strong enough to be around people outwardly grieving the loss of Antwon. I don't know if my private processing is a pressurized bottle of trauma I'm unaware of and that stepping into a protest might poke a hole in me. I feel so small in the shadow of such a tragedy, yet I also feel I need to do...something, to help. And eventually I may—I will. For now, I feel the best I have to offer is what I do best, which is to write and to write openly and honestly. Maybe the best that many Pittsburghers can offer right now is processing. But it can't be the only thing, and it can't be forever.
I wanted to let Pittsburghers know that Antwon ran because he was a young black boy who was scared, and I know this because I'm a not-so-young black boy and I get scared too; I wanted Pittsburghers who aren't talking openly about this shooting to talk openly about it, especially if you are white; I want white Pittsburghers to talk privately about this with fellow white Pittsburghers if that's where you feel most comfortable doing it, but to do it nonetheless; I want white and black Pittsburghers to talk to each other about what we can do to make sure our city becomes better than this. We can only be the most livable city in America if we care about the lives we have here—if we start with the compassion worthy of the kind of city we claim to be.
When we woke up this morning my partner said to me, "I just hope that something actually changes in this city because of all this." I hope so too. I hope we can be a part of making that difference. I hope my students don't wake up every day asking if they are next; I hope they don't wonder who would miss them or diss them if they, too, were killed. I hope they never have to find out. I hope the Rose family finds peace AND justice. I hope my city can become better than this.
Rest in power, Antwon Rose Jr.