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Pittsburgh-area Young Democrat arrested in Palestinian protest is working to elect Biden

Cory Roma, the newly elected vice president of the Young Democrats of Allegheny County, sits in front of a wall where he's put up photos of many of the new friends he's made since he's become involved in politics.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
The election of Cory Roma as vice president of the Young Democrats of Allegheny County marks a changing of the guard for the organization, he said.

The newly elected vice president of the Young Democrats of Allegheny County, who was arrested earlier this month at a pro-Palestinian protest on the University of Pittsburgh campus, said he is trying to convince his fellow protesters to support Democratic candidates up and down the ballot — including President Joe Biden.

On Monday, Cory Roma, 24, was elected to the leadership position by members of the Young Democrats, a countywide group of politically active people under age 40 that is affiliated with the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.

In an interview with WESA, Roma said his election was closer than any of the other three elections for officers of the group, which he attributed to “the controversy” around his involvement during pro-Palestinian protests.

Roma said his lawyers advised him to not speak about the protest events on June 2 related to his arrest. Roma has been charged with obstructing the law, disorderly conduct and trespassing, according to court records. According to police, Roma was involved in pushing and breaking a police barricade.

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Roma did speak to WESA about how he became involved in protesting the Middle East conflict and what role he hopes to play in the future of the Democratic Party.

And one of the most important issues, he said, is re-electing Biden.

“The two choices are going to be either Donald Trump or Joe Biden,” he said. “While Joe Biden has made countless missteps… he will be the only candidate of the two that will actually entertain or seriously consider the idea of a ceasefire, of sending more humanitarian aid, of stopping military assistance to Israel.”

Roma said he has been making this pitch about Biden to fellow Young Democrats and pro-Palestinian supporters, but he isn’t sure if it’s taking hold.

Roma’s election shows that the war in Gaza continues to be one of the most divisive issues in local Democratic politics, even among young people. His election also is evidence that some of the young people most committed to pushing the Democratic Party to increase its support of Palestinians don’t think the issue is a reason to tear the party apart as the election approaches.

And Roma’s election also marks a changing of the guard, he said, as the organization’s board is more diverse and younger than in previous years.

“The old board was made up entirely of millennials, and now only one of the members is a millennial,” he said. “It feels like this election represents the handing over of the baton, the changing of the guard.”

A newly activated Young Democrat

Roma said his interest in politics had largely been personal until 2024. He had done a small amount of canvassing for Democrats in the 2022 elections but didn’t become involved with the Young Democrats until January. He’s been attending Allegheny County Council and Jail Oversight Board meetings as an observer for only the past eight months. Standing 6 feet 8 inches tall, Roma said he’s been a readily recognizable figure since he’s become a member.

He began educating himself about the history of conflict in the Middle East after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, he said. Through his interactions with the Young Democrats, he said, he became more outwardly involved in the effort to bring a ceasefire to Gaza.

“At that point, I realized I'm not alone on feeling this strongly on the issue and that it is something that warrants the level of dedication that we've been showing it,” he said.

Roma was the only one of the group’s four new officers of the Young Democrats whose vote required a second count — the group used ranked-choice voting. That was likely due to “the controversy” around his role in protesting, he said.

“Almost everybody in the group knew because it's been all over the news and stuff like that,” he said. “So I didn't talk about it, but it was known throughout the room.”

Before the voting took place, the Young Democrats asked Roma two questions related to his involvement in the pro-Palestinian protests, he said, one of which he wasn’t able to answer for legal reasons. But he said he did answer a question about what he would do to make everyone in the group feel safe, especially in light of concerns over antisemitic and anti-Palestinian sentiment that have accompanied peace protests during the past couple of months.

As a young, queer Black man who supports ending the war in Gaza, Cory Roma thinks he will be a valuable voice in trying to bring disaffected voters back into the fold.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
As a young, queer Black man who supports ending the war in Gaza, Cory Roma thinks he will be a valuable voice in trying to bring disaffected voters back into the fold.

Roma acknowledged the challenges of this, especially as the meaning of words such as “Zionist” are fought over by pro-Palestinian protesters and supporters of Israel.

Roma said part of his appeal to the group was that he said he would be able to help bring in young people who have become disengaged or disaffected with the party. As a Black queer man, he said, he could help engage groups of young people who, according to some recent polls, are drifting away from the Democratic Party in the country.

And he is trying to convince young people who support Palestinians to vote for Democrats, he said. Roma said his support for peace in Gaza doesn’t mean that he supports the actions of Hamas on Oct. 7 — he condemned what it did.

Roma said the party needed to do more to reach out to young people of color in Allegheny County.

“In some ways we've seen a neglecting of the Mon Valley and Lower Hill [District] and the Black portions of the city,” he said. “And as a Black person myself, I want to also use my role to show up and do targeted outreach to those areas of the county… to show that we care.”

Roma grew up with his mother in a public housing community in Aliquippa, where as a child as young as 7 he witnessed a homicide outside his window and also saw a major police crackdown on drug dealers, he said. These experiences shaped his political views on such issues as criminal justice.

A newly public life

Roma said he has enjoyed the new relationships he’s made among local Democrats, but he added that it’s been hard to adapt to being a public personality who people attack because of his appearance and background.

Roma recently got into an online dispute with a radio host, who questioned whether Roma should receive disability benefits if he could be so actively involved in a protest. In response, Roma shared on the social media platform X that his disability is related to his diagnosis of “Autism Spectrum Disorder and Bipolar Disorder,” and not his physical strength. Roma doesn’t currently work or attend school, he said, but he earned his GED in 2019 and plans to start attending community college in a year or two.

Roma didn’t want to talk about his online conflict any further because he didn’t believe it was productive.

“I have already wasted so much of my time in life arguing with a man who, it's not like he's genuinely curious about having a debate in the realm of public discourse,” Roma said.

“This is the first time in a very long time that I look in the mirror and I'm proud of myself and the work that I just accomplished," Cory Roma said.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
“This is the first time in a very long time that I look in the mirror and I'm proud of myself and the work that I just accomplished," Cory Roma said.

His recent political involvement has also led to anonymous online attacks, he said. Roma said an anonymous commenter reached out to his mom and his grandmother on Facebook, a few days before his grandmother died, calling him a terrorist. The message made his grandmother “upset and agitated” in her final days, he said.

“I am a fully grown adult who is responsible for my own actions, no matter what it is,” he said. “It's very low to involve my family.”

Roma said the role of Young Democrats vice president doesn’t come with much power, other than to preside over meetings when the president can’t attend. But his election has given him a new confidence in himself.

“It is the first time that I genuinely feel like I did something huge here, like I stepped forward in life rather than kind of like being in a circle,” he said. “This is the first time in a very long time that I look in the mirror and I'm proud of myself and the work that I just accomplished.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.