Friday marks two years since black Rankin teen, Antwon Rose, was shot and killed by a white East Pittsburgh police officer. Rose’s death sparked weeks of demonstrations, and local community organizer Christian Carter said those actions provided a foundation for today’s demonstrations over police brutality and systemic oppression.
Carter was a prominent figure in the protests two years ago and more recently, has helped to lead marches in the wake of the police killings this spring of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who were both black. Carter is part of Allegheny County’s Black Activist/Organizer Collective, a coalition of local grassroots organizers and black elected officials. Carter, a student at Point Park University, is not affiliated with a particular organization within the collective but has previously worked for the Alliance for Police Accountability and the progressive One Pennsylvania.
The local activism landscape has grown notably more robust over the last two years, Carter said. When Rose died in 2018, Carter remembered, “We were not seeing youth show up in the streets in the way that they’re showing up today in Pittsburgh.”
Days before Rose’s death, Carter had graduated from Pittsburgh CAPA, a public magnet school located in downtown Pittsburgh. Carter had previously led protests with classmates against gun violence and President Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. And at the time, Carter “could count on one hand” the number of other local youth who were also leading organizing efforts.
But Carter said now, there are young people “who are showing up in the city and organizing” on a range of issues, including police brutality and the environment. “There’s so many youth organizing right now, and I think it really is a testament to the work that was done two years ago.”
In 2018, Carter said, “We knew about Ferguson. We knew about Eric Garner. We knew all about Mike Brown. We knew about Trayvon Martin,” referring to the deaths of black males that propelled the "Black Lives Matter" movement. “But when it’s actually in your city, and you can say, ‘Oh, I have driven past that place before' … it hits home.”
Protests: The 'bare minimum,’ but ‘you have to show up’
Former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld fatally shot Rose as the unarmed teen fled a car that had been involved in a drive-by shooting. Rosfeld was charged with homicide, but a jury acquitted him in 2019.
“When Antwon Rose happened,” Carter said, “I think I was still in the place of being respectable in my politics.” Carter said while they have since become more proactive in seeking change, such as an overhaul of Pennsylvania’s police use-of-force law, they have also moved beyond demands for police reform, and now favor calls to do away with police forces altogether.
“We need to abolish the system as it is now, take these large, large chunks of money that we [devote to law enforcement] and then invest it into our school systems … public health, public transportation,” Carter said.
Concepts such as defunding or abolishing the police have garnered more support as protests over police violence and systemic inequity persist across the country. The demonstrations have also stood out for attracting racially, geographically, and even politically diverse protesters.
Carter seemed underwhelmed by the fact that protests had drawn non-black participants: While “you have to show up” and “physically [put] yourself on the line for black bodies,” such participation is the “bare minimum” when it comes to combating deeply rooted inequities.
“You can show up. You can march. You can donate. But what all is that doing if you’re going to go back home and allow racism to still play out?” Carter said. “People who are not black have that privilege.”
Such a stance could be perceived as “aggressive,” Carter acknowledged, but “[i]t’s very hard for me to commend you for doing the bare minimum.” And Carter expressed skepticism of companies that now proclaim sympathy with the movement: "How many black people do you have on the executive board?”
‘Not going to be pretty’
Carter added that it was problematic when small groups of “agitators” engaged in vandalism and looting. Such behavior took place amid two local protests that ended with confrontations between protesters and police.
“I have struggled with this idea a lot,” Carter said. White agitators are “taking away from the actual message that we are trying to say, because they’re not listening to black organizers,” who have urged them to stop causing destruction.
When it comes to “these people who call themselves allies and who are causing confrontation, … if you are not in collaboration with black organizers, then you are continuing the problem,” Carter said.
“But that is not to say that black people have not been [committing property damage and looting], too, because we are angry. We have every right to be angry,” Carter said. “If all the black moms in America wanted to go into every Target and loot it and burn it up, I would not care. I’m not going to tell people how to react to seeing their brothers and sisters being killed in the street.”
Carter noted that the turmoil has prompted a reaction from lawmakers and businesses, which have pledged more than $1 billion since George Floyd’s death to fight inequality.
“It took us looting your stores to do that, but thank you,” Carter exclaimed facetiously. “Finally, you see me as someone. Wow, you want to invest into my community. Wow, bare minimum, but thank you.”
Adopting a more serious tone, Carter asserted, “If we’re being really, truly honest, then we can’t keep going away from the fact that to get what we’re asking for right now, is not going to be pretty. Look at history: The only language that oppressors listen to is rage and violence, because that’s their language. That is the language of the oppressor.”
History, however, is also a source of encouragement in the “long fight” for social justice, Carter noted. “There were millions of people before me. There are millions of people standing with me. And there are going to be millions of people after me. … This is so much bigger than me.”