Standing on the corner of Liberty Avenue and Wood Street, Joe Kennedy held a paper sign Thursday. It read, “I am a human being.”
“Systems change when change is demanded, and I’m here to demand change,” said Kennedy, 48. “It is unacceptable that in a society that calls itself the land of the free and the home of the brave, black men are being gun downed at taxpayer expense by law enforcement.”
Kennedy joined hundreds of protestors Downtown on Thursday for a Black Lives Matter demonstration demanding more accountability for police officers and an end to the use of police dogs. Organizers said the event was also intended to bring more awareness to the story of Bruce Kelley Jr., who earlier this year was shot and killed by Port Authority police earlier after Kelley stabbed a police dog sent after him.
The group is also demanding a resignation from Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, whose office deemed the use of deadly force against Kelley justified.
The protestor’s agenda was presented by organizers from local advocacy groups the Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project and the Alliance for Police Accountability in coordination with a social media-driven national day of action.
“The reason that these officers are getting away with murder is because they’re not being charged by the prosecutors in these areas,” said Brandi Fisher, APA president. “So yes, we have to focus on the police, but if we want police officers arrested and charged for murder, we need to focus on our district attorney’s office.”
Protestors lit candles to honor lives lost and read aloud a list of names of those who have been killed by U.S. police officers so far this year.
Naomi Dowden, 18, said she had never been to a protest, but that she had previously shared her voice through social media and boycotting.
“I’ve always been kind of hesitant to protest, because I was scared about which route it would take and whether it’d be safe,” Dowden said. “The amount of police presence has me feeling iffy, because it’s supposed to be a peaceful protest, and that much of them makes it feel like they’re on guard for something bad to happen, but we’ll see how it goes.”
The group marched into the intersection of Liberty and Wood at about 4:30 p.m., obstructing traffic. Law enforcement redirected traffic and waited for the protest to conclude.
Police Commander Stephen Vinansky said he was glad the protest was peaceful and without incident.
“For this small group to come out in the middle of the intersection is, in the grand scheme of things, not unreasonable," he said. "Anything we can do to try to accommodate people.”
Police-community relations were further discussed Thursday at a separate gathering at St. James AME Church. The Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, or PIIN, invited faith leaders, law enforcement and community members to share their experiences, with a response from Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay.
“If police and community are going to come together, if we’re going to be genuine partners in making each other safe, one of the things we’re going to have to recognize is we have a horrible, undesirable, unjust, shared history,” McLay said.
Faith leaders touted recent progress in the police department, including changes to hiring practices and recent implicit bias training – both, McLay said, he did not have access to when he started out in law enforcement.
“As chief of police, I apologize for our police role in our bad shared history. I apologize for what you went through. I apologize for some of the aspects of the war on drugs had on the communities we serve.”
PIIN leaders said they hope the meeting is the first of many conversations bridging officers with the communities they serve.
Celeste Taylor, 60, of Homewood has advocated for decades on behalf of the neighborhood. She said she attended the Black Lives Matter protest as a grandmother and mother of four.
“I keep wondering what is it going to take for there to be a real big shift in the way policing is done,” she said.