Leon Ford rose to national prominence after he survived a police shooting in Pittsburgh nearly seven years ago. He became a leading voice for improved police-community relations, and even launched a campaign for Pittsburgh City Council.
But a new documentary explores his struggle with trauma following the shooting, which took place during a traffic stop and left Ford paralyzed from the chest down. Ford, 26, sued the city of Pittsburgh in federal court in 2013, and the case settled in 2018 for $5.5 million.
In the 15-minute film, called “Leon,” Ford recounts the night he was shot, as dashboard camera footage of the incident plays on the screen. Then, in a therapy session, he says the shooting “destroyed [him] from the inside out.”
“Those officers took something from me,” he says. “It’s not the ability to walk. It’s something deeper.”
But, he tells his therapist, “I’ve spent a lot of my time avoiding what I’ve been through.”
“Leon” shows Ford counseling black youth in a school gym, and on the streets of Pittsburgh’s East End, his son shuffling along as he inches forward in a walker.
Ford, who is black, mentions the death of his sister and a friend during his childhood: The film culminates with his realization that he must address the trauma in his life.
For Ford, that meant dropping out of the race for city council and leaving the “toxic” world of politics behind.
“Literally, my spirit was rejecting it,” Ford says in the film, just days before announcing he would end his campaign. “I’ve been carrying so much weight, and I just want to let it go.”
Ford has largely been out of the public eye since leaving the race in March. At a screening of the documentary Monday, he said he ran for the wrong reasons.
“I had this mindset that if I show up as a leader and if I do all these amazing things in the community, then I can somehow convince people that I didn’t deserve what happened to me,” he said.
“I felt like I had to be the perfect victim,” he added. “Even a lot of work that I was doing in the community … part of me, I wanted to do it [but] another part of me was like I need to prove to even black people in Pittsburgh that I didn’t deserve what happened to me. So, I had to be a very good person. … I had to fight all these negative stereotypes.”
Ford said that since getting out of the city council race, he has been traveling across the country, as well as in Europe and the Middle East. He said leaving the U.S. and living in places without its legacy of slavery has helped him to heal from his trauma.
And he said that process will allow him to become a stronger leader.
In the meantime, Ford hopes to screen “Leon,” which is not yet publicly available, at film festivals. He said he is also working on a television series that he would like to shoot in Pittsburgh.
In addition, Ford said he is pursuing a new venture to connect black men with mental health support. His goal is “to engage over 1 million black men in the conversation around mental health” by 2022.
“A lot of us, we’re carrying unresolved trauma from childhood, from our lived experiences, and a lot of things from before we were even born that we don’t even understand about ourselves,” Ford said. “Therapy and talking about it and having that safe space to be vulnerable is very important.”