As everyone now knows, on June 19th East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld murdered Antwon Rose Jr. by shooting him in the back three times as he ran from a traffic stop. When a video of the shooting went viral on social media, Pittsburgh exploded in protest. Explosions are relative of course, and the riots, looting, and torched convenience stores that characterized analogous uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore have here translated to peaceful marches to block traffic. Nonetheless the current situation is a major departure from the usual activist routine that anarchists in Pittsburgh suffer through. We offer the following points for consideration.
1. The cops are taking this very seriously.
Pittsburgh police chief Scott Schubert has showed up in person at at least two of the protests, and all of the actions inside Pittsburgh city limits have featured a gaggle of commanders and assistant chiefs, none of whom ordinarily work nights. Pittsburgh has also called in the PA state police on short notice for several protests. The cops call that “mutual aid”, but that doesn’t stop them from charging for it. Pittsburgh will be getting a bill from the state. The Pittsburgh cops have even switched to 12 hour shifts for the duration of the crisis, in order to monitor the protests and still carry out day-to-day oppression. This policy is reminiscent of the All Hands on Deck weekends in DC that the police union there fought against so bitterly, except it’s not just a weekend, it could last for weeks.
Yet despite the massive amounts of cops and money being thrown at the protests, arrests have been sparse. As of this writing there have been only five that we’ve heard of, not counting hecklers. This is not for lack of opportunity. The cops are obviously bending over backwards to avoid provoking an already furious community further and sparking a Ferguson style riot. One recent action provides a telling example.
On the evening of June 27th, a smallish crew held a noise demo at Rosfeld’s house near Penn Hills. The action was pre-planned, unannounced, short, and came off without a hitch except for one thing. Somehow word got out, and a bunch of latecomers rushed to Penn Hills, assuming reinforcements were needed. They got there after the first crew had gone home and taken most of the legal support with them. The “reinforcements” therefore arrived to a hornets nest of pissed off cops protecting one of their own, most of them from random boroughs in eastern Allegheny County that never see protests. It was the kind of situation guaranteed to send cold shivers up the spine of any experienced street demonstrator, but the bloodbath never happened. No arrests, no injuries. Even in Penn Frickin Hills the cops have now been inoculated against antagonizing protesters.
[Filler would like to add a side note here: the second home demonstration was materially supported in a variety of ways by several of the previous demo’s crews, and the action contributed to many great new relationships. This should not be overlooked.]
Anyone who thinks this forbearance indicates any good will on the part of the police should keep in mind the second prong of their strategy – shadowing every demonstration for Antwon with ridiculously obvious undercover cops (three at the morning march on the 27th had the flashers on in their unmarked cop car). Torchlight sources have spotted them at every march they have attended. People who have confronted them report that they seem very uncomfortable about being outed, so the obviousness is probably not an intimidation tactic, they’re just incompetent. They’ve still been taking tons of pictures however, presumably with the aim of identifying all the new protesters who have emerged since Antwon’s killing. This too is unprecedented here.
2. Stephen Zappala’s job is probably safe.
“THREE SHOTS IN THE BACK, HOW DO YOU JUSTIFY THAT!?” Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala worked harder than anyone else to come up with an answer to that question. After a week of valiant effort however, he finally threw in the towel and admitted that no, he couldn’t justify that. That hasn’t stopped self-appointed organizers from first announcing an electoral campaign to unseat Zappala, and then scrambling to recruit a Black former public defender named Turahn Jenkins to take him on in the Democratic primary next year. In their haste they skimped on their research, and missed Jenkins’ blatant homophobia. Presumably they’re going to give it another shot however. We have said this before, but the electoral approach makes a lot more sense as a strategy to remove protesters from the streets than a serious attempt to replace Zappala. Just for fun though, let’s take it at face value for a minute.
As calculated and political as Zappala’s decision to charge Rosfeld with criminal homicide was, it’ll probably be enough to mollify white liberal voters who just need to be reassured the system still works. By next year’s Democratic primaries only the angriest of liberals will still hold it against him. Right wing voters on the other hand, are going to be pissed. Pittsburgh’s Fraternal Order of Police are unlikely to be any more enthusiastic about those 12 hour shifts than their DC counterparts, and all cops will be angry with Zappala for what they consider his spineless pandering to protesters. Reactionary douchebags and closet racists, who make a sizable voting bloc, will surely feel similarly. This leaves Zappala more vulnerable from the right than the left. If he has to run to his left to fend off a progressive candidate he will leave himself even more open to a Republican opponent in the general election.
There are other scenarios, most of them also unfavorable. A centrist law and order Democrat could win the primary if Zappala splits the liberal vote with a progressive challenger. A charismatic progressive-sounding candidate could beat Zappala and then turn out to be no less malicious a prosecutor. Or of course Zappala could capitalize on the donor network and connections he has built up over two decades in office to cruise to victory.
The liberals are taking reformist Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner as a model for Allegheny County. APAB of course, but Krasner’s reforms are lifting some of the weight of the prison industrial complex from the necks of Philadelphia’s impoverished communities. Liberals still need to ask themselves which is more likely, that a newly elected DA would actually carry out a facsimile of Krasner’s program upon taking office, or instead mend fences with the police, mollify the hardliners in his office, and reassure conservative voters that he’s not crazy after all by continuing business as usual with a thicker layer of progressive rhetoric.
The one ray of hope is that there just might be a progressive rebellion emerging in the Democratic Party. It’s not impossible that after another year of Trump Allegheny County voters will be fed up enough to throw the bums out, Zappala included. Turnout is lower in odd year elections, so it wouldn’t take that many voters to elect a Krasner 2.0 if one could be found. Nonetheless an election-based strategy would mean putting an awful lot of eggs in one basket with no guarantee of success and no consolation prize.
But of course that’s the point. Pittsburgh’s liberal establishment would like nothing better than to see militant resistance burn itself out in a failed election campaign and sink back into jaded exhaustion. A successful election campaign would suit that purpose nearly as well.
3. Brandi Fisher is really good at coopting militant struggles.
A t-shirt popular during the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cup runs read simply “SIDNEY CROSBY IS REALLY GOOD AT HOCKEY”. By that measure Brandi Fisher of the Alliance for Police Accountability absolutely deserves a t-shirt of her own. Her performance since Antwon’s murder has been at least as scintillating as was Crosby’s, and she doesn’t even have Matt Murray backing her up. Put another way, Brandi is near-singlehandedly replicating the work of Al Sharpton and the army of Black clergy that descended on Ferguson to pacify the uprising over Michael Brown’s murder. Pittsburgh isn’t St. Louis of course, but that’s still some impressive shit.
Brandi’s sheer versatility is amazing. Whether taking potential rivals under her wing, canceling their demonstrations unilaterally, or segueing seamlessly from one to the other, she doesn’t miss a beat. Freezing [primarily] white anarchist groups out of protest organizing, corralling angry street marches by strategic use of a bullhorn, coordinating with her friends among the police, lining white liberal groups up behind the APA banner – all part of Brandi’s extensive repertoire. It’s not just the highlight reel moves either. Brandi also displays the attention to detail that is the hallmark of the true superstar. Take the name of her group. By calling it an “alliance” she conveys the impression of being a part of a diverse group of organizations, all focused on the same goal. APA is nothing of the sort of course, it’s just Brandi and a few of her cronies. She gets away with this trick because she was clever enough not to call it a coalition.
Between the three of them, Brandi, Zappala, and the cops have had an effect. The huge pre-announced highway-blocking marches that characterized the first week of the uprising have given way to smaller and more sporadic actions organized mostly in secret. These types of actions aren’t as disruptive, but they’re harder to control. Brandi’s influence is weaker in the suburbs than within Pittsburgh, and a hard core of pissed off Black women is emerging who don’t take her every word as gospel. Medics and legal observers have been a small but consistent presence at nearly every action so far, as have white anarchists, despite Brandi’s attempts to exclude all three. It’s a little early to tell, but there are signs of something exciting coalescing that could last well beyond the current upheaval.
Better late than never. It shouldn’t have required a tragedy for Pittsburgh anarchists to start making connections with those at the sharp end of police oppression, but now that we have an opening we should take it. It’s not going to last forever. We have a natural affinity with the ones who refuse to be intimidated by riot cops, pacified by liberals, or lulled by reforms. The time to start talking to them is now.
*the image below should read: East Pittsburgh police officer…