For four hours, the crowd of high school and college students that at one point numbered close to 1,500 shut down several Pittsburgh streets in frustration and disbelief that the police officer who fatally shot 17-year-old Woodland Hills student Antwon Rose II had been found not guilty three days earlier.
“Say his name!” the megaphones called out as the March 25 rally began outside the City-County Building at 11 a.m. “Anwton Rose,” came the response. And as the chants of “No justice, no peace!” and “Shut it down!” grew, organizers handed out roses, like the ones surrounding the painting of the slain teen students carried on a litter through the streets.
And when the rain came, they handed out ponchos. There weren’t enough, not for a crowd this large. But the kids didn’t care. This was for Antwon, they said.
“I thought it was awesome that all of us came out for Antwon, I’m so impressed that so many people, and not just Blacks but White people, too, were here,” said Neighborhood Academy senior Drew Short. “I just hope he gets justice because you know if it were a police officer’s kid who’d been shot, they’d have moved heaven and earth—they’d make sure he went to jail.”
As the crowd swelled, organizers read a list of demands calling for, among other things, the removal of Fraternal Order of Police president Robert Swartzwelder and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala; establishing a county civilian police review board that has the power to hire and fire officers; changes to the law governing police use of deadly force, and most of all, “Justice For Antwon.”
Student organizer Christian Carter told the New Pittsburgh Courier he was elated with the turnout.
“It wasn’t really about protest. I wanted to get students mobilizing and to really raise their voice and know that they can proactively create change,” he said. “And I don’t think I have the words to express how happy I am and proud to see how many students can come together. We only planned this 48 hours ago, so to have this many people show up and show out and to have people leave their jobs to come and support us is amazing.”
After Carter read Rose’s now famous and eerily prescient poem, the crowd began to move. And when it did, it was like the tide; inevitable, unstoppable. It rolled to the county Courthouse, where Rose’s killer and former East Pittsburgh officer Michael Rosfeld’s trial ended in a “not guilty” verdict on March 22.
When the crowd reached the end of Grant Street, it filled the intersection, shutting down Grant, Liberty Avenue and the Martin Luther King East Busway. The crowd was so large that protesters on one side were calling out entirely different chants than those on the opposite side because they could not hear each other.
“This is the power we have,” shouted one of the student organizers. “When we show up in numbers, people watch, and they listen.”
As they turned down Liberty, marching past the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, passersby and those stuck on now-immobile buses took cell-phone photos. Some, like Amber, a driver for National Express, shouted encouragement.
“This is great. I love this,” she said. “It’s time for the youth voices to be heard. Not all cops are bad, but there are some out there that are just f_____ed up.”
For their part, Pittsburgh police fulfilled their directive to keep the public and the protesters safe, blocking off streets and intersections well ahead of and around the massive crowd. Police Cmdr. Eric Holmes said it was a “sign of the times” that they’ve gotten so good at it.
“These students are exercising their first amendment rights,” he said. “I think they are dealing with a lot of pent-up frustration. So, it’s good for them to get it out.”
Holmes acknowledged that constant communications with groups assisting the student-led protest, including Blaqk Ops and the Alliance for Police Accountability, was an asset in controlling the flow of people.
By the time the protesters had marched down Wood Street and up the Boulevard of the Allies to the county jail some three hours after the rally began, the crowd had dwindled to about 300. That’s when Rich Carrington, representing the South Pittsburgh Peacekeepers, said he had to be most vigilant about kids wandering off and getting into trouble.
“The thing is, another kid could get shot (by a police officer) tomorrow and we could have the same acquittal. We have to tell these kids to be honest and work to change the law,” he said.
“It’s great to see this many come out, but how many will be out here in 20 years. If even 10 percent of them go back and work to change their communities, then that will be something.”