Pittsburgh's Police Brutality and Hot Autumn
— an interview with Dr. Clare Cohen
THE 1995 MURDER of Black motorist Johnny Gammage by white police on October 12, 1995 in the Pittsburgh suburb of Brentwood generated enormous outrage. The trials of three officers involved in the killing have resulted in the acquittal of one, John Vojtas, by an all-white jury imported from Lackawanna County, and a mistrial in the case of two others. The three had been charged only with "involuntary manslaughter," and two other officers not charged at all, despite a corner's jury recommendation that all five face first-degree murder charges for applying a lethal chokehold to the handcuffed and unarmed man.
Against the Current spoke with Dr. Claire Cohen, a long-time political activist in the Pittsburgh African American community, who is a member of the Campaign for a New Tomorrow (CNT) and of Citizens for Police Accountability, one of the formations that arose in response to the murder of Maneia Bey by Pittsburgh police on Thanksgiving 1994. She is also running as an independent candidate for jury commissioner in Allegheny County. She was interviewed by David Finkel of the ATC editorial board.
Against the Current: With the acquittal of the cop in the Johnny Gammage murder, and the grand jury in St. Petersburg (Florida) ruling "justifiable homicide" when a policeman shot a Black teenager in a car, we have to conclude that white juries simply will not convict or even indict white cops for killing African Americans. How are the people you work with responding to these outrages?
Claire Cohen: There have been close to a dozen cases here of African American young males killed by police in the past five or six years, mostly within the city of Pittsburgh itself. The Johnny Gammage murder received more publicity because he was the cousin of the Steelers football player Ray Seals. None of the other cases even got to the point of an actual trial of police officers.
On one hand a lot of my fellow Black activists aren't surprised, having no faith in the justice system to begin with and no reason to think it would work this time. But there's always the bitter disappointment when this outrage occurs.
I think the response people have is that these are not isolated cases--that it's a symptom of the whole system--and more and more people are coming to that conclusion, even though the power structure tries to portray these as cases of a few bad cops and bad decisions.
Some of us see it as a feature of our entire capitalist society and government. Not everyone takes it that far. But people in the Black community, and some even in the white community, are outraged. A white storekeeper I know, who's not a progressive, can see that what happened was not fair and wasn't right.
People are now getting concerned because the lawyers for the officers in the mistrial case (the judge declared a mistrial when the county coroner stated on the witness stand that the officers should explain what they had done--ed.) are asking the judge not to re-try the case but simply dismiss the charges, on spurious grounds of "double jeopardy." (A ruling on the defense motion is pending for December 17.)
So people are hoping that there will be an actual trial, but not counting on it. The activist Black community suspects that if the system thinks it can get away with it, there won't be a re-trial. The political and economic power structure is getting worried about the potential for some real eruption, as in St. Petersburg--that's the big issue for them--but as long as they think they can keep the lid on they will proceed with injustice as usual.
ATC: How did the community's response unfold? What were the leading forces?
C.C.: When the acquittal of Vojtas happened on Wednesday, November 13 people held a spontaneous demonstration that day, but that was very hard to attend for people who were at work.
The Campus Coalition for Peace and Justice (a mainly white group) had previously called a march for Saturday the 16th, around the issue of the mistrial. [When the acquittal occurred] the NAACP moved to take over by calling a "silent march" for the same place and time.
Two thousand people came to the march, but they weren't quiet. The booed the mayor when he came. One television station just showed the "silent" front of the march but the other showed what really happened. The NAACP's security was trying, without success, to keep people quiet.
Meanwhile, some people called a Black radio talk show and called for a meeting on Thursday the 14th at Brushton United Methodist Church. Over 300 people showed up, extremely angry, very volatile, so that the organizers had trouble controlling the meeting.
There was a general consensus for some kind of economic boycott but it was very difficult to control the discussion because of people's extreme anger. There are also a lot of divisions--among nationalist organizations, Black left activists and the Coalition of African Americans for Justice (another organization that emerged around the Maneia Bey killing).
Out of this came a plan for a Christmas shopping boycott of downtown Pittsburgh--although the murder of Johnny Gammage happened in the suburbs, downtown is the logical target and as I mentioned, there is a long history of police brutality in the city. Subsequently the local manager of National Record Mart made disparaging remarks about the boycott so Concerned Black Citizens has decided to focus on National Record Mart.
The High School Mobilization
But it was really the high school students who got their act together. After the NAACP's "silent march" the students were dissatisfied. The high school students decided to plan their own thing and called their own meeting, at the Homewood Library--where they planned a walkout for that Friday, November 22.
A lot of mainstream organizations initially had serious reservations about the plan--and a lot of parents were very worried. There were tensions over the students' decision to march, but the students were very determined. They let adults stay in their meetings as long as you didn't tell them what to do; otherwise they told you "goodbye."
On the Friday the students walked out at 10am. The intention was to make their way to a location that's been called Freedom Corner since the 1960s, where there's a big church called St. Benedict the Moor that has opened its doors for marchers on many occasions. At least eight of the ten city high schools participated. (One or maybe two almost all-white schools stayed in.)
Principals were threatening students who walked out. But when parents saw how determined their kids were, they rallied to their side and made it impossible to carry through with suspensions. Principals had even called the FBI on the pretext that the walkout was organized by "gangs."
This was preposterous. I know two young women who were central organizers, one of whom is a concert violinist--it was baloney to say it was gangs, but that's how they tried to portray it. When I went up there to show my support for the students, I saw at least one unmarked police car and there were lots of police around. But when adults showed up in support the police backed away.
At the schools, security was as if they were trying to incite the kids to riot. One of the schools didn't want to let the kids out but the parents forced them to. Then when the students showed up at the demonstration site--about 2000 were there, and about twice that many had walked out--the head of the NAACP jumped out to lead them and they told him no.
So everyone is wondering what these kids are going to do next. These are basically leaders of Black student governments. The generation coming up is generally way more activist than the one before. The kids in high school now aren't going to be the conservatives, at least not in Pittsburgh.
I'm not sure where they got all these skills, but they were damn good. A lot of the adult activists said they put us to shame! I know they are still meeting and that they have a good feeling from what they did.
Meanwhile, in the Citizens for Police Accountability, we are organizing to get a referendum for a civilian police review board in Pittsburgh on the ballot in May. We need to get over ten thousand signatures.
The Campus Coalition for Peace and Justice is circulating a petition for a special state prosecutor in the Johnny Gammage murder. The NAACP asked Attorney General Janet Reno to bring federal civil rights charges, but she declined.
The Martin Luther King Coalition, which does an anniversary program every year, this year wants to organize a demonstration and rally to be followed by a conference on the issue of police brutality. They have a good chance of pulling all the groups together because of their twelve-year history and credibility.
ATC: We'll stay tuned. I also wanted to ask you whether the anger and consciousness over these injustices can be connected to the Mumia Abu-Jamal case (the political prisoner on death row for a frameup conviction of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981).
C.C.: I think some of the students see the connections, but it's going to be a gradual process. The Mumia case is periodically a big issue in the Black community, but not always. The Black community itself is divided, a lot of people are for the death penalty.
But among young people there's more receptive attitudes. It's a generational divide. The momentum will pick up again in the next crisis over Mumia's appeals and when, unfortunately, the threat of execution becomes imminent.
ATC 66, January-February 1997