Pittsburgh activist Leon Ford explains in his new book, Untold, how to get lifted up, and how to lift a city up, even after being shot by its police.
The night police shot Ford, an African American, he was pulled over by two officers who mistook him for a suspect with a similar name. Ford, 19 at the time, had complied with the officers’ requests for his license, insurance, and registration. However, another police officer who was called to the scene, David Derbish, jumped into Ford’s car while stopped, but with the engine still running, which is against Pittsburgh police protocol. The encounter ended with Ford’s car crashed into someone’s front porch a few yards away, and Ford arrested despite, as they’d later find out, a bullet piercing his spine.
He’s been working ever since, helping the victims of police violence and their families, and by giving speeches all over the country on how to improve police relations. In an era of fiery protests and uprisings, as seen in Baltimore and Ferguson, Ford is focused on continuing that energy into crafting more progressive laws and policies. In an open letter to the city Ford wrote:
We have seen how young people are reacting to the negligence of police misconduct all over the country. On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was tragically murdered by a Police Officer in Ferguson, Missouri. That led to civil unrest that was almost uncontainable. We saw the same reaction with the death of Freddie Gray, killed while in custody of Officers employed by the Baltimore PD. With the #JusticeforLeon Movement, I worked to prevent Pittsburgh from being the next Ferguson or Baltimore. Emotions ran high, but we kept the movement positive and inspirational to keep the city from following suit. For this, I end up treated with scorn, not commended for loving courage.
It hasn’t been all scorn, though. Last year the alt-weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, crowned Ford the “Pittsburgher of the Year” for his activism. He’s also been invited to meet with celebrities, professional athletes, and tech titans in Silicon Valley to discuss police problems. Last month, Ford released his first book, Untold, with a foreword from native Pittsburgh novelist John Edgar Wideman. It doesn’t go into great detail about his injury or the court trials. Instead, it focuses on his journey toward taming the pain and anger that built inside of him while he was recovering from the shooting.
CityLab spoke with Ford about his new book on improving policing, and being a change agent for his city:
“The talk” should be more about: What does a prosperous community look like to you? When we continue to have these conversations around fear, then people will continue to run away from each other and step on each other. I don’t want to build a community where people are stepping on each other. That’s not a healthy community.
You did the photo shoot for your book cover at the site where police shot you. How difficult is it for you revisit that space?
It used to be a painful reminder, but now I just view my life differently. I’ve had that paradigm shift where, before, even thinking about the day that I was shot, that used to be super emotional. But now it’s like a celebration because I could’ve lost my life on that block. However, I survived and so I view my life like a vessel to make people aware, to educate, and to inspire. And that’s really empowering.
What kind of documents do you mean?
Like the Declaration of Independence, you know, those type of documents. These are good ideas, but [this ordeal] made me question who they were written for. What I went through, it made me feel like America was this house, and, I felt like the dog in the backyard that’s chained up all the time. You know? And kids come and pick on me and tease me and I get rained on—that’s how I felt, you know what I mean? Being a young man feeling like that, it’s like finally you get let out, they let you off the leash and you almost want to bite somebody. But gratefully, regardless of my circumstances, I realized that I was stronger than that, and just because someone else’s moral compass was pointing in the wrong direction, that didn’t mean that mine had to also.
Is it hard pushing a message of compassion and forgiveness in such a suffocating climate for discussions around police and racism?
What are your plans now for creating the kind of change you want to see in the city of Pittsburgh?
I’m getting involved with real estate development and leveraging my platform and resources to provide affordable housing for people here in Pittsburgh. One of the problems that I see, especially here in Pittsburgh is access. A lot of young African-American men and women don’t have access to resources to capital. There’s a lot of great things happening in Pittsburgh, but if you go to [the neighborhoods of] Larimer, or Homewood, or East liberty and Garfield, they don’t even know or understand what’s happening. There’s a disconnect there. So, I’m in a unique position right now to leverage my platform to give other people access so that they can understand things like: What does it really mean for Amazon to come to Pittsburgh?
Affordable housing policy. Also, accessibility. I love Pittsburgh, however Pittsburgh isn’t as accessible as I want it to be. There are still buildings within the city that aren’t really that handicap accessible.
Also police training. There’s really an accountability issue. I think police officers should have to live within the city. That’s a policy they recently changed that I think is just asinine. If you can drive an hour to go to work then you don’t have to be a part of any of the repercussions from people living in a neighborhood where you’re policing at. You don’t really have a heart for the people.
I believe that [the police] should have mental health evaluations. A lot of them come from the Army, and being a police officer, you’re sitting in a car for the majority of the day, not getting a lot of sleep because of the shifts that they put them. So police officers have very poor health, and there needs to be some changes within that structure. If police officers could be happier and healthier and more culturally competent that may help with some of these issues that we’re having as well.
Brentin Mock , Citylab.com, “How to Survive a Police Shooting When You’re Black”, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2018/05/pittsburgh-police-shooting-survivor-wants-to-change-the-game/559493/