By Tyler Gund
Ferguson, Missouri. A place that would hardly be on the radar of many Americans, were it not for the infamous murder of Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Police cameras. Names and concepts that were not in the popular imagination (at least, I know, for myself) until this past summer and fall. They are there now, thankfully, and hopefully will stay there long enough to inspire lasting change in this country. After all, when young black men are 21 times as likely to be killed by police as young white men, it is overwhelmingly clear we have a problem with both police brutality and racial prejudice in this country.
The national backlash to these events (among others) has been well-embodied by the #blacklivesmatter movement, whose reach has been far and wide among urban centers in the U.S.–perhaps most notably at Million March NYC, a protest of police violence held in New York City back in December. These protests have been powerful, I would argue, because of they have been coordinated nationally, and they have signaled, without a shadow of a doubt, that so many Americans are furious about inequality and violence in this country, and that the status quo is clearly not affecting the change necessary to uplift black Americans (and, in so doing, uplift each and every one of us–we all rise together).
Nonetheless, it seems clear to me that, while these movements shine an all-too-necessary light on lingering racial prejudice in this country, we here in Pittsburgh have an obligation to narrow our focus and tackle the scourge social inequity here at home. After all, names like Michael Brown and Eric Garner are just two of those that matter–their murders are endemic of a much larger problem of racial prejudice that spreads across the country.
“Yeah,” you might respond, “but I haven’t heard about any police brutality and prejudice in Western Pennsylvania recently. Shouldn’t we be focusing on places where this is clearly a larger problem?” To which I would respond: this is true–there have not been especially high profile cases of police brutality reported in the region in the past few months, although we all know of the cases of Jordan Miles, Leon Ford, and others that exist in the not so distant history of Pittsburgh. With that said, police brutality exists within a much larger web of prejudicial institutions and power structures that we all, across the country, take part in to some degree. What is more, a picture painted by “Pittsburgh’s Racial Demographics 2015: Differences and Disparities” (University of Pittsburgh) is decidedly grim. According to the report, “People of minority racial backgrounds lack opportunities to obtain sufficient employment, become adequately educated, live in good neighborhoods and enjoy a life free of foul treatment from the legal justice system.” This, moreover, is exemplified by policing statistics culled from the report by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: the report finds that “Black youths were arrested at twice the rate of white youths nationally, but six times as much in the Pittsburgh region. The violent crime arrest rate for adults was four times higher for blacks than whites nationally, but 10 times higher in the region.”
So, while the national narrative of the #blacklivesmatter movement is monumentally important and timely, I believe it is clear that not only is it important for us to take the momentum of the movement and use it to protest and affect change locally, it is also imperative we do so. Not acting locally leaves our regional community ripe for atrocity and the perpetuation of structural inequality along racial lines, and leaves us blind to the harder-to-see realities of life that enable prejudice and militant policing to occupy the status quo.