In Pittsburgh, Summer Lee and Leon Ford are part of a new
brand of local politician whose influence is growing.
By Kieran McLean
On the afternoon of June 19, 2018, a gold Chevy Cruze pulled up to row houses in Braddock, Pennsylvania, and stopped. One of the car’s passengers, seventeen-year-old Zaijuan Hester, opened the rear window and traded fire with an unknown figure on the street. Also in the car was seventeen-year-old Antwon Rose, Jr. The two shooters—Hester and the person on the street—littered the ground with .40- and .45- caliber shells. Bullets lodged in the car’s trunk and front passenger-side door. Then the car sped away toward East Pittsburgh with its passengers unharmed.
Officer Michael Rosfeld was only three weeks into his job at the East Pittsburgh police department when he received the car’s description. He’d been sworn into the five-person municipal office fewer than six hours previous, having been dismissed from a five-year stint at the University of Pittsburgh’s police department earlier that year. Rosfeld saw that the bullet holes sprayed across the Cruze matched the description from the police report and pulled the car over.
This is where the story gets fuzzy. In a shaky cell phone video taken from a second story window, a white-shirted Rose opens the car’s right door, sprints through a gap between two row houses, and disappears from the camera’s view. Rosfeld lifts his weapon and fires the first of three staccato gunshots: Crack. The camera-holder’s hand jumps. Crack. She gasps. Crack. “Why are they shooting at him?” the camera-holder asks, seemingly in shock. “Get down!” someone out-of-frame says. “No, I’m recording this,” she replies. “Why are they shooting? All they did was run, and they’re shooting at them!”
The autopsy report would later reveal that the first of the three shots struck the right side of Rose’s face; another hit his right elbow, shattering bone; and the third and fatal shot entered through Rose’s back, pierced his lung, and tore through his heart. A crescendo of sirens swelled through the neighborhood, and police officers pooled into the street at the traffic-stop-turned-murder-scene.
Rose knew the consequences America might impose on him for the color of his skin. In a poem for an honors English course two years previous, he had written, “I see mothers bury their sons / I want my mom to never feel that pain…I understand people believe I’m just a statistic / I say to them I’m different.” He knew he lived in a country where black men are more than twice as likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts, and more than five times as likely to be imprisoned despite committing crimes at similar rates.
Rose lived in a community regularly punctuated by gun violence. But his murder at the hands of a police officer—an agent whose sworn mission was to serve and protect him—pushed Pittsburgh over the edge. In the following weeks, the city and state deployed hundreds of riot police to quell more than ten demonstrations across more than twenty square miles; protesters blocked a highway at one protest; a Republican elected official drove through a crowd at another. High-profile figures, including activist Shaun King, rapper Nas Jones, and NFL player Lamont Wade, weighed in on the case, and national media descended on Pittsburgh to see whether the city would detonate, like L.A. after the beating of Rodney King.
I covered Rose’s story and its aftermath for The Pitt News. Buildings remained unburnt, but Rose’s death lit a fire that has lasted long after the attention of national media. The shooting sparked a political movement that, like the Georgia movement that followed the shooting of seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis and got his mother, Lucy McBath, elected to the House of Representatives, could re-align the power balance of the city.
On a muggy summer afternoon, the Thursday after Rose died, protesters gathered outside the sleepy East Pittsburgh shopping complex that hosts the neighborhood’s police station. “He was a good kid. He didn’t deserve this,” Lesa Sanders, who knew Rose, told me. She was working on a sign that read: “Black Lives Matter / No Justice / No Peace.” Her young daughter stabbed the sidewalk with pink chalk next to her. A number of protesters in attendance had personal connections to Rose. Others were members of political movements that had emerged from the 2016 election—leftists, anarchists. Among them was PA District 34 House Candidate Summer Lee.
Lee is a community organizer with a firm gaze, two tightly-wound hair buns, and a brusque speaking voice that brooks no bullshit. She graduated Woodland Hills High, where Rose also attended, in 2005. She went on to attend Penn State and Howard Law School, worked for the “Fight for $15” and Clinton campaigns, and started her own political career after police brutality at Woodland Hills reached a nationally-scrutinized nadir.
In late spring of 2017, former Woodland Hills School Resource Officer Steve Shaulis allegedly hit fourteen-year-old student Queshawn Wade in the face so hard that he knocked Wade’s front tooth out. Shaulis reportedly assaulted Wade in front of another officer and former Woodland Hills Principal Kevin Murray. Murray had been suspended earlier that year after he threatened to do the exact same thing to a different fourteen-year-old student with special needs. “I’ll knock your fucking teeth down your throat,” Murray can be heard saying to a student bystander who was recording the latter incident on his cell phone.
There was more where those incidents came from. A separate March 2015 video showed Shaulis slamming a student to the ground and discharging a taser twice while Murray restrained the student. A 2009 video showed him tasing another student against a locker while Murray looked on. The 2017 video circulated so widely that it reached the Washington Post. That year, five students filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that the school district fostered “a culture of abuse.”
Lee mobilized her community around the assaults using her national campaign knowledge. She helped local parent Akeya Kester run for the school board and lobbied for the Woodland Hills senior administrative staff to be replaced. Her efforts garnered the attention of Daniel Moraff, a volunteer organizer for Pittsburgh’s Democratic Socialists of America, who had recently written a piece for In These Times titled “Want to Elect Socialists? Run Them in Democratic Primaries.” Moraff approached Lee after a school board meeting to talk about doing just that.
Lee was initially reluctant, but they eventually decided on a bid to unseat Representative Paul Costa of Pennsylvania’s 34th House District, who was part of a Southwestern Pennsylvania political dynasty that had been in politics for more than twenty years. “I just came to the realization that I can’t lead someone some place where I’m not willing to go myself, so that’s how I got into this campaign,” Lee told Pittsburgh publication The Incline in December 2017.
Lee launched her campaign in January 2018, at Braddock sandwich restaurant Portogallo Peppers N’At. Her platform included implementing a $15-an-hour minimum wage, abolishing cash bail, banning fracking, and refusing corporate donations. Under a poppy-colored pea coat, she wore a shirt which read: “I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dream,” and in an optimistic first speech she promised to replicate her work with the school board in Pennsylvania’s State House. “If I can do something in my community, if I can change the landscape in Pittsburgh…then we can change things in every community across the country,” Lee said.
Fast-forward six months, and Lee had a different tone. “Five kids from Woodland Hills have been killed since I started running,” she said at a rally outside the Allegheny County Courthouse the day after Rose was killed. Her voice was hard, and she gripped the microphone like a sword. “We will not just fight the power. We will seize the power. We are coming for anybody, anybody who stands in our way.”
At this East Pittsburgh protest, Lee was coming for the Allegheny County District Attorney. She passed the megaphone between herself and two young activists: seventeen-year-old Christian Carter and a twenty-year-old named Miesha Blackwell. The three led more than one hundred protesters in blocking a major intersection near the police station. “We want an indictment!” they chanted as cars lined up like caterpillars around them. Blackwell gathered a group of children to the center of the circle. “We’re doing this because they have the right to live without fear,” she said.
A handful of police officers flanked the protesters from a distance. “No media comment,” one told me when I asked them about strategy. Others just scowled. But they followed the protest as it twisted and turned.
Three miles in, protesters climbed an exit ramp onto a half-deserted I-376 East. Lee stopped them there. “We’re not going to leave this highway until everyone is registered to vote!” she shouted. Organizers distributed themselves in practiced motion across all exit ramps and started blocking traffic. Others blew up two child-sized balloons, shaped ‘1’ and ‘7’ for Rose’s age when he died. Protesters held the bridge for two, then four, then six hours. Helicopters circled overhead. Lines of car headlights stretched like luminous threads over the horizon.
Protesters prepared to camp out until dawn. “We’ll stay out here ‘til the sun comes up if we have to,” Sonia Andrews, from the nearby town of Wilkinsburg, said. She sat blocking an I-376 exit with her daughter, Traci. Both were determined to pressure the DA to indict Rosfeld. “Enough is enough,” Andrews said. Next to her, Stephanie Blakemore rocked her nine-month-old child to sleep at the highway exit’s mouth. A nearby speaker blasted N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.” “Those cops should not have shot that baby,” Blakemore said, speaking of Rose. “All babies matter.” Allana Curington, an organizer from Pittsburgh’s North Side, articulated the animating spirit that had more than a hundred people occupying a state highway early into Friday morning: “They won’t listen to anything we say,” she said. “Maybe they’ll listen because of what we do.”
Eventually, Curington received confirmation that they’d been heard. More than forty state police show up at one a.m. and swept in from the East. Led by Area Commander William Teper, they were dressed in all-black gear and had one vehicle for roughly every twenty protesters.
“What you’ve done here is unprecedented,” Teper said to Lee. “But you need to leave.”
“You gonna discipline your officers?” A protester on a motorcycle shouted from behind Lee. “You gonna kill me too?”
She quieted him with a gesture and turned back to Teper. “We’re just trying to —” she said, before Teper cut her off.
“There are a hundred more officers stationed up the road, and they’re wearing riot gear,” Teper said. “You have five minutes.” He stared at her for a moment more, turned back, and disappeared over the horizon.
Lee returned to the protesters and relayed the message. Five minutes stretched into ten, which stretched into an hour. People nervously eyed the police vehicles up the road. “I’m not tryna get arrested,” a protester confided to me. But when Summer began to speak, he turned to her reflexively.
“I’m not here to tell y’all what to do,” she said to a crowd of roughly fifty remaining protesters. “You gotta do what’s right for you.” Many of them were haggard and tired, and their exposed skin glowed with warm June drizzle. They conferenced briefly. Then they linked arms, blocked the highway, and prepared for confrontation.
Around 2:30, Teper started back down the road with roughly thirty black-clad riot police. They moved honey-slow under sodium-yellow streetlights, their batons ready, toward protesters who wanted nothing more than legal recourse for a child’s death. The image felt like something from an historical biopic—an ultra-vivid entry in a gallery of sepia-toned Civil Rights-era photographs.
The riot police got within fifty feet of the protesters. I raised my cell-phone camera to record a video. And then Lee ran out between the two crowds.
“Hold up! Hold up!” she shouted. The police stopped for a moment, and protesters swarmed around her.
“What we’ve done here is unprecedented,” Lee said to them, her words echoing Teper’s. Her hair was lit red and blue by nearby police lights. Officers fingered their batons as they watched her speak. “But we can come back tomorrow.” There were grumbles and moans, and the same man from the motorcycle shouted back at her: “How they ever gonna stop doing this if we don’t show them?” Lee acknowledged his words with a nod, but posed a question in return. “You gotta ask yourself: Is this worth going to jail for?”
In that moment, it was tempting to imagine Lee as democracy’s last defender—poised between riot police and a grieving township, the last levee of a community whose boys lie dead in the street. She’s a candidate who could’ve been a high-powered Washington lawyer, a woman who could’ve left her steel town behind but returned to flip its school board, a rhetorical firebrand who’s just as fluent in the science of air pollution as she is in the history of racist incarceration. Although her politics are local, they echo beyond the three-thousand-acre district she hopes to represent, touching on such universal themes as violence, love, justice, you and me. And on that June night, when police brutality might’ve set flint to tinder, she diverted hope towards the ballot box one last time.
“Remember, we need you out there. You gotta do what you gotta do to keep yourself safe,” she told the assembled protesters one last time. One woman was voluntarily arrested to protest police brutality. The rest heeded her advice, and the group dissolved. Protesters walked down to an unblocked street to hail cabs and call Ubers. One checked back with Lee to see if she had a ride: “You good, Summer?”
“I’m good,” she called back, nodding. Then she walked down the exit ramp and slipped out of sight.
Lee’s message appears to be resonating with her constituents. In the May 2018 primary election, she beat out nineteen-year incumbent Paul Costa with seventy percent of the vote. She ran unopposed in the November general, securing more than twenty-one thousand votes in a district populated by around fifty-five thousand people per the 2010 census. She’s now the first black woman to represent southwest PA in the state legislature. Since her victories, she’s been profiled by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and many other national publications. It’s a spotlight that she could easily parlay into television appearances and national fame. But she remains focused on winning Western Pennsylvania races, and helping like-minded candidates do the same.
In late November, Pittsburgh activist Leon Ford announced his campaign for a Pittsburgh city council seat at a local co-working space. “We are here as part of a movement,” he told a crowd of supporters. “Summer Lee has shown us it can be done.”
In 2012, Ford was paralyzed from the waist down after an altercation with two police officers who mistook him for a suspect with a similar name, CityLab reported. He was nineteen at the time, and complied with the officers’ request for his license, insurance and registration. But Pittsburgh detective David Derbish jumped in Ford’s car and the two started to struggle. Derbish shot Ford in the spine. Ford later woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed to discover he’d been arraigned on charges of aggravated assault against a police officer. Ford sued the city for $5.5 million and won. He released a book, Untold: Testimony and Guide to Overcoming Adversity, about his experience, and was named Pittsburgh City Paper’s 2017 “Pittsburgher of the Year.” But Ford hadn’t considered a run for office until Rosfeld shot Rose.
“After Antwon got shot…I was talking to the family and realized, ‘I’ve been there. That’s been me,’” he told me.
Ford’s words could serve as the motto for Pittsburgh’s emerging political class: “I’ve been there. That’s been me.” Both he and Lee are part of a new brand of local politician whose influence is growing. They cement their beliefs at children’s funerals rather than black-tie fundraisers, forge their characters in grueling physical therapy sessions instead of handshake marathons. Lee and Ford—along with New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Virginia’s Lee Carter, and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib—are the emergent Left’s answer to an authoritarian future of border walls and resource wars. If Donald Trump cynically adopted the language and posture of grievance, Lee and Ford inspire loyalty by genuinely sharing in their community’s grief. When the steel industry left her town to die, she came back to save it. When the city took his use of his legs, he fought back in court. And when Rose was killed, they mourned with their communities for another boy lost before his time.
Lee was the final speaker at Ford’s campaign event. Many of the attendees knew her on a first-name basis, and they tuned in, rapt, when she took the stage. She worked her way to a peak, and delivered them an ultimatum. “Y’all gotta turn out for him!” she shouted. “Leon will need every prayer, every thought, every dollar, and every door to win!”
The crowd exploded in applause, and Lee exited stage left. Attendees’ hands gripped hers with a dedicated intensity. They told her about their fears for their children, their struggles to pay rent, expressed frustration at still being treated like second-class citizens this far into the second millenium. She listened, nodded, and, disentangling herself, ducked into a nearby hallway. She paused and massaged her temples. Then she took a deep breath, straightened her back, and re-entered the world. ■
*Correction: an earlier version of this story referred to Daniel Moraff as a “former campaign manager” for the DSA. He was a a volunteer organizer.
Kieran McLean is a Pittsburgh-based reporter whose work has appeared in NPR and PublicSource and is forthcoming in Citylab and Popula.
Cover image: People protest police brutality after Antwon Rose’s death, stopping traffic on I-376 near exit 78B. One protester holds balloons that read “1” and “7.” Rose was 17 when he was shot and killed by an East Pittsburgh police officer June 19. (Anna Bongardino/Pitt News)
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