Whitfield says the county has never really reckoned with racism. There is a persistent fear that exists in many African American communities.
“I grew up fearing the police. I was taught by my family, neighbors and community; these are predominantly Black neighborhoods that the police were not to be trusted. The police were not here to protect you,” Whitfield said.
The death of George Floyd was difficult and painful to watch, in part, Whitfield said, because it could have been anyone.
“I think a lot of people saw themselves and saw their family members,” he said.
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When asked if he is still afraid of police, he admits he is.
“If I am being honest, I would say yes. I am slightly afraid of what might happen to me because no amount of education, no amount of resources, or socioeconomic status, can protect me against a police officer if they wanted to harm me,” he said.
Whitfield said whether people want to say it out loud or to think about it, implicitly or explicitly, conscious or unconscious there is a bias around African Americans.
Beth Pittinger, the Executive Director of the Citizens Police Review Board in Pittsburgh, agrees.
The Citizens Police Review Board is an independent agency set up to investigate citizen complaints about improper police conduct in Pittsburgh.
“We have to stop treating people differently based on their station in life and their resources,” Pittinger said.
Pittinger refers to the “criminalization of poverty.”
“If you’re poor, you are going to face harder consequences than if you are wealthy and guilty,” she said.
Pittinger said to start by looking at who is holding police officers accountable for conduct that is not acceptable.
“A playground bully should not grow up to be a cop,” Pittinger said.
There are also deep-rooted systemic problems that need to be addressed, including having a livable wage.
Pittinger said to achieve social justice requires a reordering of priorities when it comes to basic needs.
“What are our housing opportunities? What is the basic minimum standard of living in our country?” she asked.
Tanisha Long, with Black Lives Matter Pittsburgh, said to address social justice begins early on with the imbalance in education.
“We have black students graduating at 17% across the country, with 17% literacy proficiency,” Long said. “Until we recognize and acknowledge that our African American students are so far behind, we are not going to put the pressure on school systems to change it.”
There are other deep-rooted systemic problems that need to be addressed.
Long said it’s time to overhaul the justice system, beginning with ending the school-to-prison pipeline, where disciplinary experiences in school increase the odds of a student ending up in the juvenile justice system, and ending for-profit prisons.
“Look at the way we parole and probation. Someone has the smallest little incident, they are back in jail where they learn to be better criminals,” she said.
2020 is an election year, but it’s also a time for the country to take steps to heal deep wounds.
“This is an exciting moment. We’re in a cultural revolution. It’s actually happening,” said Pittinger.
Dasia Clemons of I Can’t Breathe Pittsburgh said to achieve social justice will take building bridges and finding what we have in common.
“We can’t do that fighting with the red side and the blue side. We can’t,” she said.
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