Students left school and turned out in droves to honor Antwon Rose II on the first school day after the verdict that sparked a weekend of protests in Pittsburgh.
To some, 17-year-old Antwon was a classmate and friend. To most in the crowd gathered Downtown mid-day Monday, the black teenager shot to death by a police officer is a tragic example of racism in law enforcement and the legal system at large.
On Friday evening, a jury acquitted former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld in the shooting death of Antwon. Immediately after the verdict, protesters filled the corner of Grant Street and Fifth Avenue by the courthouse. Throughout the weekend, those grieving and seething filled streets in the Hill District, Downtown, East Liberty and Rankin.
Antwon’s mother, Michelle Kenney, asked a group of students at the Woodland Hills High School not to join the walkout on Monday. In a video posted online, she is seen asking them to stay in their classrooms, focus on their education and lay the path to a future where they can change policies and practices — the kind that may have saved her son or, at least, earned him some justice in the courtroom.
Still, students from several area schools answered the call to demonstrate in what turned out to be a soggy afternoon. Students from Taylor Allderdice High School and Pittsburgh Obama Academy of International Studies took a Port Authority bus Downtown to join hundreds of others.
Students from Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts [CAPA] streamed out of their school just before noon, heading toward the Andy Warhol Bridge to join other students who had started gathering to protest.
For CAPA junior Naijah Simon, Friday’s verdict aquitting Rosfeld showed her that Pittsburgh isn’t as livable as she had thought. Simon helped organize the CAPA walk-out and has been working with the Youth Power Collective, a youth organization that former CAPA students Nia Arrington and Christian Carter helped to start. Simon said she got involved in the walkout because the lives of black and brown children in Pittsburgh are being attacked.
“To think that someone who committed murder is just able to walk the streets is scary and it doesn’t make Pittsburgh a livable city, as everyone says that we are,” she said. “Like, I love Pittsburgh but this isn’t my home. We aren’t stronger than hate. It’s very obvious after Friday.”
Pittsburgh CAPA student Kaden Thompson, who is white, said he joined the march because he “was raised to treat everybody with equality and respect.”
“To see [this] happen in this city, the city that I live in, to me is egregious so I came out here in support,” Thompson, a junior, said.
His friend Atticus Crowley, who was marching with him, added that it was important for him to join the march because the two of them have black friends who they need to support.
“We got friends that we need to protect and that’s very important,” Crowley, a junior, said.
Pittsburgh police estimated that about 1,000 people participated in the march.
Arrington, one of the student organizers who also works with One Pennsylvania, said she was in shock at how many young people joined the march. She said it was the largest student-led action that she’s been a part of organizing.
“I’m very impressed and very uplifted and motivated right now,” she said. “I feel really motivated and excited to see that this many youth came together for a collective action like this.”
In the coming weeks, Arrington said she’d like to organize trainings and workshops for youth so they can learn how to get politically involved and “learn about how they can influence politics and the system.”
The one disappointment, she said, was Pittsburgh Public Schools’ lack of support for the march. Superintendent Anthony Hamlet issued a statement Sunday evening saying he couldn’t support students joining the protest because the district is responsible for students’ safety during the school day. Arrington, however, pointed to the Environmental Charter School as an example of a school supporting its students and allowing them to participate in the march.
“I thought it was a very bad move on the part of Pittsburgh Public Schools,” she said. “I think Pittsburgh Public Schools could have followed an example and maybe supported their students who were emotional about the verdict instead of telling them to stay in school.”
The throng of students and other protesters convened at the intersection of Grant Street and Sixth Avenue before turning and marching down Grant Street toward the Greyhound bus station.
As they made their way there, CAPA junior Ceu Gomez-Fauok said he joined the march because Antwon’s death was personal to him. He knew Antwon’s girlfriend and has friends who knew Antwon. He said it was unjust for Rosfeld to shoot Antwon in the back as he ran away.
“We’re kids. We’re going to run from the cops if they’re coming at us,” he said. “I don’t want to get shot in the back, I don’t want my friends to get shot in the back, I don’t want their friends shot in the back.”
As a white student, Gomez-Fauok said he wants his non-white friends to be afforded the same rights and privileges he enjoys.
“I am given those privileges and those rights to be safe around cops to not feel threatened whenever I see a police cruiser, and my friends aren’t afforded that same respect,” he said. “It feels unjust to me. It feels like I have a responsibility to help my friends…”
Once the students reached the intersection of Grant Street and Liberty Avenue, they paused and occupied the intersection, at one point letting out a cheer for Antwon.
Other students who marched said they felt it would have been wrong to not join the protest, instead going about their daily lives.
“It would’ve been wrong to go to classes and do work when someone will never get that opportunity to do that again,” said Elsa Eckenrode, a student at the University of Pittsburgh.
From there, the students turned onto Liberty Avenue and chanted, “Who did this? The police did this,” and “Three shots in the back, how you justify that?” Four students led the march, carrying a memorial to Antown, a drawing of the teen adorned with roses. At the intersection of Liberty Avenue and Wood Street, the students paused again and formed a circle chanting “Black lives matter,” and “Turn up, don’t turn down, we do this for Antwon.”
The students continued weaving through Downtown and stopped at the Allegheny County Jail. There, they paused and student leader Christian Carter engaged them in a call and response:
“Black lives matter,” the students chanted.
“What?” Carter shouted back at them.
“Black lives matter,” the students responded.
After rallying at the jail, the students made their way back to the intersection of Grant Street and Boulevard of the Allies, where they formed a circle around the intersection. Though police attempted to block traffic ahead of the marchers, several drivers were caught up by the protesters, with one car caught in the students’ circle for a period of time.
Carter said he was impressed by the showing the students made. The march, he said, showed that students can organize and mobilize and “raise their voices for justice.” He said next steps include getting the students who showed up engaged in local politics.
“What I would like to see happen next is that we get every single one of those students out here registered to vote,” he said. He added that he wants to help “take them to the polls with us to get new school board officials elected, to get a new district attorney elected, to get people out of office who are no longer representing who we are.”
(Updated with more information at 5:25 p.m. March 25, 2019.)
Here are moments from the Monday protest in Downtown Pittsburgh:
PublicSource photographers Ryan Loew and Kat Procyk, reporter J. Dale Shoemaker and community correspondent Jourdan Hicks contributed to this report.
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