Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series.
While studying filmmaking at the University of Pittsburgh, Chris Ivey had a near-encounter that has stuck with him for more than a few years.
“I was walking down Melwood Avenue to go to school,” he recalled, “and a cop car pulls up beside me and he’s just pacing me while I’m walking. And I asked the cop, ‘Are you OK? Do you need something?’ And he just kept looking at me as he rode beside me.”
Eventually, he drove away without ever having uttered a word to Ivey, who reported that similar incidents persist to this day.
“Because I live in Squirrel Hill, I get followed by the cops at least once or twice a year, just going home. When I get to my house, I quickly get out of my house and wave to them: ‘Hey, how are you doing?’” he said. “I’m not going to be intimidated.”
Ivey shared his experiences as part of a recent panel discussion on “Racism – In My Neighborhood?” Presented virtually by the Denis Theatre Foundation as part of its ongoing efforts to promote conversation within the community, the 90-minute program also featured insight from fellow panelists Stephanie Edmond-Myers, Elaine Frantz and Tony Norman, along with moderator Jon Delano.
Norman, an award-winning journalist who is a resident of Pittsburgh’s Swisshelm Park neighborhood, also called attention to differing experiences people may have involving police.
“When I’m pulled over by the cops, I’m always clever enough to have my reporter’s pad sitting on the dashboard, and they kind of catch on fairly quickly that I’m not just going to be any old jamoke. They know I’m in the media,” he said. “They know, OK, this guy’s asking questions. I’m going to get better treatment than I would normally get.”
Inequitable treatment in law enforcement has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of tragedies such as the captured-for-posterity Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Everyone was outraged and horrified by what they saw in that video. And that opened up a conversation about race and policing, specifically,” Norman said. “People who just a few years earlier would have dismissed it out of hand, that there was systemic racism among the police, suddenly saw with their own eyes, thanks to a cellphone, what had been the existential experience of Black folks for hundreds of years in America.”
Mt. Lebanon resident Edmond-Myers echoed his observation.
“The cellphone has really been the best ally for Black people,” she said. “It has really shown what we’ve been saying all along.”
In response, calls to “defund the police” have resonated with certain segments of society while wholly alienating others.
“Politically, there is some suggestion that that particular slogan cost the Democrats in the U.S. House, in the state House and in the state Senate during the 2020 campaign,” Delano said.
He then presented the panel a question: What does the slogan really mean?
“It is not about necessarily getting rid of the police. It’s about questioning the budget and how much money is spent on policing,” Edmond-Myers said. “Can this money that we’re pouring into policing, can it be used in other areas to make for a more equitable and inclusive community?”
Some people do take the directive literally, according to Frantz, who also lives in Mt. Lebanon.
“It’s very worthwhile to sit down and actually read at length what they’re saying, because it’s very smart, interesting, creative work, what it would mean to have a world with much, much, much less violence,” she said, “instead of just dismissing it as crazy.”
Among those who absolutely are in favor of continuing to support the work of law enforcement, a suggestion has been to strive for more diversity in police departments.
Frantz and Edmond-Myers have researched the viability and agree such a solution probably is easier said than done.
“A lot of police officers of color would opt not to come to the South Hills.” Frantz said, explaining although salaries generally are good, the level of activity may not be on par with more urban environments. “People say it’s a boring job.”
Socioeconomic homogeneity also could be a dissuading factor for someone who might anticipate a lack of acceptance.
“Even in communities where they would make good money and they would not have to deal with high or violent crime, they don’t feel like they would be welcome,” Edmond-Myers said. “So it’s hard to recruit them.”
Calls for reform in law enforcement often go hand in hand with affirmations that “Black lives matter,” another statement that has contributed to the current climate of divisiveness among many Americans.
“Isn’t it amazing that it just seems so shocking to people? It’s like, oh, my God. Black lives matter? You’re changing the standards on us,” Norman said. “When you really think about it, it’s simply a declaration of fact: Black lives matter. It shouldn’t be something that outrages people to the point where it comes a battering ram.”