Six years after a police officer mistook me for a criminal and shot to kill, it’s happened again, only a few miles from where I live.
This time, the victim was 17-year-old Antwon Rose Jr. The police shot him in the back as he ran from a stopped car.
Unlike me, it cost him his life.
When I met his mother, all I could feel was a mix of rage and regret. In the six years since I started traveling around the country to tell my story, nothing has changed.
I feel guilty to be alive. We all failed Antwon Rose.
There are no formal statistics of police brutality in the United States, but the organization Mapping Police Violence tracks reports of police shootings. This year, it found, 466 people have been shot dead by police. Last year, the number was 1,147.
Six years ago, I was almost a devastating statistic.
At the age of 19, I was on the way to my grandmother’s house when a police officer pulled me over. He told me that I had run a stop sign and at first, I believed that if I just explained that he was wrong and showed him all of my information, everything would be OK. My car was registered and I quickly produced my driver’s license. At worst, I thought, I would get a ticket that I could fight in court. I didn’t expect the officer to get so angry so quickly.
For 20 minutes, I sat on a dark road as officers questioned and cursed at me. They thought I was a gang member. When they tried to pull me out of the car, I panicked. Before I knew it, my foot was on the gas pedal. That’s when Officer David Derbish jumped in the passenger seat and shot me five times in the chest. The wounds didn’t kill me, but they left me a paraplegic. I’ll spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair.
Officer Derbish claimed during the trial that he thought I had a gun. When that proved to be wrong, he changed his story, stating that I dragged him with my vehicle. After that detail was also proved wrong, he hid behind the blue wall, trusting that his colleagues would have his back. They did. They falsified reports and lied under oath. In the end, the all-white jury said it couldn’t reach a verdict on Derbish’s culpability in my case.
This year, the City of Pittsburgh settled my case for $5 million. People congratulate me on this as if it were a win.
Though I am grateful to have survived and to have received compensation, my pain and anger continue to grow.
It breaks my heart that such a young life was extinguished because our community hasn’t found a solution to police brutality in the past six years. Tuesday night was a wake-up call for me, and it should be for everyone concerned about police violence.
It’s not enough to tweet, protest, or hold vigils. We need to elect new leaders who will push for accountability and consequences in police shootings. Stephen Zappala, the Allegheny County district attorney who charged me with aggravated assault, will also handle Rose’s case. He’s up for re-election next year.
In the days since Antwon Rose died, I’ve made a commitment to my community. I will devote my energy to building a political action committee that can help fund a candidate to run against Zappala and to encourage African Americans to vote.
While millions of dollars are awarded regularly for police abuse throughout the country, we need to remind people that victims of the police are not simply looking for a payout. We are fighting for fairness, equity, respect and love for black life.
Many of my peers have opted out of the system by disengaging from the political process, believing that there’s no chance for it to work. Social media activism stops at sharing stories like mine with friends and projecting rage. But rage is not enough.
If more of us register and vote, Antwon Rose’s mother will have a better chance of securing a jury of her peers, which will increase her chances for justice. If more people of color had been registered to vote in Allegheny County, I might not have faced two all-white juries.
If we want to change the system, we need to register and vote or better yet run for local offices that affect the justice system. If you’re called as a juror, don’t shirk the opportunity to serve. We must engage the justice system at all levels if we ever hope to position ourselves for change. We owe as much to Antwon.
Leon Ford is a motivational speaker and social activist, and the author of “Untold.” He is also a BMe Public Voices Fellow.