Police Violence: When Silence Kills

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Photo by Ted Van Pelt via Flickr

Last week, a newsletter from the Pittsburgh Police Department entitled “STOP the Violence” hit my inbox.

It was day 24 of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who, as the whole world saw, kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes and killed him. It was two days after police officer Kim Potter in Minneapolis shot and killed Daunte Wright, an unarmed young black man, at a traffic stop. 

I opened the newsletter right away, wanting to learn the thoughts of our police on how to stop violence. I am a person in favor of stopping violence. I don’t know anyone who isn’t.

I was especially interested to see how the police define “the Violence,” as they phrase it.

“STOP the Violence,” the newsletter pleads.

Not a violence. Not certain kinds of violence. But the violence: the definitive violence, the one and only, the original and persistent violence that bubbles up like a hidden spring and is drowning us. Or at least I feel like I am drowning in it every day reading the headlines.

In this frame of mind, I opened the newsletter.

There was no mention of police brutality. It’s as if the newsletter came from an alternative universe, where the killing of unarmed Black people by police, including Pittsburgh police, does not exist.

The fact that police brutality was missing from a police newsletter is perhaps not surprising. It’s obvious that the “Stop the Violence Office” the police have created is a PR effort. But yet at the same time, the absence of any mention of police violence is shocking, given the daily news and the protests around the world against police brutality.

Instead of conceding, having an idea about, or even alluding to, police violence, the newsletter was filled with Black and brown faces—the faces of people running programs in Pittsburgh to curtail domestic abuse, protect women, heal families, conduct restorative justice, and help those recently released from prison to find homes and work.

These are vital, urgently necessary organizations. The people who found and run them are visionaries. But the troubling aspect of putting forward only this work—only Black faces and Black stories—to “STOP the Violence” is that it lets the police say, without explicitly saying, violence is Black; the violence comes from Black communities and must be stopped by Black communities. 

I am just an average white mom. I am not a political activist. But even I know that’s a lie. I can see the part of the story that’s missing.

I read on to find out the role of the police, if any, in stopping “the” violence. Turns out the secret is Prayer. The faces of the only two white people in the newsletter—both men, one of them the police chief—are obscured, because they are looking down reverently in prayer.

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Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert marches down West Liberty Ave. with protesters in June 2020.. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Current.

This is the same police chief, Scott Schubert, who teargassed peaceful protesters on June 1, then bowed and prayed with protesters four days later.

But never mind. The story of violence, the newsletter says, is: Black people cause it, and white police help as they can, by praying. Whatever happens in the arrests of, the constant surveillance of, Black people committing violence, is unmentionable. It is so sad (the solemn posture of the praying officer suggests). But never mind that either.

Let’s all pray away “the Violence.”

The police have more to say on that score. In the “Something You Can Do” part of the newsletter, you can find: “Make the Pray It, Say It, Stop It Commitment.” If I pledge to “name the problem of violence” in every prayer this year, the police tell me in their newsletter, that should help. It will help the Black people about to unleash their violence.

Perhaps the police are somewhere right this minute, praying. Although I doubt it.

 The newsletter’s stated mission is to “change the community narrative about violence.” Instead, it repeats the same old narrative, that violence in Pittsburgh comes from Black communities and that Black people are violent.

I’ve only lived in Pittsburgh for a decade. But even I can name many of the Black and brown people who suffered brutal or fatal attacks by police in our city and region.

Jonny Gamage, Jerry Jackson, Deron Grimmit in the 1990s. In the mid-2000s, Jordan Miles, walking to his grandmother’s house, ambushed by plain-clothes officers who insisted he hand over “drugs, guns and cash.” Miles was beaten bloody, punched, handcuffed face-down, beaten more. In 2018, Antwon Rose II was shot three times in the back by suburban East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld, who was acquitted on all counts after a four-day trial.

Some violence is far away, like mass shootings in nightclubs, says the “STOP the Violence” newsletter. Some violence is close by, “in the streets and households.” In other words, Black men hitting their partners and children, using drugs, carrying guns. (Never mind that it is legal for civilians to carry guns in Pittsburgh.

Forget that the people buying drugs are white. Forget the police teargassing peaceful protesters and then lying about it.) 

No violence, the newsletter says without saying, comes from the police.

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Joy Katz. Photo courtesy National Endowment of the Arts

The “STOP the Violence” newsletter erases violence by police—not only the routine shooting of unarmed Black and brown people in our city, but also the day-to-day violence of being stopped and questioned, of being followed, if you are walking to your grandmother’s house or driving your car and you are Black. 

The erasure of police violence in this newsletter is a form of violence.

It is being perpetrated on all of us.

Joy Katz is a poet and teacher living in Pittsburgh. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Current and is reproduced with permission. The full version is available here.

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