In some circles, Pittsburgh has been described as the most livable city in America. In others, it has been described as the most racist city in America.
As a native Pittsburgher, who has also lived and worked elsewhere, I may have given both descriptions of this city, depends on when I’m asked.
Last Friday, if anyone had asked, I would have voted for the latter, not the former.
I was downtown, running errands, headphones on, quite oblivious to most of the goings on. I passed through the T-Station triangle at Liberty Avenue, and headed out Seventh Street side, through the revolving doors. Suddenly, the doors stopped revolving, and I looked behind me to see what the obstruction was, and there was a slight young man holding the door.
I don’t know what crack addiction looks like, or meth addiction, but I know enough to know that individuals suffering from those addictions ain’t right, and there is no amount of rational thought that would make them right.
I pushed the door, and he pushed back. He was saying something, hollering it in fact, but I still had my headphones blasting, so I couldn’t make out what he was saying, and I had already tired of his sideshow. I gave the door a good push, and, he, realizing he couldn’t stop me from going out, began to push the door so that we both ended up outside and I walked toward my bus stop. He followed me, talking loud, to it seemed no one in particular.
Finally, he said that he would have given me money if I needed it, but he just wanted his identification back. Duh! It dawned on me that he was accusing me of something. I looked him in the eye and said to him, “What is it you think I did to you?” He said, “You took my wallet earlier today and I want it back.”
I told him that I had never seen him before and did not take anything from him and that he should get out of my face. He said he wasn’t going anywhere until the transit police came.
Just then, Officer Burkhart of the Pittsburgh Police strolled up. The young man went over to her and pointed at me and repeated his accusation. I stepped forward and told her I had no idea what he was talking about, that I had never seen him before in my life and that if she didn’t get him away from me I would harm him.
She cautioned me that I could not threaten him with bodily harm and that she could arrest me just for saying that. She asked the young punk how he knew I was the person who took his belongings.
“Well, he fits the description,” said the punk.
Officer Burkhart rolled her eyes on that one, and told him that is no description at all and he cannot just walk up to people on the street and accuse them of a crime, with no evidence.
But as she was talking, two more Pittsburgh Police officers appeared, just strolling up the street. I turned to one of the new officers, who asked me what was going on, and while I was relaying the story, a police cruiser pulled up (on the wrong side of the street), and an officer got out. He left his canine companion in the car, growling out the window from the front seat (driver side). Another police cruiser pulls up, and another police officer gets out, while yet another officer arrived on foot from the other direction.
Suddenly, I’m surrounded by police officers, and all I did was walk to the bus stop.
A transit cop hurried on the scene and grabbed the punk by the arm. “What are you doing?” she asked him. “I told you to let the police handle it. You are going to get yourself hurt just walking up to people on the street and accusing them.”
At that point, the only person I felt in danger of being hurt was Lou Ransom. I was surrounded by police officers, and while Officer Burkhart asked me for identification, not one of the officers asked the punk for identification.
Finally, Officer Burkhart said to me, “You’re free to go.” Obviously, I was being detained, by seven officers of the law, on the accusation of a hopped up punk. Seven officers surrounded a Black man on the streets of Pittsburgh, and his only crime was “fitting the description.” I’m wondering how many police officers would have come to my aid if I told police I was accosted and this White man “might” be the one who did it because he “fit the description.”
You may just think it was an unfortunate turn of events, but any time a young White boy can walk up to a Black man at random in this city and accuse him of a crime and draw seven police officers, it is not livable, not for me. It is racism.
(Lou Ransom is a former managing editor of the New Pittsburgh Courier.)