Conversation with Omo and Joy Kmt: “The question is, what questions are you asking?”

I didn’t cut one second from this conversation with Joy Kmt and with her four-year old sun Omo, who after very actively participating, gradually fell asleep in his mother’s lap. Joy’s apartment has thin walls, out there in the suburbs where she has had to move because of lack of affordable housing for she and her five children in Pittsburgh. The sounds of vacuum cleaners and televisions and neighbors fighting next door came from all around us to cloud the clarity of the audio. My own various categorical walls came tumbling down: Public Safety and Gentrification and Transportation and Health and and Land Bank and Transition Teams and Gender and Housing and Sexual Orientation and Racism and Classicism and Body and Brain refused to stay within any sharp lines, refused not to be as interdependent as they are in lived experience. With Joy I could not stay safe behind any classification or pretense of objectivity – she and her life and concerns and commitments and honesty and vulnerability and courage break through so many boundaries.

I remember so well, last year, when she sat down on Centre Avenue to express her rage and her grief for Trayvon Martin, and for his mother, and for her own children, for all black sons, daughters, mothers, fathers whose lives have been crushed by white supremacy. I remember so well that she and her friends refused the boundaries of the planned protest, choosing to remain sitting outside the designated area that has been marked out for the expression of black rage for decades, crossing over the curb of Freedom Corner in the Hill District on Sunday, July 14, 2013, to remain beyond the designated boundaries time of silence and stillness announced by other black leaders. Joy and the other members of Pittsburgh for Trayvon planted themselves and remained in the street, even as their own allies protested their refusal to cooperate with any plan, any strategy, any prescription for long-term victories in some far away future. They made clear that they would obey only the promptings of their own grief and determination to refuse all cooperation with unjust, racist, hateful execution of deadly force.

I remember a Port Authority bus slowly advancing down the Hill towards Joy, and the gravity, the groundedness that seemed to root her down through the pavement to the very gravity of the planet, even as that mass of metal passed within a foot of her body. I could see that she fully understood what could happen to her body. I could see that she would not be moved. I could see that love bound her – no, that love freed her – to remain where she chose to be, close by all those others who also chose to grieve, to refuse hate, to demand that black lives be given full worth and weight.

Audio of conversation with Omo and Joy

Photo by Trib Total Media

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Conversation with Police Chaplain John Welch: “The streets of Homewood or the back roads of Iraq?”

Nate Harper and Police Chaplain John Welch

Former Police Chief Nate Harper and Police Chaplain John Welch in 2011

As the news of the sentencing of former Police Chief Nathaniel Harper has broken across the city of Pittsburgh, we might do well to consider the interlocking networks of irresponsibility and mismanagement and corruption that a far larger, long-standing system made possible.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Police Chaplain John Welch about his own concerns and perceptions of the drastic reforms in policing that need to be made. He said, “Nate Harper had a strong heart for the community.” Our former Chief certainly seems to have betrayed his own good intentions. Although he’s done much good for the community, the temptations to personal profit and neglect enabled by our current policing systems seemed to have proved stronger than his heart.

But is it constructive that it is mainly Harper that is currently bearing the fullest brunt of formal legal consequences, even as the larger problems in our policing system continue with sometimes grievous impact on our most vulnerable communities, on men and women and children that are too often treated as though they were insurgents rather than Pittsburghers?

A couple of days ago on Essential Pittsburgh our new Mayor Bill Peduto laid out his intentions for Public Safety reforms, noting that healing the breakdown in police-community relations must be a central priority of both Public Safety Director and a new Police Chief. As both Law Professor David Harris and Police Detective Sheldon Williams underlined in earlier conversations, repairing that long-time breach means deep systemic and cultural change within the Police Bureau, not just a change in Chiefs. While John Welch asserts that the Mayor must take a crucial leadership role, he also argues that no one man or woman or Mayor can make these changes alone. Welch calls us all to account to put pressure on both the Mayor and all our elected leaders who must exercise checks and balances on police power.

Welch notes the negative impacts when the Fraternal Order of Police resists such oversight and accountability, with special note of the cases of Dennis Henderson and Jordan Miles. And he emphasizes that we must address the far larger networks of racism, inequitable power, exploitative privilege, and poverty that literally weave matters of life and death every single day in Pittsburgh.

“I actually think that the word democracy is evaporating from our lexicon,” Welch said, “… Money is buying Washington, it’s buying Harrisburg, it’s buying Grant St…” The only antidote, he says, is for all of us to take responsibility.

Audio of conversation with Welch: 24 minutes

Conversation with Marimba Milliones: Land bank or land grab?

Marimba Milliones: CEO and President of the Hill Community Development Corporation, board member of the Pittsburgh Reinvestment Group

Marimba Milliones: CEO and President of the Hill Community Development Corporation, board member of the Pittsburgh Reinvestment Group

For residents of the Hill District who have experienced top-down urban redevelopment unfold the will of the powerful and wealthy with the help of City government, who have watched the destructive impacts of redlining in their own neighborhoods, who have watched bulldozers legally roll over their own homes, churches, and businesses,  who have watched their children migrate to the suburbs, displaced by profitable Penguin parking lots and vacant properties neglected by big banks and speculators – for those who have called the Hill their home over the past decades, such personal histories inevitably set the stage for crucial questions about the potential powers of a land bank.

As Hill CDC President and CEO who now helps manage development in the Hill District neighborhoods where she was raised, as daughter of long-time Hill District activist and leader Jake Milliones, as articulate leader who has worked for years to help develop the Hill District Master Plan with many other allies and antagonists, Marimba Milliones raises such tough and crucial questions in this conversation. She also makes suggestions for amendments to the land bank legislation introduced by City Council Member Deb Gross that might assure Hill District leaders, community groups and residents that they will co-author the script for their own community-directed re-development: Audio: 23 minutes

Who will own the homes in Homewood?

Rev John WelchDuring our longer conversation about public safety and policing, Reverend John Welch, former President of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network and current police chaplain, spoke briefly about the changes he has seen in Homewood since his childhood, and his concerns about the future of his neighborhood as it might be affected by proposed land bank legislation – for better or for worse. I’ve excerpted that commentary here:

Audio  (three minutes)

Conversation with Deb Gross: Land bank as tool for community empowerment?

Deb Gross imageI’ve been recording conversations about the potential impacts of land bank legislation introduced by District 7 City Council member, Deb Gross. Here are her own hopes for how the legislation might enable the revitalization of communities throughout Pittsburgh as blighted and abandoned properties might be brought back into circulation. She also responds to widespread concerns and to thoughtful recommendations for amendments from community groups and residents of the neighborhoods that would be most affected by the operations of a land bank.

Audio of conversation on 02/10/14. (20 minutes)

I’m currently editing recorded conversations with Council Member Ricky Burgess of District 9, with Marimba Milliones, CEO of the Hill District CDC, and with Rev. John Welch, former President of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network and police chaplain. All three have been working for many years to address the impacts of blight and  abandonment with their neighbors and allies in their home communities – and the long histories of top-down planning and gentrification that many fear may replay if safeguards for community inclusion and empowerment are not codified in the legislation.

There will be a public hearing on the land bank legislation this coming Thursday, February 20th, starting at 6pm in City Council Chambers. You can call 412-255-2138 to sign up for three minutes of speaking time.

Audio: Police power over life and liberty: “…the most powerful positions in our society…”

By Helen Gerhardt

Sheldon WilliamsRetired Police Detective Sheldon Williams still finds himself speaking in the present tense when he reflects on the responsibilities of a police officer. He has served the City of Pittsburgh as a paramedic, SWAT Team member, certified bomb technician, WMD/Terrorism Coordinator, and as a trainer in the Police Academy for nearly every skill taught.  He continues to serve Pittsburgh and all of Pennsylvania as Emergency Management Specialist in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.

As a former member of the Integrity Unit, he still feels “burdened” by past corruption and by continuing misuse of the public’s trust in our police forces.  As a black officer, he has seen the impacts of the whitening of the police force. Williams applauds many of the directions that Mayor Bill Peduto has committed to, and offers his own expertise and experience to the continuing effort to make those promised reforms a reality.

He has also witnessed the power of the Fraternal Order of Police to stand for the basic rights of its members, but also to resist civilian oversight and directives to change that are vital to public safety. Although he himself served many secondary details for extra money, he suggests that our “consumption-driven society” has motivated many police to take on roles that are not in the best interest of public safety, with overwork and stress leading to poorer performance, defensively aggressive behavior and ethical conflicts of interest.  Such conflicts of interest thus far seem to have continued under the present administration, with the FOP defending both secondary details and moonlighting.

Williams points out these extras sources of income are often justified by officers as recompense for one of the lower police bureau pay rates, for some of the most difficult work in the country. But, too many times, Williams has also witnessed the impacts of stress and lack of adequate staffing in vulnerable communities that need police support the most, as well as a lack of basic respect toward civilians that is likely to escalate the danger for all – this conversation bridges to many of the observations of police behavior made by artist and Homewood resident Vanessa German in an earlier post.

Williams and I spoke about how hard it is to address needed changes with fellow men and women who lay their lives on the line every day, who too many times are given special license by the public to abuse their power because of the physical courage that they demonstrate. He agreed to speak with me because: “My heart’s desire is to participate where I can make the most useful contribution(s) for police/community relations.”

Audio recording of conversation with Sheldon Williams: