A group of more than 100 protesters gathered in Rittenhouse Square late Saturday afternoon to speak out against the acquittal of a former East Pittsburgh police officer who shot and killed 17-year-old Antwon Rose II after a traffic stop last summer.
The protest — joined by a diverse group, mostly people in their 20s and students — came less than 24 hours after a jury of seven men and five women concluded that Michael Rosfeld was not guilty following a four-day trial. Rosfeld, who is white, had been charged with homicide after he shot Antwon, a black minor, three times last June — once in his back, arm, and the side of his face.
The shooting, which was captured on a bystander’s cell phone and circulated widely, occurred after Rosfeld pulled over a car in which Rose had been a passenger for a traffic stop. The car matched the description of a vehicle that had been involved in a drive-by shooting only minutes earlier. Upon being stopped, Rose and another teenager fled, and Rosfeld opened fire.
Rose was declared dead at a local hospital. He was unarmed.
“While this is a time of mourning and supporting [Rose’s] family, this is also a time to be angry,” 19-year-old Keely Brady, who organized the Philadelphia protest, announced to the crowd. “Three shots to the back, how do you justify that?”
The speak-out in Philadelphia came only a few hours after Rose’s father pleaded for peace at a vigil 300 miles away in Pittsburgh. Speaking in front of more than 100 people, Antwon Rose Sr. encouraged attendees to head to the polls in order to spur change. His entreaty followed a night of protests in Pittsburgh, during which gunshots were fired through the window of Rosfeld’s attorney’s office.
Philadelphia’s gathering, hosted steps from the Rittenhouse Square fountain, started small as it began around 5 p.m., as a handful of participants made signs with markers that said phrases, such as “He Was Seventeen," “No Justice, No Peace,” and “#JusticeForAntwonRoseII." Yet within an hour, the gathering had swelled to more than 100, all of whom stood in a large circle, singing together, hoisting signs into the air, and speaking about their experiences.
“As a black woman with a black son, it gets so redundant and so painful that it’s just too much to bear at times,” said Amber Owens, 33, a lawyer who is originally from Pittsburgh, at the rally. “I’m very grateful that you all are here and present, that you stopped what you were doing in your day to come and support Antwon and his family, but the reality is this is America’s history. This has been going on since Emmett Till.”
“My son is 17-months-old, and when I looked at him today, I just cried because there is nothing I can do, there is nothing I can do to protect him,” Owens continued, her voice quivering as she shouted. “I can move him out of the 'hood, I can get him a better education, ... but at 17, your parents ain’t picking your friends. ... So we can try as parents, but you can’t guarantee who they are going to be with. But it doesn’t justify getting shot in the back three times.”
The death of Antwon has become the latest flashpoint in a national conversation about the kind of force police are using — particularly against African-Americans. Protests against police violence have swept the country in recent years after numerous black men, many times unarmed, have been killed by officers.
At Philadelphia’s protest, the names behind those fatal encounters were not forgotten. Those who gathered hummed the lyrics to the popular “Freedom Side” chant, often substituting Antwon’s name for the names of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, among others. Both men were unarmed and killed in recent years. (While Brown was shot by a Ferguson police officer, Trayvon was killed by a neighborhood watch captain.)
The rally, which lasted about 90 minutes, remained peaceful throughout. Several police officers were present at a distance on the perimeter of the square.
Brady, a student at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts said in an interview before the gathering that she felt compelled to organize a rally after reading about the verdict. Originally from Pittsburgh herself, she said she wished she could have been home to protest.
“I felt like I couldn’t just sit here and not do anything,” Brady said, addressing the gathering crowd. “... As a white person, it is our duty to break down that system that was built in our favor. We need to take action, and we can’t rely on marginalized peoples to advocate for their lives, to try to prove that their lives matter when they should not have to do that.”
She encouraged attendees to speak about their own experiences, saying it was “not [her] story" and that “this is not something I can ever understand on the level that other people do."
Not long after, 20-year-old Maya Rimpsey spoke.
“It is really easy to go home and feel like y’all did something today ... but people are paying for this with their lives,” Rimpsey said. “This is not your quota for the year. There is so much work that needs to be done, and when you get lazy, and you feel like you just want to lay back, don’t.”
Moments later, one attendee silently rose a sign above her head.