As 19-year-old Leon Ford drove home from his family dinner, he made eye contact with a police officer, and knew immediately that he would be pulled over. He continued to drive, waiting for them to appear in the rear view mirror.
The officers took his name and ran it through their system. They couldn’t find anything to help them meet their quota. Instead of settling with a warning or a ticket, the officers decided to begin an investigation on the side of the road. They insisted that Ford was lying about who he was.
After enacting a general search of their system for people with a similar name, they found someone that they were investigating. The 20 minute traffic stop was filled with racial slurs, threats, and refusal of the fact that Ford had told the truth about his identity.
Upon arrival of police backup, an officer reached into the car, unlocking the doors. Ford panicked and drove off. Without Ford noticing, an officer jumped into his car before he had even driven off. The officer shot him five times.
Despite being paralyzed from the waist down, Ford lived to tell his story. He is one of the few victims of police brutality and gun violence who is able to create a platform and speak on the issue.
On Tuesday, November 27th, Ford joined a packed room at Union West of Springfield College where students, faculty, and members of the community filed in to listen, as he talked about and reflected on his story. He emphasized the persistent problems of police brutality and cultural conditioning in the world today, and the need for change.
Ford recalled how as a 13-year-old, he engaged in a water fight with his friends at the park, a common and innocent act among children. Young Ford and his friends were harassed and eventually detained for this.
The immediate and culturally generated question from his mother and grandmother was, “What did you do?” This question implies and automatically puts the 13-year-old at fault. Ford emphasized that society has groomed that reaction.
“In that moment, I didn’t know that I would be a part of a national movement,” he said. “I didn’t know that it was happening literally everywhere across the country. Anywhere there is a predominantly black community, police officers respond to citizens differently than they do in predominantly white communities.”
Deciding to run for Pittsburgh City Council in the same area where he was shot, Ford is preparing to take the next step in enacting change.
“I am preparing society for my son. It’s one thing to prepare my son for society and tell him everything that he should know about professionals. But it’s another thing to prepare society for my son,” Ford explained. “Me working with police officers is more about him than it is me.”
By running for office and having a seat in the city council, Ford is seeking a platform where his voice will be acknowledged and taken into consideration. He has the skills to create and lead what he called “teams of people” to help create a safer and more equal environment.
“The only way that there can be some change is that there’s someone at the table that can speak for people in the neighborhood,” said a member of the community, who used to be a teacher in Pittsburgh.
Ford emphasized the issues surrounding cultural conditioning. He would go out of his way to avoid areas where he knew police would be patrolling. Still, he was pulled over at least twice a week. The relationship between police and citizens revolves around the idea of fear. It is a two-way street.
About a year and a half after he was shot, Ford decided to develop his knowledge of police culture and the history of policing by taking a Police and Society class at Duquesne University.
“[Police] are really instructed and trained with fear, and they fear almost everything. In the police culture, their main goal is to make it home alive,” said Ford. “They adopt this mindset of being at war.”
With a seat in office, Ford intends to gather teams of people to battle the systems that condition the feeling of fear in interactions between police and citizen among both parties.
Springfield College Director of Multicultural Affairs, Felicia Lundquist, said, “I really want folks to think about, and you might not have experienced something similar, but I want you to think about the systems that work to create such tragedies that take place.”
Ford has used his social media presence as a platform for expressing his ideas, compiling over 15,000 followers, and has also written a book and travelled around the country sharing his story.
“Unfortunately, we’re at war. There’s individuals who are working around the clock, thinking about how to capitalize off of all of our ignorance,” he said. “So we have to educate ourselves. We have to collaborate. We have to unite to fight for change.”
Photo courtesy of Springfield Flickr