By Tyler Schrecengost
SPRINGFIELD — “Can you hear me alright?” The first words spoken by the charismatic Leon Ford as he addressed his audience in Judd Gymnasium of Springfield College on Tuesday night. The survivor of police brutality, turned civil rights activist received the cordial response of “barely.” This straightforward reply inadvertently, yet powerfully captured the feelings of the millions of African Americans’ Ford fights for on a daily basis. Those whose voices have gone unheard as victims of racism, police brutality and cultural appropriation.
Getting pulled over twice a week as a teenager was a regular occurrence for Ford, he thought nothing of it. That is until the night of November 12, 2012 when he was shot five times by a Pittsburgh police officer. He knew the area like the back of his hand and was aware what paths to take to avoid lurking police officers that may look to profile citizens in his predominantly African American neighborhood. Ford was driving correctly down a one-way road when headlights coming the wrong way blinded him, it was a police cruiser.
As the officers drove passed, a brief, subtle moment of eye contact was all it took to convince Ford he was going to be pulled over. Within seconds blue and red lights flared through the somber night.
After running his information through their database, the officers came up with nothing to prove Ford was lying about his identity. They were not convinced. Determined, they looked up the name “L. Ford” in a list of previous convicts. The officers wanted him to be a criminal and when they found him doing nothing illegal, they went looking for criminals that he could be. It is this assumption that prejudiced policing is based on; every African American male is viewed as a suspect and is treated as a criminal.
Officers David Derbish and Andrew Miller inexplicably connected Leon Ford with a man named Lamont Ford, a gang member who they claimed looked like him. Forcefully attempting to remove Ford from his vehicle after falsely identifying a weapon in his pocket, led to him taking off with Office Derbish hanging onto him through the passenger side window. The shots went off in a matter of seconds. The car halted and Ford’s bullet-ridden body was dragged from his seat and forcefully thrown to the ground as death was wished upon him by an officer spewing racial slurs.
Darkness slowly engulfed his vision until he could see, feel, and hear nothing at all. He woke up shackled to the cold bars of a hospital bed, told he would never walk again.
Surviving this endeavor was only the beginning of the torment for Ford. The self-reflection that he endured through many hours of empty silence caused him to struggle with his mental health.
Springfield College’s director of Multicultural Affairs, Felicia Lundquist, was interested in delving deeper into this topic and asked him to “talk about your perseverance and survival of depression.” Ford proudly asserted, “I’m not afraid to admit I struggle with mental health issues.” He went on to speak about the mental challenges that the inequality in his community has inflicted upon him. Reflecting on his experiences Ford said, “to wake up every day constantly at war…even in grade school I had to put my guard up against teachers.” There has never been a true sense of comfort in Ford’s community.
Thrust into a courtroom that consisted of an all Caucasian jury, he had an agonizing uphill battle in convincing the court that he had been racially profiled and assaulted with excessive force. The feelings of the jury fatefully decided the trial as it became the word of the officers they were raised to trust against the word of a man who did not look like them and his complex story they couldn’t relate to.
The trial ultimately ended with neither officer being convicted. Ford painfully remembered awaiting a pending lawsuit, and learning that two officers involved had been promoted. Ford strongly believes “if there was one black person in that room, I know the conversation would’ve changed a bit.”
Ford’s court battle illustrated the insufferable crime that is African Americans having to constantly live in fear that their legal system will not stand behind them. It was fear that Ford believes led to Officer Derbish unloading his weapon. Ford feared for his life causing him to speed off, anxious about what the officers were about to do to him.
So many situations occur every single day regarding strenuous confrontations between police officers and African Americans, and it haunts Ford that all it takes is that little bit of fear to turn racial profiling into a life threatening situation. Attending policing education programs has given him proper insight into a police culture whose main goal, Ford claims, “is to make it home alive, developing this mindset of being at war.” This directly led to him taking on the responsibility of a community spokesperson,
Ford, whose son LJ comes along with him to hundreds of events and speeches, responded strongly to a question from Maurice Poe, an attorney in Springfield, MA. Poe wondered “what are you going to teach [LJ] about these issues and police brutality…are you teaching your son how to forgive?” Regarding forgiveness, Ford claimed that he has to make a constant decision every day to forgive. “I’m teaching him to respect all people, and then I’m preparing society for my son,” Ford elaborated.
It is certainly true that Ford is making a strong impact on society and it has shown through his national recognition and massive platform. He officially announced this past October that he would be running for City Council in Pittsburgh, PA. Speaking on the inequalities he regularly fights against and how that impacted this decision, Ford said, “I knew it had to stop and I used my voice to organize and learn.”
The shooting of Leon Ford on that gloomy November night led to the building of a platform from which Ford can speak up against all racial inequality and call upon the nation to respond. “I decided to do something that was bigger than myself,” Ford modestly claimed as the night wrapped up and the audience was given a chance to breathe after what Lundquist had promised to be “an incredible night.” That it was.
Featured photo courtesy of Springfield College Flickr