“Zappala got to go,” activists shouted at a mass protest following the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teenager Antwon Rose Jr. in East Pittsburgh last month. Their chants echoed the frustrations of Pittsburgh’s black community, which, for years, has been fed up with the leadership of Allegheny County district attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr., who, they claim, has done little to address police brutality and mass incarceration in the city.
But what started as a rallying cry demanding Zappala’s departure may soon become a reality. On Monday, Turahn Jenkins, a public defender and former assistant district attorney, announced his decision to run against the 20-year Democratic incumbent.
At a rally in Pittsburgh’s Freedom Corner Monday evening, hundreds gathered in the pouring rain to hear the 40-year-old Democrat’s official announcement.
“Right now we’re in a crisis,” Jenkins said. “We have people that are overcharged, people sitting in jail with petty offenses, low level non-violent offenders. And the district attorney — they view this as a win-win. …It’s all about convictions and not about justice.”
“And I’m tired of it,” he added, amid cheers and applause.
Jenkins’ announcement marks a turning point for the county, which despite being 81 percent white and 13 percent black, has a rate of black unemployment and poverty that is triple that of white unemployment and poverty, according to the Associated Press.
Rose’s brutal death at the hands of East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld on June 19 solidified Jenkins’ decision to run for office. He watched as hundreds participated in rallies across Pittsburgh over the last two weeks and felt he was “stepping up and doing the right thing.”
“The system is broken … It’s time for a change. It’s time to go in a new direction with a new vision and a fresh start,” he said at the rally on Monday. “For the past 20 years, [the district attorney’s] office has done nothing.”
Jenkins referred to mass incarceration and the criminalization of black people in the city — a phenomenon that Rose, as a student at the conflict-ridden Woodland Hills High School, likely witnessed firsthand. Over the past few years, several black students have accused school police officers of excessive force and physical abuse, including punching, body-slamming, and tasering students, many of whom ended up being charged with crimes, while the officers faced no discipline.
In 2017, as outrage over the violence reached a peak, activists called on Zappala to recuse himself from cases of abuse at Woodland Hills School District, accusing the district attorney of bias.
“The district attorney has abused his prosecutorial discretion in charging these young black victims with crimes and not charging grown white men,” Brandi Fisher, executive director of the Alliance for Police Accountability, told the Pittsburgh Courier at the time. “This is about our children. This is about violence against us all.”
At the rally on Monday, Woodland Hills High School junior Lexi Davis said the school is a microcosm of the systemic racism that has plagued the city for decades.
“Woodland Hills is an almost 70 percent black school district, and yet I only know of two black teachers that I’ve had,” she said. “So when you have this lack of cultural competency among our staff, you have this system of implicit bias that is not only outside of the school, but it’s also leaking its way into our schools …it’s what’s killing our students, believe it or not.”
Jenkins can change that, said Terrell Johnson, who spent 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He spoke passionately about Jenkins, his former attorney who fought and won his freedom in 2012.
“Stephen Zappala is not the leader that we need. You can’t even access the man. You need to be able to access your leader,” Johnson said. “I know all of us, man, we have some situation in our life where we just want somebody to hear us. I can speak from a personal experience — the brother was willing to hear me out.”
East Pittsburgh is home to approximately 1,800 people, 60 percent of whom are black, the AP reported. The eight-member police department of which Rosfeld, who was recently charged with homicide, is a member, is primarily white. Rose’s shooting is the latest of several during Zappala’s tenure that has caused anger in Pittsburgh’s black community.
Summer Lee, the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania state representative in the 34th district, touched on the community’s frustration when she spoke about the importance of taking back the county from leaders who do not represent the people.
“What we know is that power is never going to just relent itself. Your oppressor is never just going to give you power. We gotta take it,” she said. “And in our community, we decided that we weren’t going to wait anymore for somebody to represent us … If they won’t walk with us and they won’t serve us, then we’ll change them and we’ll put ourselves in.”
“This is how we bring change to Pittsburgh,” Lee said.