WILKINSBURG: Protesters Demand Justice for Romir Talley at Police “Community Public Safety” Forum

PHOTO: Activists are pushed out of the ‘Community Public Safety” Forum by police and Chief Ophelia Coleman (Video Still)

By Darius Firoozi

On Tuesday evening, activists with Serve the People–Pittsburgh (STP-PGH) disrupted a “community public safety” forum hosted by the Wilkinsburg Police Department, Police Chief Ophelia ‘Cookie’ Coleman, and Mayor Marita Garrett, which was held to address gun violence in the predominantly Black, working-class borough just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Allegheny County Health Department was also present to discuss the initiation of the ‘CURE’ program, which will utilize paid police informants to target community members deemed “at risk” of perpetrating gun violence.

STP-PGH intervened on the event while raising the demand to release the name of the officer that shot and killed 24-year-old Romir Talley in Wilkinsburg just two months ago. The activists entered the room when Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough asked the audience if there were any questions about the homicide rates in Wilkinsburg. One activist responded: “I have a question. Who killed Romir Talley?”

Activists unfurl a banner at the forum.

Following this, two activists walked in front of McDonough to unfurl a banner that read “Disarm the Pig,” but were immediately forced out by several of the officers, with the police chief Coleman herself pushing at their backs. There was an uproar among the audience, some denouncing the protestors and others supporting them and asking why the police were refusing to release the identity of the officer who killed Talley.

As they were pushed out the activists continued to shout “Who killed Romir Talley?” while throwing  flyers into the room. Once outside, the activists delivered a speech over a megaphone criticizing the CURE program and inviting the community to an upcoming discussion on police brutality.

Bourgeois local news stations covered the event and disruption, showing the police chief Coleman grandstanding after the activist’s intervention, painting them as outside agitators and self-righteously expounding that she will take action against cops who engage in brutality, an empty claim when she won’t even identify murderous officers. She also side-stepped the issue of police violence by identifying “urban terrorists” as the true enemy of the community.

Back outside, multiple squad cars and police officers came to push the activists off the sidewalk, including a K-9 unit. Nearby community members came out of the surrounding stores and apartments to investigate, and upon understanding the action, supported the struggle against police brutality and their empty public relations campaigns. A few people shouted, “All power to the people!” and raised their fists, while someone else noted that “the police are the real killers.” Wilkinsburg is a majority Black working-class suburb of Pittsburgh with widespread anti-police sentiments, where protests against the police in recent months have demanded transparency over Talley’s murder by police.

Police continued to harass activists outside of the forum.

Anti-people violence is a real concern for the working class, especially working class Black communities additionally oppressed by racist policing. Out of their real desire for stable, safe neighborhoods, community members attend forums held by the same cops that oppress them on a daily basis. But community self-defense must be organized by the people themselves, without the police, against the criminals who prey on the working class. The police are not trustworthy collaborators, but only the violent arm of the bourgeois state that keeps the working class impoverished and suppressed.

According to their website, CURE aims to treat community gun violence as an “infectious disease.” The program uses a three-pronged approach of gathering data to identify who is “at risk,” intervening in violent situations and ‘building ties’ to the community, and using public institutions to “cure” those previously identified.

In reality, the heart of the program is to establish “outreach workers,” or plainclothes police informants to increase the surveillance and infiltration of the community. The state of Pennsylvania awarded Wilkinsburg $250,000 for this program, which the borough will use to create four new “outreach” positions. In a majority Black borough, it is clear that this program is another tool to redirect the struggles of the people into dead end legal channels of collaborating with police and building fake relationships with the community to obscure their oppressive role.

Inside the event, Wilkinsburg Police Chief Ophelia Coleman’s right hand man stated that there are already “several plainclothes cops gathering intel every day” out on the streets of Wilkinsburg. This funding will only increase this ongoing surveillance through the “outreach workers.”

When asked by an audience member how the CURE program intends to decrease police violence, CURE’s representative replied that he didn’t know and said, “that’s a question for the police.” Many people in the audience began talking about the police murder of Talley, with some expressing their frustration with the evasive responses to questions and pointing out the flaws of the program.

The people can see through the sad attempts of the police to fix community gun violence without addressing its own role in this violence or its enforcement of the poverty of the people, including its racist practices that further oppress working class Black people. Despite what the City of Wilkinsburg or its police department say about “building ties with the people,” the people don’t trust the police for a reason, and their plainclothes rats will not be embraced. The real strength is in the people themselves to organize against reactionary violence, whether it comes from predatory criminals or the bourgeois state’s police.