Police Murder, Community Outrage

Against the Current, No. 49, March/April 1994

Claire Cohen

ON SATURDAY NIGHT of November 20, 1993, Pittsburgh police fatally shot Maneia Bey, a young African American, fourteen times in the back.

These are the undisputed facts of the case: Bey was standing on a corner in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh with some other young men when the police drove up, saying they had “an anonymous tip of possible drug dealing.”

Bey broke off into a run. The police pursued and called for reinforcements. Eventually eighteen officers were involved in the chase. They surrounded Bey in a large parking lot.

Six officers fired at Bey. The bullets from the guns of three officers struck and killed him.

The police would not allow the coroner’s staff near the scene of the shooting for almost four hours. When the coroner was finally allowed access, he found Bey’s dead body lying handcuffed, with a 9 mm. pistol not far away. It was clear that the body had been dragged some distance from its original location. His autopsy report found that fourteen bullets had entered Bey’s back, as well as one in the groin and another in the hand.

One officer claimed that Bey had shot at him and that the bullet had just grazed his face. There were no traces of paraffin or nitrate powder on either of Bey’s hands. There were no fingerprints at all on the gun. In addition there was no powder burn or abrasion on the face of the officer.

Community Response

The Pittsburgh African-American community, especially youth, responded with outrage. People called one another and flooded the talk shows. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back Over the last three years, in the name of “fighting the drug war,” police harassment and brutality has dramatically increased.

• Public strip searches of young African-American males have become all too common.

• According to many witnesses, last summer a group of youths attempting to have a peace march as part of a gang truce were attacked by the police without provocation.

• A young African-American female honor student was strip-searched and her sanitary napkin searched by police while walking home from school.

• In the last two years three other young Black men have been shot and killed by the police under suspicious circumstances.

The local Campaign for a New Tomorrow called an emergency meeting a week after the killing of Maneia Bey, raising four political demands:

“1) Suspension without pay from the police force of all involved officers while this situation is under investigation; 2) establishment of a community-selected and controlled commission, financed by the city, to investigate the charges of misconduct against the officers; 3) appointment of a special prosecutor by a coalition of concerned community organizations to prosecute the case; and 4) indictment, prosecution and jailing of the involved officers if the investigation finds them to be negligent or derelict of duty in the wrongful death of Maneia Bey.”

Over 150 people, overwhelmingly African American, attended the meeting. They agreed to the four demands and added a fifth, calling for a federal investigation. A coalition was formed, called Citizens Coalition forJustice (CCJ), which began mobilizing people to go to the coroner’s inquest.

When the inquest convened on December 8-9, over 300 people attended. The powers-that-be, white and Black, were clearly surprised. Prior to the inquest the mainstream Black organizations (NAACP, Urban League, etc.) and leaders were either silent about the Bey killing or castigated those of us who responded to it.

When such a large number of people showed up at the coroner’s inquest, the head of the local NAACP got involved and denounced the shooting. Those who had made public derogatory statements about the Citizens Coalition for Justice became silent.

The Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission (HRC)—because of the already existing tensions between the police and the African-American community—had previously scheduled a public hearing on community-police relations for December 21. That meeting was canceled!

Following the cancellation, several callers on the popular radio show “Black Talk” wondered if the HRC hearing had been called off in reaction to the community’s response to the Bey in quest. The next day the HRC announced that it had merely “postponed” the meeting until Januaiy 14–but the hearing was scheduled during work hours!

March for Justice

Maneia Bey, the murdered African American, came from a section of Pittsburgh called Beltryhoover. The Beltryhoover community wanted to hold a march and demonstration on January 17, Martin Luther King Day. CCJ supported and helped mobilize for the march.

On January 17, as it happened, there was a ten-inch blizzard with temperatures in the teens. The community, however, was determined to proceed, and despite the conditions over 200 people still participated in the march and demonstration.

Subsequently CCI initiated a petition campaign to call for an independent federal investigation of the Bey killing. We’ve also started mobilizing around getting a civilian police review board in Pittsburgh. Furthermore we are organizing around developing a community-based citizens’ commission to represent the interests of the African-American community in all areas where we feel our human rights are being violated, including the area of police brutality.

Such a commission, we hope, will be able to monitor and investigate, and mobilize the community to respond to, police brutality, unjust laws and other human rights violations perpetrated on the African-American community by the state and police.

Even if the Citizens Coalition is able to achieve only a limited number of its objectives, it will have been highly successful in having demonstrated that everyday grassroots people can be successfully mobilized when activists take the lead in responding to events.

In Pittsburgh there are fewer than twenty African-American leftist activists. We could have waited to see what, if anything, the community would do. Instead we accurately assessed the sentiment and responded by providing a forum for the sentiment to express itself in an organized and effective way.

Although these are nonrevolutionary times, there is a lot of grassroots struggle going on. But it is often ineffective or directionless. The value of being “with the people” in their struggles is that one can give input that helps to shape those struggles and, when objective conditions are right, win the credibility to lead a response to events.

March/April 1994, ATC 49