Pittsburgh: 2800 High School Students Walk Out Against Unjust Verdict

Revolutionary Worker #886, December 8, 1996

On November 22, 2,800 high school and middle school students staged a walkout in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania--to protest the acquittal of police officer John Vojtas in the murder of Jonny Gammage. Youth from all over the city poured out of 10 city high schools, some middle schools and a few suburban schools--gathering at Liberty Corner in the Hill District and marching downtown to the court house. The not-guilty verdict given by the all-white jury in the police murder of Jonny Gammage sent a chill through the hearts of Black youth, and others, throughout the city and into the suburbs. It was a message from on high that the cops can kill without punishment -- and are encouraged to do so. The youth responded. So far there have been no reprisals from authorities for the walkout.

One of the high school youth who helped organize the walkout told the RW how it went down and what she thinks the walkout accomplished:

"It all started when about 20 of us and 25 adults from different organizations sat down in a library. We kicked all the adults out--like first things first. We thanked them for their support but we needed to meet alone and get something accomplished. Then the next meeting there were 15 people--but 15 people who were working hard. There was this girl named Tonya and she is kind of like the street element. She said, `What about the street kids, what about the street kids?' We were like, `Bring 'em on.' At the third meeting 60 brothers from the other side of town rolled into the meeting. They never cease to amaze me. They are very respectful, they are very organized. They are known as a gang, but they are good at what they do. They are on line and have computers. They come and have their hair all braided and their hoods on.... They came and their focus was our focus, a focus on peace and unity. And we all want something good to come out of this terrible situation.

"There is a lot of personal experience because in their neighborhood they see the police brutality. So they said they could relate to that. So it brought in a lot of good people. That's how it all got started.

"One person said how his brother was shot and killed by the police and when they found him his middle finger was cut off by police. People spoke like that and that was enough to make people understand. We wanted anger with direction--which is what we had. We had signs saying, `Justice for Jonny,' `All white not right'--referring to the jury. `Cashman must go.' `Arrest Brutality.' We had chants: `No justice, no peace,' and `Black people united will never be defeated.'

"We were waiting for the media to show up there at Freedom Corner. We had a news conference strategically at 10 a.m. because that was when everyone was walking out of school. Like teachers were saying, `Why is everybody getting up and walking out?' And turn on the TV and there it is. The media said, `As we speak there's a walkout. Students citywide are walking out.' That was what we wanted to happen. We didn't want to tell them in advance. We know some of it got out. They were somewhat prepared. You can 't keep something of this scale extremely quiet. But it worked out nice strategically because they got information as it happened, and I told people not to talk to reporters because they twist stuff around. The big slogan on the Post Gazette said, `The sound of silence'.....

"It's funny because we didn't have a permit to use the streets...and there were 2,800 of us. And so we were walking on the sidewalk but once we got to the courthouse, there were so many of us they just opened up the streets. The moment they blocked off the streets, everyone yelled, `Yeah.' We expected 300 and we got 2,800.

"Me and two other people made the flyer. The night of the meeting, the Friday before, we went into some office, sat down and made the flyer, made 2,000 copies that night. We handed it out at the meeting that Monday before the Friday walkout. So that Monday they started being distributed to one school, on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday they got to many schools.

"I hear people say that the youth don't care. Well, there are socially conscious youth, and you need to listen to them because they are going to act.

"It all started with a bunch of kids getting together to make it happen. They formed a group called the Mobilization of African Youth for Justice. There were some white students. They weren't discouraged --nobody had any ill comments. It's about unity of all the youth. We do have a lot of white/Black tension in the city. And nobody is trying to build that up. I saw some of my friends come down that are white. It was so much fun to see them and run up to them and give them hugs. When you see people going out of their way to support good causes, you have to really applaud them for it. Once people saw me interacting with them, they were like `okay, they're cool.'

"I think the youth are always the catalyst for change in society. If we want to make change about anything, especially something that affects our lives so greatly like police brutality--which is a lot of times against youth--youth can take action. If I was a police officer, I would think twice, because it's not just that youth are saying, `You hit me, you shouldn't have.' It's that kid and his 2,000 friends who were downtown! I know that all of downtown stood up and took notice, but we also took notice of ourselves and said, `We can come together in peace and if we stand for a cause, we can get something done.' "

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