If Michelle Kenney is excited about the outcome of the November elections, it’s not overtly evident. What she’s more revved up about is getting back to Washington, D.C., to continue lobbying Congress members about legislation to stop the police brutality that claimed the life of her son Antwon Rose Jr. in 2018.
While Rose’s death — and the later acquittal of the officer who shot him — sparked a wave of protests across Pittsburgh, Kenney has learned that marching in the streets isn’t enough. She has been a tireless advocate for police reform and keeping her son’s legacy alive.
Besides taking trips to D.C. and the Pennsylvania state legislature, she has also worked with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the National Football League’s “Inspire Change” initiative—a collaboration with rapper mogul Jay-Z’s Roc-Nation company—to raise awareness around police violence. Through theREFORM Alliance, she worked with rapper Meek Mill to put out a video PSA called “Everybody’s Child” to call further attention to the crisis. Locally, in Pittsburgh she’s helped coordinate food drives and Christmas charity festivals in Black communities.
In August, she teamed with political activists Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, and the family of Breonna Taylor,who was killed by police in March, for a four-day BreonnaCon festival in Louisville, Kentucky, where they helped register voters and amplify the advocacy work of the many other Black families who’ve lost members to police violence. It was an event fraught with anxiety as police, militia and white supremacy groups posted up close by. But Kenney and the organizers were undeterred. They were on a mission to get Black people to turn out at the polls for November in full force,which they did.
Bloomberg CityLab asked Kenney what role she thought the most recent protests against police violence played in energizing and mobilizing Black voters this election season. This was her answer (lightly edited for length and clarity):
I’m going to tell you the truth — when everybody watched the video of Antwon getting killed, I expected this insane outcry, because you couldn’t deny that my son was murdered. And although the crowd was loud, it wasn’t until we watched George Floyd die that now we have people that don’t look like us saying, “All he wanted was his mama.” It’s the same thing my son wanted two years ago. Then when you factor in what happened with Breonna Taylor, those cries just doubled.
I think that it took people to visually see us lose our sons and daughters to move. And as Antwon’s mom, I can tell you that it’s a sad indication of what the world has become when you have to watch somebody’s child die for you to know that this isn’t right. It shouldn’t have taken the world watching George Floyd’s life taken from him in order to make not just Black people, but everybody taking action. I look at it as we sacrificed our sons and daughters in order for the world to decide that we want to do the right thing.
I think that everybody just came to understand that it’s time to fight this legally, and time to go to court, time to make some changes, time to push some deals, and push some amendments. You have people who make music and entrepreneurs now involved in social justice reform. Who would have thought that the NFL, who weren’t as racist as everybody thought they were, would be involved in social justice? I mean, I can name a bunch of people that I really couldn’t have see this coming from.
For me,going to Louisville on behalf of Breonna Taylor really gave me some insight as to what we were up against and also the power in the numbers of people. Because we were flanked by [what seemed like] thousands of law enforcement. But to watch people come together and not bend and not fold let me know that we have the power. So when we came back from Louisville, we had already discussed — [activist and music artist] Jasiri [X of the Pittsburgh-based1Hood organization] getting involved in the upcoming election. We were on a plane, headed to New York and we were like, we gotta figure out how to get in there. So we decided that we were going to get involved. We just didn’t have a plan formulated.
When Antwon was killed, I knew that [police officer Michael] Rosfeld wasn’t going to jail. The law doesn’t allow them to go to jail. And the people that were prosecuting them didn’t really want him to go to jail. So at that point, I said, we gotta push for legislation. Well, the problem with that was the elected officials weren’t in support of the legislation. The powers that be that could change the law so that it would have convicted Rosfeld weren’t willing to even hear us or even let us sit at their table. So my thought was it’s time to remove them from the table. And that’s basically how my journey started. I knew people were going to come out to vote. I knew they were. I never doubted it for one minute. There’s a lot of things I don’t believe in, but I knew that once folks started hitting the streets, that that meant they had had enough.
Did you see how many people participated in those protests throughout the world? Regular moms, like, people who had nothing to gain were out there saying this isn’t right. I mean, you had senior citizens out there, grandmas, everybody stood up. So there was no way in my mind — and I don’t care what the president thought — I knew we were going to come out and vote. There was no doubt in my mind. They killed too many of us for us not to vote.
When [rapper] Meek [Mill] put that title on Antwon’s PSA, “Everyone’s Child” we realized that it could have been anyone’s kid. And now folks understand that it could be their kid. So they’re out there protesting to prevent it from happening to their kids.
I think the light bulb finally went off for a lot of people who protested — demonstration without legislation isn’t going to get us anywhere. So the key component is legislation. And that means we’ve got to vote to make sure that the people that are put in the office have our best interests at heart. I think folks finally hear us now. And if they didn’t, you could tell by the election results that they feel us. They felt our presence this year.
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