Leon Ford has had a political awakening. It was prompted by the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II on June 19, an event that came roughly six years after Ford’s own life-changing encounter with a policeman’s gun.
As the 25-year-old sat in his wheelchair on the steps of the Allegheny County Courthouse Downtown last month for one of many charged protests seen on the heels of Rose’s death, Ford said he decided that his years as an activist and advocate for police reform required more.
“I love the energy of the protesters, but I also know from my own lived experience that the energy dies down after awhile,” he told The Incline by phone, referring to the demonstrations seen after he was shot by a City of Pittsburgh police officer and paralyzed in November of 2012.
“I also know protest is reactionary and we need to be more proactive, and we do that by being politically engaged.”
Protesters demanding justice for Antwon Rose II, a 17-year-old who was fatally shot by an East Pittsburgh police officer on June 19, rally in Downtown Pittsburgh.Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
The solution, Ford decided, involves the creation of his own political action committee, a means of funding candidates with platforms he sees as conducive to the changes he’s spent years pursuing as a high-profile survivor of a police shooting. Ford, who’s shared his story with audiences and media outlets nationwide, was 19 and unarmed when he was shot five times by a Pittsburgh police officer at point-blank range during a traffic stop. He sued and reached a $5.5 million settlement with the City of Pittsburgh earlier this year.
Ford said he plans to use some of his own money to get his PAC off the ground — “just to show people I’m serious.” He said the money he’ll invest will come from speaking engagements and the proceeds from his new book, not necessarily from the settlement.
“I also have an extensive network, locally and nationally, of business folks and tech folks who support me and believe in justice and I plan to pull those individuals together,” he explained.
The paperwork for Ford’s PAC is still being drafted and a PAC name has yet to be chosen — Journey to Justice is the working title. He hopes to see the fund operational within a few weeks, just in time for the midterms.
Asked about the type of candidates his PAC will favor, Ford points to Democrats like Sara Innamorato, Summer Lee and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as prime examples. All three were endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, and while Ford said he has no formal affiliation with the DSA, he also said he finds himself aligned with DSA-backed candidates on key policy points.
State Rep. candidates Sarah Innamorato and Summer Lee.Courtesy of LINDSAY DILL PHOTOGRAPHY / Summer Lee campaign
“Through this PAC, I’m hoping to actually raise money to support progressive candidates who will not only stand up against police brutality but stand up against all injustice,” he said. “I would like to have a fund where we can support these individuals financially and also have a network of social influencers, people like myself and other activists locally and nationally, who have huge social media followings and who can encourage the protesters to get involved politically.”
He added, “If we find people in office perpetuating the cycle of division and hatred, we will stand up and we will do more than just protest, we will get these individuals out of office and we will replace them.”
The dynamic of using conventional politics to advocate for unconventional solutions to issues like criminal justice reform has rankled groups like Black Lives Matter before, with portions of that movement rejecting anything resembling concessionary politics or any involvement with a system they seek to overhaul.
But Ford sees no such dilemma.
Leon Ford is pictured.COURTESY OF WTAE
In an editorial for Philly.com, he wrote, “It’s not enough to tweet or protest or hold vigils. We need to elect new leaders who will push for accountability and consequences in police shootings.”
Ford said he gravitates toward the less-centrist elements of the Democratic Party, where farther left candidates like Innamorato, Lee and Ocasio-Cortez have expressed a greater willingness to confront police accountability and reform issues than many of their peers.
In May’s Pennsylvania primary, Innamorato and Lee won in upsets against longtime Democratic incumbents Dom and Paul Costa, respectively, for Pittsburgh-area seats in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives. Both women are unopposed on the November general election ballot and both managed to beat their opponents using grassroots campaigns, populist overtones and by seizing on a bipartisan skepticism of entrenched establishment types. Ocasio-Cortez pulled off a similar upset in a New York race for U.S. Congress just last week.