Black Lives Matter Lone Survivor Leon Ford Jr. Loses Police Brutality Case, Still Pursues Justice

WTAE Pittsburgh screenshot
WTAE Pittsburgh screenshot

Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott: These (and dozens more) are the names we know—the boys, girls, men and women brutally shot and killed by police. Police officers often never faced justice from the courts or the cities that employ them. The deaths of these unarmed black men and women sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, the Ferguson, Mo., revolt and dozens of other forms of resistance across the nation in the last five years.

Often forgotten in these stories is the “lone survivor” of Black Lives Matter, Leon Ford Jr. He faced death at the hands of police like so many others, but lived—and his battle with the Pittsburgh criminal-justice system is a reminder that sometimes the hardest battles come after the shooting stops.

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In November of 2012, Leon Ford Jr. was pulled over by police who were “fishing” in Pittsburgh’s predominantly black District 5. Fishing is when police randomly run tags on cars looking for an excuse to pull someone over. Despite a 16-minute interrogation and Ford handing over his license, registration and other documentation, the police insisted that he was, in fact, Lamont Ford, a known gang member, and threatened Leon repeatedly.


Officer Andrew Miller jumped into Ford’s car and attempted to pull him out through the passenger side. When the vehicle kicked into gear during the struggle, another officer, David Derbish, shot Ford five times. Ford remembers falling out of his car onto the concrete, bleeding, as the officers cursed over his body, mocking him, hoping that he’d die. If it weren’t for the actions of a good Samaritan calling an ambulance, Ford might’ve been on the list of names at the start of this story. As a reminder of the perverse power of racism, the Pittsburgh district attorney charged Leon Ford Jr. with criminal assault of the officers, and it wasn’t until spring of 2015, almost three years after he was shot, that the charges were thrown out and the DA chose not to pursue other charges.

During that time, all three of the officers involved, despite being under investigation, were promoted to detective. Ford’s own civil rights case against the officers who shot him ended on Tuesday with less-than-stellar results. Officer Miller was found not guilty of assault and battery, and the jury deadlocked on whether Derbish used excessive force. We spoke to Ford and his lawyer Thomas Malone about what comes next.

The Root: Leon, you survived getting shot by police five times, then having the DA attempt to charge you with criminal assault. You got through all of that. Why sue the police? Why not just say, “I got through this—I just want to get on with my life?”


Leon Ford Jr.: I wanted to stand up and get justice. I witnessed [the police] lie under oath in criminal court. I watched them get away with shooting me, and I could not let that happen. I felt convicted in my spirt to not let this happen. I felt I had to not only fight for myself but for others.

If I had been content with letting this thing go and not fought it, then things would not have come out. There are things that police testified to under oath. These are gonna be things that in the near future we can use to change some policy in Pennsylvania and across the country.


Thomas Malone: In a situation like this where the police officer who shot Leon wasn’t arrested, there was really no other avenue for justice. The difference in this case is that Leon lived through it. The whitewashing that the facts often get didn’t happen in this situation. If he hadn’t survived, then their version of the story—that the officers shot him because he dragged them with his car—would have survived the paperwork, and they’d have gone about their business. There is a ton of information that we got through the civil discovery process.

It took almost years of pretrial motions for Leon Ford to get his day in court against the officers who profiled him, harassed him and attempted to kill him. But during that process and the trial, it came out that the officers in question, Michael Kosko, Andrew Miller and David Derbish, had all left their microphones in their squad cars when they pulled Ford over. After years of Ford insisting that he complied with everything the officers asked, only through trial was it revealed and proven through a distant microphone that he asked, “Can I just get my ticket and go home?” while the officers screamed, “Fuck you, you’re talking to the cops,” and “You better get your black ass out of the car when police tell you to get out of the car.”


It was also made clear during the trial that the police lied by claiming that they thought Ford had a gun, claiming they saw an unnatural bulge, but only two of the three officers mentioned it in their report because they hadn’t had time to get their stories together.

TR: Leon, you were one of the first “Black Lives Matter” stories. You were shot the same year that Trayvon Martin was killed. You’ve seen Ferguson, Tamir Rice and other stories. What have the last five years taught you about America’s criminal-justice system? Are things getting better or worse?


LF: The last five years have taught me that most people are happy with lip service. When I think of how they have stepped out and spoke about police brutality—there’s gonna come a time when they’re gonna put up or shut up. When they do give that lip service, they stand behind policies that encourage brutality and racial division.

TM: I’ve seen some change. We showed up for [civil trial] jury selection with 94 people—not ONE African American on the panel. One of the prospective jurors asked me a question which is rare—most prospective jurors don’t ask anything—she said, “Is this fair that Leon’s jury is going to be all white people?” That’s change. At least somebody noticed that. There were a couple Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Pakistani people in the jury pool but nobody black, and it’s supposed to be a jury of his peers. I’m proud of the work we did. I’m proud of the fact that we live to fight another day.


TR: Leon, what’s next for you in the trial, in activism and even personally? I’ve seen online that you’re able to walk now with some assistance, which is a miracle. What new activism will you be engaging in going forward?

LF: Personally, I did write a book—that’s on ice until this case is finished. I’ll be out at universities sharing my story. Helping families that are experiencing the same thing around the country. Moving forward with my rehabilitation.


TM: Oct. 20, we will stand ready to go and pick a new jury—and try this case again and make sure justice gets done.

If you want to be inspired, take a look at video of Ford finally being able to walk on his own, five years after being shot by police. He’s benefited from several rehabilitation centers in Pittsburgh and even the use of exoskeleton technology that allows him to move without a walker. He also plans to meet with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and discuss ways that his tragic experience can be prevented in the lives of others.

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HoodooGirl finds White Fragility funny

Somewhere in this great expanse of white space there is a white person online putting forward their oft-quoted declaration of white innocence and police credibility. Yes, I’m beyond certain that some white person somewhere is lurking in the shadows feeling that absolute, cathartic, self-congratulatory need to come onto this website to pronounce how their skin color bestows magical, divine, irreproachable qualities upon them that always leads to innocence.

So in this brave new world of non-culpable, tolerant and progressively minded police officers - could someone please tell me the exact day, month and year that racism ended? White people keep telling me that no such thing exists (i.e racism); or that it is being blown out of all proportion; or that some race card is being shuffled or that we’re all violent recidivists. Really, when I think about it, I should not be sitting here typing this. I have a fellow black person to gun down don’t you know. That is, when I’m not dealing crack or gang banging, because we’re all.. you know... inclined towards criminality.

But, I digress, I just want someone to give me the date? Tick, tock, tick tock....? When did racism end because none of these cases of police brutality are apparently: (1) Cases of police brutality or (2) Racially motivated. Yet, in every part of this modern world where black people are to be found in white majority countries, we’re all experiencing this same phenomenon of white cops killing us. Very strange that. Very strange indeed that an Aboriginal man in Australia will be disproportionately killed or injured by a white police officer, yet he has nothing in common with an African-American man in the USA. Aborigines were not taken transported from Africa as slaves, and in fact anthropologically are considered to be australoids not negroids. But they are brown.. and that my friends will always prove to be the nail in the coffin.

But on self-reflection I can see that I’m being hyperbolic. Racism is all in our imaginations - or according to the new didactic, we are the new oppressors. Well, white people do have a point. Just look at our black-on-white exoneration rates. You can bet that any time a black person goes before the court accused of abusing a white person they’re going to get off - because we have that whole black privilege thing going on.


What happened to Leon is beyond horrific yet unsurprising. But, as long as there are white police officers (and black ones who support and condone this behavior) this will continue to happen. In other words, there is a greater probability that the sun will catastrophically implode than there is of a white cop not injuring, maiming or killing a black person. The problem is that white police kill black people for everything and anything regardless of innocence or guilt, regardless of what they are doing or not doing. Black people are literally in a no-win situation and the police are acting as judge, jury and executioner.

Is Leon able to pursue a civil case against the Pittsburgh police? I’d happily donate to a litigation fund. All of my very best wishes (for what they are worth) are with you Leon and for your full recovery.

If anyone is interested, I’d suggest a listen of the below listed podcasts about the killing of Freddie Gray. It’s a story we all know so well where a black man apparently handcuffs himself; throws himself into the back of a police van and then advises the police to drive roughly in order to ensure that he’ll end up as a quadriplegic and then die. You know, the way in which we are always to blame when police brutalize, paralyze and kill us.