Leon Ford: Activating Minds of Those Who are Mentally Paralyzed

The story of Leon Ford is shocking sad and gives hope at the same time. This brave activist uses his personal experience to inspire others and fight against police brutality.

On November 12, 2012, Leon Ford was pulled over by a Pittsburgh cop for what appeared to be a routine traffic stop. His life has never been the same since then. In a tragic case of mistaken identity – the officer mistook Leon for someone wanted for another crime – Leon Ford was shot 5 times, leaving him paralyzed. The officer involved, however, was able to maintain his title and continue his work in the police force. For most people, this would be the beginning of their destruction, but a strong and resilient Leon would not let this tragedy keep him down. Instead of being broken, full of anger and hatred, Leon Ford is using his personal story to develop a network of social reform, and to speak out for himself and countless Black people who are shot and killed, injured or maimed, and brutalized in different degrees by cops across the country.

blackmattersus.com
Let’s start from the very beginning. What is it like growing up as a Black kid in America?
Leon Ford
To me, growing up as a Black kid in America was very fun. Growing up, I always felt just like the ordinary kid, riding dirt bikes, playing football, basketball, boxing, I loved school. It was a typical life. Up until I got shot and I started to realize that a lot of my experiences, I was actually culturally conditioned to accept. And what I mean by that is, you know, going through life and experiencing different things, the school system, with law enforcement, a lot of these things, negative experiences happened so young that I never knew that they were wrong. For example my first encounter with law enforcement was probably a program called the D.A.R.E Program where officers come to the schools and they talk about why you shouldn’t use drugs and talk about fire safety and different things like that which was pretty cool. So how does a young Black man feel threatened by law enforcement? Well, at 9 or 10 years old, I could remember playing with water guns at the park and there was a lady who lived directly next to the park, and she would park her car right on the street. I remember we accidentally wet her car with a water gun and we weren’t on the same block. So she called law enforcement, police officers came and they actually put us in handcuffs and searched us. This was at 9 years old, the oldest person was probably 13 or 14, and they said dirty things to us. We were traumatized at this very young age. And when we told our parents everything, they had a fit, but they didn’t follow up and push the issue. So at a very young age, we were dealt injustice and we were disconnected from law enforcement, but we also accepted this type of behavior without taking the proper protocols to change this. And I assumed that my parents and grandparents probably experienced the same type of cultural conditioning where they were conditioned to kind of accept poor treatment because it started happening at such a young age. When I first started driving, I was getting pulled over. Even before I started driving, I remember hanging out at a basketball court and law enforcement officers will pop onto the basketball court and just search us. Some people would run, not because they had anything or did anything, they just didn’t want to get harassed. We never filed reports, we were like, ok, “We’re not going to jail for any crime.” So we’d just take this treatment and go on about our day and this would happen like a few times a week. And up until I got shot and I started looking back at this treatment and saying, “Yo, this is the type of treatment that is injustice and we cannot accept this.” Because I’ve spoken in front of all different types of people and there are some people who say, “Well if you were harassed by law enforcement, we don’t believe you because you don’t have a tape of it. Even nobody filed a report, we don’t see it so it doesn’t exist.” When in fact it does exist but we’re culturally conditioned at a very young age to accept it and that’s why people don’t file reports. In the education system. I remember all my life I had loving and caring teachers, and once I got to high school, I started to realize things that these teachers did not care about me. I had a few teachers who did and they did everything they could to keep me engaged but other than that, I had teachers who would write me a referral before I would even walk into class, and I would take the referral and just skip class because at 16 I was just thinking that this was the easy way for me to get out of class, right? But now as a young adult, I say, these were adults who were denying me my right to education. So to go back to answering the question, growing up I felt like I had a good life, but looking back as an adult now, I see that a lot of things that I’ve experienced were negative and they were injustice and inequality. But it happened at a very young age and I grew up culturally conditioned to accept this poor treatment. And I see it happening over and over again. That’s one of the reasons why I take my story and I’m dedicated and committed to informing people and creating awareness about what is really going on beyond the police brutality, but with this all injustice and inequality that people may be faced with, that they may not necessarily know that they’re faced with.
blackmattersus.com
Could you please tell us more about what happened to you on November 11, 2012?
Leon Ford
It was a case of mistaken identity. They actually thought I was a guy by the name of Lamar Ford. Even after I provided my driver’s license, registration and car insurance, they basically didn’t believe I was who I said I was, that I was actually Leon Ford. They “thought I had a gun” and I ended up being shot 5 times at point blank range. There was no weapon, no drugs or anything like that. I was actually charged with multiple crimes, I went to trial and was found not guilty. I am, of course, now paralyzed. So that’s just it.
blackmattersus.com
I’m very sorry for what happened to you. Could you also tell us, how has your life changed after this tragic incident? Has it changed your plans for life? Has it changed your relationships with the people around you?
Leon Ford
My life has changed dramatically. I’m a completely different person. I think, move and feel differently. And although I make the best out of my circumstances, I can still see the pain in the eyes of the people around me. Although a lot of people talk about my positive attitude and my smile and positive energy, I still experience an astronomical amount of pain every single day waking up. Mentally, waking up I have to get in and out of a wheelchair, physically, because I still have bullet fragments in my body, emotionally, because when you experience this level of trauma and your life changes so drastically, it’s hard to really find the sense to push forward, right? And when I have to find somebody to carry me up and down, my grandmother is upstairs and I can’t get over there, I can see the pain in her eyes because she remembers moments where I would run up and down her stairs 30 times a day. So yeah my life has changed but I try to make the best of it. I really do everything I can to stay positive but that’s even hard with the ongoing case against the city, and with all the police shootings that are going on in the country and around the world, obviously I’m emotionally attached to a lot of these things. I try not to watch the videos but every time I hear these stories, it pours on me and it causes more pain. I don’t really have the leisure to wake up one day, put on my activist hat and the next day, go out and have fun because I’m constantly thinking about what happened to me. I have a constant reminder when I look at my body and see bullet wounds, scars, I’m thinking about the night I got shot, when I have a sharp pain shooting in my back or down my legs, when I’m in a situation where I need to walk up some steps and I can’t. Because all my life, society taught me I was supposed to trust these people and these are the same people that cause me an astronomical amount of pain and put me in this wheelchair.
blackmattersus.com
Going through your Instagram and social media pages, one can only say that you are a very strong person. And we’re glad that you can use your story to help others.
Leon Ford
Thank you.
blackmattersus.com
So was the officer involved in any way punished?
Leon Ford
No, actually, the officer who shot me, he’s on desk duty, but they’re all still working.
blackmattersus.com
What actions have you taken so far to seek justice?
Leon Ford
Man, I’ve written people in Washington D.C, reached out to the Attorney General and protested, I’ve started building relationships with politicians and pushed to get certain policies changed and really a lot of the feedback that I get is I have to wait and see what happens with the civil case. So I’m patiently waiting to see if any type of justice will be served. I put the glory in God’s hands because I believe God will give me justice. When I see cases similar to mine and I see the outcome is always the same, it’s very disheartening, but I’m still committed to change and doing anything that I can to seek that change and to get justice for not only me, but for other people. I’m just trying to change the perspective of the public eye and of people in positions of power so they can be receptive to change and so they can have the courage to change what’s needed.
blackmattersus.com
So how would you describe the current situation for the Black community in America?
Leon Ford
I would describe it as hopeful and resilient. Because no matter what happens we always find the strength to push through. And no matter what the mainstream media says, we do a lot of positive things. And not only that, we do it in the face of adversity. With my personal story, I’m being crucified by the people that I’m up against, but I still smile, and I still fight back with grace and positivity. People have never heard me say bad things about the people who caused me this astronomical amount of pain. I’m focused on being positive and I’m focused on change. As a community, there’s a majority of people who are very positive and focused on change, and I just want to encourage us to tell our own story and not let other people tell our story for us. Because even amongst our community, there’s folks who are in leadership positions but they’re perpetuating the cycle of hatred and racism. I’ll like to encourage us to really push stories of positivity, of overcoming, of resilience, so we can know and understand that it does get better no matter how hard it may seem, as long as we have strategy, we’re wise, organized, and positive and we do it out of love, we can really change some things.
blackmattersus.com
Looking back at the incident, would you say there was anything that you did that triggered this sequence of events?
Leon Ford
No, and I can’t really talk about a lot of things about this case because it’s still open.
blackmattersus.com
Do you think it is possible to make real change for the Black community? You said it’s hopeful, but what do you think about change and what do you think should be done for this kind of change?
Leon Ford
Yeah, well change is already happening. People are already becoming more aware, more conscious and people are really standing up. And not in the sense of what the media puts out with these riots and stuff like that, but you have a lot of young people getting involved in policy, wanting to actually become law enforcement, lawyers, politicians and get involved in law making, become judges and district attorneys and congressmen and women. So in that light, change is coming. And not even just the Black community, but as millennials, we are really breaking down this wall of institutionalized racism. We are the generation that’s really standing together, regardless of race, age and gender, we’re very progressive. So just because somebody may not look like me doesn’t mean that they’re not for me. Because I have some friends who don’t look like me but they’ve still got my back. And they’re very intelligent and we’re continuously lifting each other up as we take steps towards this thing that we call justice and equality.
blackmattersus.com
Can you list any specific reforms that you think will help with this police brutality issue?
Leon Ford
Yes. Of course training. Within the police department, there’s still a lack of training so we need training in the police department. We need to hold our politicians accountable. We can’t continue to help people get in office and think that’s enough, right? We have to be proactive and not reactive. Being proactive we’re thinking long term and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We have to create economic backing, not just the Black community, but economic backing that supports issues and we have to bring people together. A lot of people are divided by race, gender and sex and stuff like that so when we find the common things that we want and need and we unite, pull resources together for those things, we can have real power. And when we have that power, we can stand up and get a lot of lobbyists who are a part of this institutionalized racism. For example, you might have a mayor who has a good heart and wants to fight back this police brutality but when he’s getting millions of dollars of funding from the FOP then he’s in a conflicting position because he doesn’t want to lose his money to help a community of people that he feels like isn’t giving money or isn’t voting. So we have to get involved in voting as well, and we cannot be divided. A lot of times I see people talking about boycotting and picking a random company that they want to boycott that doesn’t have any political ties to evoke change. If we decide to boycott we need to think about what we’re going to boycott and what we’re going to put our money into. I haven’t really seen the collective thought going around to create some financial stability or some economic backing so that we can push our political will. That needs to be done. As we do that, we can change policies that are holding us back, like the stop and frisk policy. There are lots of cities which still have stop and frisk. The policy that says and officer has 72 hours to report a police shooting, so these are some steps that we can take, we need to identify these different policies on the local and national level and see what’s going on from small towns to big cities because a lot of these policies differ when it comes down to zip codes. So we’ve got to understand the political structure based on economic backing and unite.
blackmattersus.com
What advice do you have for Black men and Black teenagers when they have an encounter with the police?
Leon Ford
For young Black males, I like to take it as in not just for police but I would like to encourage young Black males to be respectful to everyone and create an environment of peace and love. And this is not reactionary, it’s kind of proactive, we should unite. One thing that I’ve noticed from my circumstances is when I got shot, they thought I was just another little Black boy from the hood. But when they realized that I wasn’t alone, it shifted because they started to respect me as an individual and as a member of the community. So when we create an environment where we’re socially aware of the political structure and we really know our rights – we need to educate ourselves before we have encounters with law enforcement. If we have knowledge of the political structure, it will definitely limit some of the police shooting. And a lot of police shootings in my opinion is from a bunch of overzealous officers so how we can deal with that is again, by holding political figures accountable and building relationships within our communities. One effective way I’ve found to build relationships with political figures in the community and even law enforcement is by using local universities to have these conversations about race and racism and policing in America where we can share our perspectives and find solutions locally, in our own towns, because these policies differ by zip code. There are some people in my city who live on the other side of town and policing is a little different because of policies and stuff like that so we have to understand law enforcement or how they’re protected, how we are protected, and how we can find a common ground.

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