Leon Ford isn’t interested in being the poster boy for anyone’s trauma porn. The 30-year-old Pittsburgh-based activist writes a lot about love and resilience in “An Unspeakable Hope: Brutality, Forgiveness, and Building a Better Future for My Son” (Atria Books, $28.99, co-authored with Jeffrey Renard Allen).
In his second book, Ford tries to jettison the rage and self-pity most readers would forgive him for indulging in after being shot five times during what should have been a routine police traffic stop.
The Pittsburgh police had been looking for a man named Lamont Ford who bore little resemblance to Leon Ford if you ignored the fact that both were Black and roughly the same age.
On that chilly November evening in 2012, Leon Ford’s insistence that they had pulled over the wrong guy only made the officers more suspicious. The name on his driver’s license and registration backing his story weren’t enough to exonerate him.
Convinced that his life was in danger, Ford wrapped his arm around the steering wheel with all of his might so he couldn’t be pulled from his car. He then stepped on the gas. Meanwhile, another officer slipped into the front passenger seat. What happened next changed both their lives.
“I felt bullets exploding in my body before I lost control of the steering wheel,” Ford writes in the book’s prologue. “The smell of gunpowder saturated my vehicle. I lost consciousness and crashed. The airbag mushroomed up into my face and body. What had just happened? Where’d the gunshots come from?
“With my face mashed into the airbag, head pounding from impact, I tried to put two and two together, question and question. I didn’t know that a third cop had jumped into the passenger seat next to me. He’d shot me, five times.”
The bullets fired by Officer David Derbish on November 11, 2012 rendered Leon Ford a paraplegic who struggled with depression and suicidal ideation over the next decade.
Shortly after getting shot, Ford understood that he had to reconcile his previous hopes and dreams as an enterprising hustler with the limitations imposed on him by life in a wheelchair.
He also had to deal with a vengeful police department and district attorney’s office that put him on trial for “resisting arrest” and other dubious charges meant to deflect from the shoddy policing and rule breaking that landed him in a wheelchair. He beat those charges handily and countersued the city. A few years later, he was awarded $5.5 million dollars.
Still, becoming a millionaire didn’t restore his ability to walk. Despite an incandescent smile and friendly demeanor that immediately put strangers at ease, Ford nursed a nearly unquenchable rage at Pittsburgh police in general and murderous daydreams about Officer Derbish in particular.
Still, he understood that the inchoate anger he carried wasn’t good for his mental health and that his “addiction to chaos” would eventually destroy him and the future of the one person he loved more than anyone in the world — his son LJ.
This is what makes “An Unspeakable Hope” such a compelling and poignant account of a man coming to grips with the contradictory parts of his life before and after the shooting that left him paralyzed. It is a tale that chronicles a relentless march toward enlightenment by an unlikely urban philosopher.
Along the way, we meet the family and friends who helped forge Leon Ford’s identity. Foremost among them is his father, also named Leon Ford — an infamous Pittsburgh drug kingpin who went by the mystifying street name Big Bit.
Big Bit went to prison when Leon, who was known as Lil’ Bit, was still in his formative years; that didn’t stop Big Bit from attempting to give his son all the love and guidance he believed he needed through letters encouraging him to stay on the straight and narrow.
Ford did not always take his father’s advice. He carved out a lucrative niche for himself supplying local dealers with high-quality weed and, occasionally, harder drugs.
Handsome, charismatic and good with his hands, Ford was almost too smart and resourceful to get caught, but even he managed to catch two illegal gun possession charges before he decided that life as a working-class striver in an auto detailing shop was the better part of valor for someone who never wanted to spend more than a few hours at Allegheny County Jail.
When Big Bit emerged from prison after having been incarcerated for more than a decade, father and son resumed their close relationship as housemates in the East End. Big Bit was Ford’s primary caretaker and assistant during the early days of his convalescence after the shooting.
Ford spends whole chapters detailing his relationship with his parents, grandparents, siblings and old friends from the ‘hood and how they contributed to his understanding of the world in negative and positive ways.
We learn how the accidental death of his young sister Leona cast a shadow over his childhood that contributed to the depression he couldn’t acknowledge until after he was shot years later.
Ford also reveals how he gradually abandoned archaic notions of masculinity his father taught him in order to become the sort of man who could reach out to a therapist for much-needed help when he was at his lowest point a few years ago.
The second half of “An Unspeakable Hope” details Ford’s adjustment to life as a paraplegic who refused to surrender an ounce of personal agency.
He also details how his friendship with a congregation of Quakers helped him overcome his natural suspicion of white people at a time when local civil rights organizations were indifferent to him until nationally-known civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump joined his legal team. It didn’t take long for the relationship to sour before he and Big Bit fired him.
“Part of his strategy appeared to be painting me as an innocent, a saint,” Ford writes. “Whatever his intentions, that cut me the wrong way. Why would he try to sanitize my image? … I had a juvenile record, and my dad had a reputation on the streets. Nothing I’ve done in my life justifies a cop shooting me five times and paralyzing me.”
A few paragraphs later, Ford writes: “Crump did other things I found unacceptable. He coached my parents about how to deal with the media, and he prepared a script that he wanted them to recite from memory at a press conference. His script seemed designed to paint my parents as the perfect Black family, churchgoing folk. Then, the straw that broke the camel’s back: once in public I felt he cried fake tears when he spoke about my case.”
It’s a brutal assessment of a social justice icon and a dramatic example of Ford’s willingness to risk alienating fellow progressives for the sake of truth-telling. That’s why it comes as no surprise that he’s highly critical of the organizational side of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Fortunately, Ford spends more time writing about his mentors and friends of all races, backgrounds and incomes than griping about folks who disappoint him. He is a world traveler now who is as likely to be making a speech at the Aspen Institute as he is conducting a session for young, Black entrepreneurs in Homewood.
The most rewarding passages are reserved for the book’s closing chapters when Ford, who co-founded The Hear Foundation with former Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert, embarked on the ultimate act of restorative justice — meeting with Detective David Derbish at a Downtown hotel a decade after the shooting.
It would be a disservice to quote from those final pages because they are among the most moving passages one is likely to encounter this year. They deserve to be read and enjoyed in context.
Leon Ford has penned one of the most consequential biographies by a local writer in years. It is as insightful a read as Brian Broome’s “Punch Me Up to the Gods” and Damon Young‘s “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.” While serving as the culmination of Ford’s journey, it doesn’t feel like the end of his spiritual and intellectual evolution.
Instead, like the best autobiographies, “An Unspeakable Hope” points to the potential for all of us to rise beyond our circumstances regardless of the limitations of the moment. That’s a deeply hopeful message during the bleakest of times.
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.