By The Editorial Board
Everybody who knew the man who barricaded himself in the Garfield home where he lived and took shots at police trying to evict him on Aug. 23 knew it was going to come to this.
Jack Ball, owner of the Bantha Tea house, said he helped shelter children who’d been evacuated from a local daycare in the art gallery next door until the shooting subsided. Ball is displaying the artwork of a local Stowe artist and her family throughout September – he never thought he’d have to shelter terrified children in the art gallery next to his tea shop. They stayed open so people fleeing from the gunfire would have a place to hide.
“You’d hear multiple gunshots go off,” Ball said.
Communicating with some regular customers who lived next door to the shooter, William Hardison, Ball said Hardison knew he was being evicted and had been stockpiling weapons.
“He’d prepped everything,” Ball said, adding that when gas was deployed, Hardison had a gas mask at the ready. Some neighbors Ball spoke with said Hardison had a terminal illness and the situation was not a shock.
Still, seeing military-grade armored vehicles roll down Penn Avenue and having police officers carrying assault rifles was something nobody should get used to.
Hardison didn’t survive the standoff, which began in the morning on Aug. 23 and ended when he was pronounced dead around 5 p.m.
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey released a statement saying the city is committed to helping those who survived the trauma, including the classroom full of preschoolers forced to hide for their lives – but the trauma didn’t need to happen at all. Gainey would have known first-hand how Hardison would have reacted to police evicting him.
Hardison met with Gainey to explain he was a “sovereign citizen,” and believed the government and police did not have any authority over him, and U.S. law simply didn’t apply to him. There were anti-trespassing signs all over the townhouse he was being evicted from.
If every one of Hardison’s neighbors knew he had issues and he was under suspicion of stockpiling weapons, if the mayor knew, why was this the course of action to evict him from the home? There were many moments before it got to this point where Hardison, a veteran, could have been helped. He clearly needed help long before this incident.
The Alliance for Police Accountability released a statement: “We need the institutions in charge of taking care of our veterans, housing, and mental health to do a better job of protecting the people they are supposed to help. Mr. Hardison truly needed help, didn't receive the help he sought and now he is no longer with us. Like many, Mr. Hardison was doing his best to survive in a world not designed to meet his needs.”
As a veteran, he should have been in contact with veteran’s services, getting healthcare and mental health intervention. He was likely facing homelessness after this eviction. This is a situation well known to the people who are supposed to intervene and try to help him find a place to live.
As a culture, we’ve come to accept violence as a solution. Instead of reading the situation and trying to de-escalate, there’s a nihilistic acceptance that the only way to deal with someone who can’t pay their bills is to bring in a team of armor-clad men toting rifles.
This isn’t necessarily a condemnation of police, but a condemnation of what we accept as a culture. If everyone knew he would react this way, why couldn’t the system react to prevent this disaster rather than forcing the moment to its crisis?
Why do we accept an armored tactical vehicle lumbering down Penn Avenue and children cowering in fear? There’s something so heartbreaking about the idea of kids looking at what the best people have to offer in the form of self-expression while the worst of self-expression is going on outside.
For Hardison, this was his last resort – a final scream of rage heard after all the others had been ignored.
The McKees Rocks Police are exploring a program that would include social workers in situations better suited to them than police. This is a gesture toward a different way of thinking, though it’s too soon to know if it will act as a solution.
As a society, though, we didn’t try much to deflect this moment.
With all the data points available about this person, why was he allowed to amass weapons? Shouldn’t buying a gas mask trigger an automatic wellness check? What’s worse, why didn’t his impending homelessness matter until he picked up a gun?
We need to stop looking at violence as something to be punished after the fact and instead, something to be prevented before it can take place.