What has motivated residents of small-town Pennsylvania to join in the movement for racial equality?

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Marchers in Canonsburg head up North Central Avenue toward's the borough building during a June 20, 2020 march against racism and police brutality. (Photo by Heather Mull/PublicSource)

Marchers in Canonsburg head up North Central Avenue toward's the borough building during a June 20, 2020 march against racism and police brutality. (Photo by Heather Mull/PublicSource)

Beverly Perkins stands among a couple hundred demonstrators in the middle of East Pike Street in the heart of downtown Canonsburg —population 8,760 and 87% white. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in June.

Perkins, who is Black, says Canonsburg “still has a lot of small town ideology,” and that her teenage son and nephew, who stand alongside her today, have been called racial slurs and “told to go pick cotton.”

At the center of the throng, about a dozen organizers in their early 20s take turns speaking into an amplified mic and megaphone. They talk about George Floyd, voting, gender, microaggressions and, among other things, instructions on how the crowd will soon march several blocks to the Canon-McMillan School District offices. One young woman sings the Black National Anthem. 

Police officers have cordoned off two blocks of Pike Street with plastic jersey barriers. The officers stand in pairs around the perimeter.

Perkins knows many of these officers by name, and they know her children’s names. She says the officers wave when she walks by them.

“I would never step outside my home and be terrified that any one of these men would do anything [negative],” she says. Perkins says she feels “lucky, and proud of our police officers.”

Beverly Perkins at a June 20, 2020 protest in downtown Canonsburg. (Photo by Heather Mull/PublicSource)

Beverly Perkins at a June 20, 2020 protest in downtown Canonsburg. (Photo by Heather Mull/PublicSource)

Perkins and others crowding East Pike Street are among the many residents of southwestern Pennsylvania participating in what has become the largest protest movement in U.S. history and a global demonstration for police reform.  In the weeks following May 26, when then-Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, demonstrations in many cities, including Pittsburgh, led to confrontations  between police and community members. Demands to defund police departments have gained momentum, as municipalities have enacted changes to policing policies, practices and budgets. 

Why have people living in small and mid-sized municipalities throughout southwestern Pennsylvania turned out by the hundreds to denounce police brutality and confront racism? And in towns that are up to 95% white, what is motivating residents to march down the street yelling “Black Lives Matter”? 

These protests have taken various forms. In Murrysville, a 37-year-old Army veteran felt inspired to reach out to a few friends with the idea of demonstrating, and within days they were walking alongside neighbors and hundreds of protestors down a quiet side street, in coordination with local police. In Monroeville, organizers led a group of protestors down a busy five-lane road, stopping traffic before being redirected by a line of police cruisers. In New Kensington, protestors stood next to City Hall where they listened to a slate of speakers before encircling part of the building and standing in silence for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, recollecting Floyd’s death. 

A demonstrator stands with his fist raised during his speech at a protest in New Kensington on June 13, 2020. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Many protestors told PublicSource about racist incidents among neighbors or schoolmates. Black protestors talked about their experiences of police racially profiling them. They were demonstrating to raise awareness about these encounters with racism – and not let them be “swept under the rug,” as one participant put it. Many parents demonstrated alongside their children, wanting to model anti-racist values, they said, and to express hope for a better future. While some organizers have called for specific changes in their own communities, many attended in support of others demonstrating across the country and demanding police reform.

Paul and Sandi Hartman, due to concerns about coronavirus, had been “practically quarantined” in their Turtle Creek home before participating in the Monroeville protest on June 9. And this was their first protest in 47 years – since just before they married in 1973, when they demonstrated at Flagstaff Hill in Oakland against the Vietnam War.

“I can’t believe I’m this old and still seeing the brutality in this country. It just breaks my heart … It’s 2020 for gosh sakes,” Sandi said. “I can’t sit by and do nothing and say nothing.”

Sandi, who’s 65 and white, said she’d begun following 1Hood Media online to keep up with current activism. 

“So we’re just here trying to support, and I raise my fist in the sky in solidarity.”

Racial profiling and calls for change

Many protestors in these small and mid-sized towns maintain that they have good relationships with the local police, often because they know them personally. 

In Canonsburg, organizer Zheire Patmon, who is Black, characterized dialogue with police and city leaders leading up to the protest as positive, and already they were planning other events together. He even singled out police Chief Alexander Coghill, who had sat down with Patmon and others to hash out demonstration plans together: “I just commend him so much.”

Protesters holding signs during a June 9, 2020 demonstration in Monroeville. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/PublicSource)

Protesters holding signs during a June 9, 2020 demonstration in Monroeville. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/PublicSource)

Alannah Clever, wearing a black T-shirt with a purple Black Power fist, protested in Monroeville — population 27,380 and 67% white. She said she knew police officers at the protest, so she felt comfortable demonstrating along with her husband and four-year-old daughter, even as a line of cruisers stopped the crowd’s progress, forcing protestors to reroute off the street and across a parking lot, before again occupying a street and stopping traffic.

But fear and negative experiences with police are motivating some protesters. While Perkins trusts her local police officers, “When I leave this area, it’s not the same,” she said, describing Canonsburg as “a bubble.” Several organizers in Canonsburg shared stories about incidents they’d had with police in area towns, such as being followed and pulled over for vague reasons. 

Demonstrator Damon Lewis recalled the afternoon in Washington, Pa., when a police cruiser pulled up behind him and his wife with its lights flashing. The couple was driving home from her father’s medical clinic where they’d just had an ultrasound for their first baby. Lewis is Black. His wife is white.

Lewis pulled into a corner gas station, where officers told him he’d run a red light. They didn’t specify where, and Lewis didn’t recall driving through a signaled intersection before pulling over but he’d been taught since childhood not to question police. He said the officers returned to their squad car with his license and registration, leaving the couple to wait. After 45 minutes, Lewis’ father-in-law, a well-known physician in the area, saw them while on his way home from the clinic. He steered into the gas station and identified Lewis as his son-in-law. The officers then released Lewis without a citation or further explanation,

Lewis, 48, recited other incidents in which officers aggressively questioned him without explanation, even when he was walking or jogging in his own neighborhood. The first such incident occurred when he was 12 growing up in Baltimore. “In reality, people still see African Americans as dangerous,” he said.

Lewis said he was protesting, along with his wife and three boys ages 5 to 10, because, “I can't have what has happened to me through the years continue to happen to them.”

The family lives in Peters Township — population 22,044 and 94% white. Lewis said he’d recently talked with his children about how to act if police in their mostly white neighborhood questioned them. “It’s just for your safety,” he told them, “and you know if something happens, it’s mommy and daddy’s job to fight.

Chanda Moyes and her children Savannah Owen (far left), Trent Owen and Hannah Owen (far right) at the protest in New Kensington. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Chanda Moyes (center left) and her children Savannah Owen (far left), Trent Owen and Hannah Owen at a June 13, 2020 protest in New Kensington. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Demonstrating in New Kensington, Trent Owen II, 23, echoed Lewis’s experiences: “This stuff does happen to us.” One afternoon when he was 13, Owen said he was playing basketball with a friend at a court beside his family’s home when several officers pulled up with guns drawn. They said he matched the description of a crime suspect. Trent’s mother, Chanda Moyes, came out of their home, having seen the altercation from her kitchen window. Police told her to return inside. The situation diffused only after another officer arrived on the scene and recognized Chanda and Trent.

According to Moyes, the suspect turned out to be a 6-foot, 30 to 40-year-old man with a dark complexion, but that her then-13-year-old son was five-foot-five and of light complexion. Moyes concluded: “If I wasn’t known in this community or my children weren’t known in this community, I don't know what would have happened that day.”

In addition to raising awareness about incidents with police, many organizers wanted specific changes particular to policing and municipal activities, as well as greater civic engagement among residents. Demonstration organizer Aryanna Hunter would like to see Murrysville set up a community police review board, and specifically one for a newly approved police unit assigned to the Murrysville school system. 

Aaron Moore organized the protest in New Kensington — population 12,292 and 85% white. He’d like to see the mayor there set up a police review board, and he encourages residents to attend City Council meetings, “where you form that direct communication,” he said, adding: “If you don’t do any action after, then a protest is just a protest.” Moyes, who helped organize the event, would like to see more diversity in New Kensington’s City Council and the local magistrate’s office, as well as greater support from the city for Black-owned businesses.

Zheire Patmon, front left, and other demonstrators march in Canonsburg during a June 20, 2020 protest. (Photo by Heather Mull/PublicSource)

Zheire Patmon, front left, and other demonstrators march in Canonsburg during a June 20, 2020 protest. (Photo by Heather Mull/PublicSource)

Similarly, in Washington and Canonsburg, Patmon and his friends encouraged protestors to engage civically. They’ve planned panels to encourage public dialogue and conducted voter registration campaigns. On the day of the Canonsburg protest, they helped David Dungee, 59, register to vote —  the first he’d done so in more than 20 years.

Resistance and racism

Protestors also wanted to raise awareness about racism within their own communities.  

Hunter decided to organize a demonstration in Murrysville — population 19,950 and 95% white – as a “sign of solidarity” with other Black Lives Matter demonstrations. She found inspiration in a friend who’d organized one in the eastern Pennsylvania town of Elverson — population 1,450 and 94% white. According to Hunter, “She had like 20 people from her neighborhood show up at the local Taco Bell.”

After Hunter created a Facebook event for the June 14 protest, pushback came swiftly as many people anticipated violence. Some threatened or implied their own forms of violence with such comments as “Can we shoot” and “I’ll bring the semi from work and play bowling.” When someone posted Hunter’s home address, she installed a security camera outside of her house. Still, she was undeterred from making the protest happen.

To her surprise, a couple hundred residents showed up. Hunter, who is bi-racial, stood in front of this mostly white crowd and expressed her appreciation.

“I always felt like an ‘other.’ And unfortunately, sometimes my community made me feel that way. Today, I don’t feel that way.”

Murrysville Police Captain Charles Tappe said his officers, who lined the route, were there to protect public safety and protesters’ First Amendment rights. While discussing the death of George Floyd, Tappe said, “We have to admit, as law enforcement, there is a problem. It may not be here, but it’s in other parts of the country.” Noting that his officers receive deescalation and implicit bias training, he said he wasn’t aware of any racially driven altercations between community members and Murrysville police, nor any recent hate crimes.

A crowd gathered at a June 14, 2020 demonstration against racism and police violence in Murrysville. (Photo by Mark Kramer/PublicSource)

Still, Hunter and others shared about their personal experiences with racism.

Hunter said that her son, who she said “doesn’t look Black,” quit his middle school football team after other players called a Black teammate and friend “the n-word.”

Sally Lipsky, also protesting in Murrysville, described the day a couple of years ago when she drove by a house with an open garage door and saw a swastika flag hanging across the back wall. Lipsky is Jewish. “It just seared me,” she said.

Clever, while marching in Monroeville, recounted her mother’s experience of having a bar owner tell her patrons wouldn’t feel comfortable being served by a Black woman so he couldn’t hire her. This was near Vandergrift — population 4,875 and 91% white — where Clever grew up hearing explicitly racist remarks. “I used to have to deal with hearing people call me n***r, coon, spook almost all the time in the hallways in school,” she said.

Bill Werts Jr. of Greensburg, who is white, decided to stand in front of the crowd in Murrysville and share about his own racist past. He described a particularly formative experience as an 8-year-old growing up in Renovo, in Clinton County in north central Pennsylvania. During a Sunday school class, he asked his teacher what the mark of Cain was. “And she looked at me, smiled and she said, ‘It’s black skin,’” he said. “And this is what we were taught … racism is a learned disease. I grew up where racism was not only accepted but encouraged.”

Conversely, multiple white protestors at Black Lives Matters protests said they didn’t want to speak to a PublicSource reporter and would prefer Black participants be interviewed.

In New Kensington, John McCabe, who is white, was among those who helped Moore organize the protest. McCabe considered speaking in front of the crowd, he said, as Moore and many others did, but chose not to. 

“We’re here to be against racism and to amplify Black voices in this community,” he said. “I will not speak here, but out there I speak and have conversations with my white friends, my white family ... We’re trying to break that silence. There’s too much silence in this country and it just equals consent.”

Mark Kramer is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher based in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at mark@mnkramer.com.

This story was fact-checked by Veonna King.

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