2020 in Review: Protests that swept Pennsylvania

By: - December 27, 2020 9:47 am

Black Lives Matter protesters march down Front Street in Harrisburg on June 1, 2020 (Capital-Star photo).

Decades from now, 2020 will likely be seared in our collective consciousness as the year of the pandemic. But in Pennsylvania and across the United States, it may just as well be branded as the year of the protest.

Waves of dissent rippled across the Commonwealth this year, as Pennsylvanians assembled to oppose military action in Iran; to call for safe working conditions and rent freezes, and to protest the COVID-19 restrictions ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf.

That was before the nation witnessed one of the most significant civil rights movements in decades, as millions of Americans protested police killings and racism. 

The Black Lives Matter protests that spread across Pennsylvania in June even arrived in the Capitol. Black lawmakers staged a sit-in on the state House floor to demand police reform, leading to votes on a series of oversight measures. 

Preliminary figures compiled by the Crowd Counting Consortium, a volunteer-powered research project that tracks protest movements nationwide, show that Pennsylvania saw at least 618 protests in 2020. They ranged from political rallies that convened nearly 10,000 supporters of President Donald J. Trump, to demonstrations by bus drivers seeking protection from COVID-19 on the job.

Wolf issued a public health order in March urging Pennsylvanians to suspend gatherings with more than 10 people. Those guidelines eased over the summer, but many mass demonstrations took place despite the risk of a viral pandemic. 

The Wolf administration has not identified protests and marches as a significant driver of COVID-19 spread. A spokesperson told the Capital-Star that the “the sheer volume of reported cases makes it challenging to attribute exposure to any particular event,” and emphasized that any indoor or outdoor gathering poses a risk for COVID transmission.

But activists also found new ways to make their voices heard safely this year, despite the risks. They staged cacophonous car caravans and boat parades, or flooded politicians’ phone lines and social media accounts with their demands.

“We were able to adapt very quickly doing actions around the whole state, and that was the real achievement of this year,” said Nijmie Dzurinko, an organizer with Put People First PA, a healthcare advocacy organization that staged car caravans and socially distanced protests throughout the year. “We were prepared even though we didn’t know what was coming… [and] you can have a very powerful action with just 10 people.”

Here’s a look at four causes that brought Pennsylvanians to the streets this year.

Black Lives Matter

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Harrisburg police chief Thomas Carter kneels in front of angry protesters on June 1, 2020, who riddled him with criticisms of a police conduct during a Black Lives Matter protest Saturday. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Communities across Pennsylvania protested the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, joining what experts say may be the biggest protest movement in American history. 

“This wave of protests happened in more places and with more participation than any other in the last half century,” said Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh historian who studies political mobilization in Pennsylvania. “Historians will look back on it as very important for that reason.”

Pennsylvania saw more than 100 demonstrations against police brutality in June. Many of those events took place in small, traditionally conservative towns and cities that seldom saw protest actions. 

The marches and vigils continued throughout the summer. Philadelphia convulsed in protests again this fall after police fatally shot Walter Wallace, a Black man, in October.

The fervent activism led city leaders to scrutinize police budgets and policies. State lawmakers, meanwhile, passed a suite of new oversight and training measures, including a confidential statewide database of personnel records. 

Putnam said the protests also galvanized a new class of activists, drawing crowds that largely reflected the diversity of the state.

Polling data also found the movement attracted many first-time protesters – people such as 24-year-old Zak Infantino, who said Floyd’s killing spurred him to attend a protest in Butler, Pa. this summer.

“You can feel pretty helpless and powerless about [the violence], but it was nice to see people do care,” Infantino told the Capital-Star. “It was good being there, and it was a pretty diverse crowd.”

Unsafe living and working conditions

Housing advocates stage a demonstration outside a press conference held by Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday. Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison.

The statewide stay-at-home order that Wolf issued on March 16 shuttered most businesses and called for office workers to telecommute. 

Barely 10 days later, essential frontline workers were on the streets to protest unsafe working conditions. 

Healthcare, sanitation and transit workers staged dozens of protests this year calling for more personal protective equipment, hazard pay and on-the-job COVID-19 testing, data from Crowd Counting Consortium show.

Putnam pointed out that many of the workers who staged protests or threatened work stoppages this year belonged to unions, which have built-in organizing muscle and structured demands. 

That can make it easier for workers to get media attention or resolve their issues with management, Putnam said, whereas “lonely workers taking a stand were not always getting the public attention they were looking for.”

Many of the protests in the early days of the pandemic were small. Dzurinko said her organization limited a springtime protest in Philadelphia to just 10 people, who gathered to oppose a hospital shutdown.

Advocates also began testing new methods to keep protesters safe from COVID-19.

Dozens of criminal justice reform advocates honked their horns and waved protest signs from their cars in Philadelphia on March 30, calling on state and local officials to depopulate jails, prisons and immigration detention centers.  

As job losses mounted in April and May, activists staged car caravans to call for rent freezes. By the end of summer, those morphed into demands that Wolf extend his statewide moratorium on evictions.

Reopen PA protests 

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(Capital-Star file photo)

Thousands of protesters descended on Pennsylvania’s Capitol in April to protest Wolf’s shutdown orders, which closed businesses, schools and entertainment venues starting in mid-March.  

“[The government] can’t save us from the virus,” one Capitol protester told the Capital-Star in April, arguing that millions of people lost their jobs to “save” a fraction of people from the pandemic.  

Data from the Crowd Counting Consortium show similar events cropped up in more than a dozen towns across the state. And while the protests took aim at state-level policy, they also presaged a contentious presidential election: many participants waved Trump flags or staged events outside the president’s campaign rallies. 

In the summer, parents and student athletes turned out in support of school sports, which Wolf wanted to postpone until the winter.

Putnam has argued that media coverage blew the anti-shutdown protests out of proportion. But she told the Capital-Star the events were important because they reflected the Republican Party’s growing opposition to COVID-19 shutdown measures.

“They captured the desire of a significant portion of Trump supporters and folks in Pennsylvania,” Putnam said. “They signaled to other people that there was opposition … And were an opportunity to pull people into participation.”

Political demonstrations around the election

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Armed Three Percent militia members stand by as their leader, Taylor Stevens, addresses a crowd of and supporters of President Donald Trump at the Pennsylvania state Capitol on Nov. 7, 2020, at a rally in support of his reelection. National news media called the race for his opponent, Joe Biden, earlier that day, (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

COVID-19 derailed campaigns this year when it put traditional forms of political outreach on hold. Many candidates curtailed their schedule of meet and greets, or limited contact with voters as they knocked on doors. 

But Pennsylvanians still turned out in droves for political candidates and causes. 

Four dozen Pennsylvania cities saw protesters in August oppose cuts to the U.S. Postal Service and demand the resignation of U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, according to the Crowd Counting Consortium. Policies under DeJoy led to statewide mail delays, which advocates feared would disenfranchise people voting by mail in the Nov. 3 election.

Some of the largest crowds that the Crowd Counting Consortium recorded this year were Trump Campaign rallies. Researchers estimate that anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 people attended a Trump event at an airport hangar in Johnstown, Cambria County. 

Trump drew stern rebukes from Wolf this summer when his campaign did not enforce mask mandates or social distancing at its packed events.

President-Elect Joe Biden’s campaign also drew thousands of people to its largest Pennsylvania rally in November. But those events were hosted as drive-ins, with supporters staying in their cars.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.