Black Lives Matter protests swept small towns in Pa. this week. Here’s why that matters. 

Community members met in St. Marys, PA on Sunday, June 7 for a public gathering against racism. Source: Rural PA for Racial Equality Facebook, shared with permission.

The crowd of concerned citizens splayed out across the village square, where they prayed with local leaders; painted signs with protest slogans; and observed nine minutes of silence in honor of George Floyd, the Texas man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police officers last month.

The scene has been typical of dozens of Pennsylvania cities in the weeks since Floyd’s death, as thousands of people protest racism and police brutality.

But this particular event unfolded against a seemingly unlikely backdrop: the town of St. Marys, a Catholic stronghold in rural Elk County, where 98 percent of the 12,260 residents are white.

“In St. Marys, protests or any sort of active demonstration is not common at all – and I’ve lived here 27 years,” said Dani Catalano, a public school teacher who, along with a group of fellow educators, organized the community gathering against racism. “But if not now, when? I think we’ve all sort of reached the point where enough is enough.”

Protests in Pennsylvania’s largest cities gained national attention in the early days of June, when crowds looted and destroyed property and police arrested, beat and pepper sprayed peaceful demonstrators.

But the Black Lives Matter movement has spread far and wide across the Commonwealth, spawning peaceful protests in more than 100 municipalities in at least 61 counties, a Capital-Star analysis of social media posts and local media reports has found.

The protests reached virtually all of Pennsylvania’s large and mid-size cities, as well as small boroughs in rural, traditionally conservative parts of the state. More than half of the towns that saw protests are home to fewer than 10,000 people; most of them are majority-white.

Just like their counterparts in big cities, small-town activists have taken to the streets for days on end. Protests lasted for a week in both Punxsutawney, Jefferson County and Tyrone, Blair County. Activists in Tyrone held vigil each night outside a municipal building, where they called on the community to “step up and address racism as a real issue,” according to WNEP-TV.

“We’re really upset with the fact that there’s so much classism, so much racism, so much sexism,” the organizer of an event in Dubois, Clearfield County, told a local radio station. Protesters will gather in DuBois on Saturday for the second week in a row. “Even though we are a small town, predominantly white and rural, we still care and we still want to make a difference.”

Each event represents the work of local activists, who often launched quick calls to action on Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok, according to Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh who began tracking protests in small towns and cities on Twitter.

Some of these young activists are people of color. Others were white people like Catalano, who told the Capital-Star that organizers in St. Marys wanted to “educate and open up a space for communication” in their majority-white town.

In some cases, the protests have had the support of existing grassroots organizations, or the buy-in of local leaders and law enforcement.

“These actions take a good amount of planning,” said Nijmie Dzurinko, an organizer with the healthcare advocacy group Put People First PA, whose members helped coordinate events in Altoona, Johnstown and Scranton. “There’s a lot of thought we’re putting in to make sure we are prioritizing safety.”

Dzurinko said that typical protest logistics, such as getting permits to take over city streets, proliferate during a pandemic.

Mass gatherings are technically prohibited under Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response plan. But officials including Gov. Tom Wolf have expressed solidarity with protesters, and even joined demonstrations. 

Organizers like Dzurinko still wanted to have masks and hand sanitizers on hand for protesters, recognizing that social distancing is near-impossible. 

Dzurinko said her group also recruits peacekeepers and community leaders to help de-escalate conflicts if they did arise.

But media reports indicate that protests across Pennsylvania have been consistently peaceful, even in the face of threats and vigilante surveillance. Protesters marched the streets of Elizabethtown, Lancaster County under the gaze of armed civilians, who said they stationed themselves on rooftops to protect businesses. 

More than 30 people rallied in Vandergrift, Westmoreland County, even though leaders “formally canceled the event after receiving harsh backlash and threatening messages,” the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported.

What does it mean?

Experts who study social movements say the scale of Black Lives Matter protests nationwide is unprecedented. Already, it’s having seismic impacts on public opinion and policy. 

Officials in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have pledged to eliminate proposed funding increases and consider sweeping reforms to their police departments after nearly two straight weeks of protests in their cities.

Mayors in Harrisburg and Aliquippa, Beaver County have pledged to adopt measures to reduce use-of-force incidents, while elected officials in Ellwood City, Lawrence County are being challenged to join their constituents at protests.

State lawmakers such as Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia say the breadth of protests in rural, traditionally conservative locations indicates a growing appetite for state-level policies on police conduct and accountability. 

In Pennsylvania’s state Capitol, these causes are typically championed by Democrats and languish in Republican-controlled legislative committees. Following a sit-in by Black lawmakers in the state House on Monday, leaders have agreed to discuss some reform measures in public hearings.  

“I think there’s a significant level of support for these measures that reduce the killing of unarmed black and brown people,” Haywood told the Capital-Star this week. “Seeing the scope and the breadth of these protests … gives me a lot of hope.”

Seasoned organizers such as Dzurinko, however, aren’t surprised to see small towns declaring solidarity with Black Lives Matter, a movement that sees racial and economic justice as intertwined.

Dzurinko has travelled the state to unify Pennsylvanians around the cause of universal health care. Along the way, she’s learned that politicians are all too eager to divide the Commonwealth along two lines: race and geography.  

“Powers that be reinforce the idea that people in Philadelphia have nothing in common with people in Westmoreland County,” Dzurinko said. “They say we have different interests and we should be opposed to each other, when in reality that’s a really old sort of trick [to] keep people divided.”

That type of rhetoric has infiltrated debates in the state Capitol this year, as elected officials have argued for greater local control during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Emporium is not Philadelphia,” Senate president tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said in April, juxtaposing a town in rural Cameron County with the Pennsylvania city hit hardest by the coronavirus, as he voted on a bill to reopen businesses.

While towns and cities may not have seen the same levels of disease since COVID-19 arrived in Pennsylvania in March, Dzurinko said it’s no coincidence that massive protests are sweeping the United States in the midst of a pandemic and a global recession.

The twin crises have led 1.5 million Pennsylvanians to file for unemployment, exacerbated food insecurity and highlighted healthcare gaps in rural and urban communities alike. 

“I think that what we’re seeing with these protests is something that we’ve known for a very long time: these places are hurting,” Dzurinko said. 

The video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck may have been the spark for a nationwide social movement, Dzurinko said. But the economic shocks of the pandemic “are cutting across all communities and are uniting people across lines of division” – all the way from Philadelphia to Cambria County.

“We all have an interest in coming together,” Dzurinko said. “The only people who don’t want that to happen are the folks who are invested in partisan politics.”