‘People want to stand up for what’s right’: In Wilkes-Barre, teens raise their voices in peaceful protest

Wilkes-Barre Mayor George Brown and police Chief Joseph Coffay kneel with protesters (Capital-Star photo by Patrick Abdalla)

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — After three hours, the crowd on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre was finally ready to break up, and Winter Jenkins gathered her friends into a hug.

The teenagers squeezed each other and said farewell, having completed a raucous — and at times moving — 3-hour-long, peaceful protest in honor of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who was killed by a police officer last week.

“I’m so proud,” Winter’s mom, Michelle Wilson said a few feet away.

Winter, 15, and friends Lakina Hughes, 15, and Kaylee McNeil, 16. Had discussed doing something a few days ago, then set up a Facebook page to promote it. They soon got friends involved and family helped spread the word to adults as well.

By Wednesday afternoon, a group of about three-dozen people started the protest on Center Square at 2:30.

Within minutes, nearly 200 people were there, carrying signs with slogans such as “Black Lives Matter,” “Know Justice, Know Peace,” and “Silence is Violence.”

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The crowd started with chants, as drivers in passing cars honked their horns.

Organizers stressed that the crowd would be respectful to the police and community. They would not respond to violence with violence. “If someone hits you, you don’t hit them back,” one of the organizers shouted.

Protesters gather in Public Square Wilkes-Barre (Capital-Star photo by Patrick Abdalla)

The protest started just as news was breaking that Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison would be bringing additional charges against the three police officers who were nearby as Floyd died. Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, will also face more serious charges.

While Wilkes-Barre has seen peaceful protests over several days, Tuesday afternoon brought some concerns. An employee of a regional pizza chain was fired, the chain announced, after he made a threatening post on Facebook.

The Rite Aid across from Public Square was boarded up Wednesday, while other nearby businesses operated under normal COVID-19 restrictions.

The protest wasn’t without some angst. Several local officials, Mayor George Brown, police Chief Joseph Coffay, and City Councilman Tony Brooks, were in attendance.

At one point, Brown and Coffay knelt down with organizers. Some found the display moving. Others walked away, calling it a photo op.

Attendees found most of the day inspiring.

Mbathio Halloway, 45, was attending her first protest. Her 15-year-old daughter convinced her to go.

“People want to stand up for what’s right,” she said.

Sevannah Ramsey, 19, of Wilkes-Barre, said she had hoped even more people would come.

“But this is good,” she said. This was her first protest as well. She said she plans on attending others.

During the protest, Kaylee, 15, one of the organizers, took a moment to speak to the press as the crowd listened to another speaker.

“I’m proud,” she said of the turnout. “I’m proud of who I am and I’m proud of my culture.”

She said she wants to continue to be a civil rights activist.

Lakina, who spoke powerfully about the unjustness of her fears, said the protest meant a lot. People are speaking out, she said.

More than an hour later, as the crowd finally began dispersing, the three huddled together. Nearby, Brooks, the councilman, sat on a park bench listening to a constituent vent about the situation.

Wilson could only marvel at the day her daughter helped organize.

“At my age, I never would have had the courage to do this,” Wilson said.

Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @PaddyAbs.