Wolf marches for Black lives, but crowd demands more answers

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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democat, joined a Black Lives Matter protest Wednesday, June 3, 2020, that marched through the state capital Harrisburg. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Gov. Tom Wolf spent two hours marching through Harrisburg and hearing the anger of Black Lives Matter protesters Wednesday.

“George Floyd could not breathe,” Wolf, Pennsylvania’s chief executive, said in a brief address to protesters. “When that happened it meant that none of us could breathe.”

He said people should “stop racism,” particularly in the justice system, and advised protesters they were doing the right thing.

Wolf’s presence was a coup to some activists Wednesday, who pointed out that it meant their protests had the ear of power.

But the paucity of specifics left others, particularly young people, frustrated with the slow pace of progress in the face of problems, such as police brutality and institutionalized racism, that have existed for decades, if not centuries — well before the death of Floyd in police custody last week.

“I haven’t heard them say one thing, one thing about accountability — except what we can do,” protester Aaron Willis said hours after Wolf spoke to a smaller crowd of young people on the Capitol steps. “We can only do so much. They are already in place.”

The point-counterpoint followed a planned rally, where Wolf joined and marched in front of a winding protest in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black individuals who have been killed by police across the country.

A long session of speeches, heckling, and counters ended when frustrated younger protesters started their own protest and took their chants back where it started — the Capitol.

It all started at 1:30 p.m., after Wolf walked out to the Capitol steps and was swarmed by media. 

Two black SUV’s from Wolf’s entourage crept along with the crowd, as they chanted “I can’t breathe ” and held signs that called for defunding the police.

The march ended at a parking lot off Kelker Street in Midtown. There, as Wolf and Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse looked on, older Black leaders from the city advised young people to do the profound, such as not give into their anger, and the mundane, such as pick up trash in their neighborhoods.

But many in the crowd — not just the youth — were not pleased by the speeches, calling for specifics to address police brutality, not platitudes.

Doreen Sawyers took the microphone around 2:30 p.m., and immediately threw down the gauntlet.

“George Floyd is not a martyr,” she told the crowd. She then turned to face Wolf and Papenfuse.

“He’s your awakening.”

An uneasy silence hung over the crowd after the callout, before the space was filled with murmured assent and encouragement.

Sawyers, a 62-year-old Steelton resident, went on to advise Wolf and other policymakers to listen to the youth now, and come up with solutions, without delay.

“They need to look at their criminal justice system, their laws, their regulations,” Sawyers told the Capital-Star after. “The young people are not here for their agenda … their list of speakers. Let the youth speak, let the youth have a platform.”

As the rally neared its conclusion, the crowd grew anxious, calling for Wolf and Papenfuse to provide more concrete details.

Speaking to reporters briefly at the start of the march, Wolf said he would have those details on executive actions at a press conference Thursday.

In their own conference Tuesday, House Democratic lawmakers called for the Republican-controlled General Assembly to pass a slew of police accountability proposals.

They included a statewide ban on chokeholds, a statewide oversight board for police training and discipline, and changes to state use-of-force law.

The latter, proposed by state Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, following the police shooting of Antwon Rose Jr. in East Pittsburgh, was introduced last June.

It has gone nowhere. House Judiciary Chair Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, told the Capital-Star at the time he had no intention of ever taking up the legislation. 

“I actually believe our law enforcement in Pennsylvania do a good job in policing,” Kauffman told the Capital-Star.

The state Fraternal Order of Police also opposes the legislation, questioning its constitutionality.

Pa. House Democrats will talk how police officers use deadly force — without the police

House Democrats also proposed three actions they said Wolf can take with executive power — including a call for Pennsylvania State Police to collect and make publicly available data on police misconduct.

Back at the Harrisburg rally, Wolf ducked down a small crevice to a waiting SUV after a closing prayer.

He was whisked in and drove away before answering questions from the press or protesters.

Frustrated, a crowd of a hundred young people took back to the streets, marching back to the Capitol via Third Street.

While on the march into Midtown with Wolf, police cars blocked off their paths. On the way back, just bike-born protesters with steely gazes held off traffic.

After the brief march, the crowd ended back at the Capitol, where the young people rallied for another hour, chanting and directing traffic themselves as the crowd flowed into the street in front of the Capitol steps.

“I’m all for peace. I’m all for it,” Willis said in his speech. “But where’s our justice?” 

The group planned to hold another rally Sunday. Wednesday’s march was the third Harrisburg Black Lives Matter protest in five days.