It’s not just big cities. Towns and boroughs across Pa. are protesting police brutality

By: - June 1, 2020 2:44 pm

Black Lives Matter protesters match down Harrisburg’s Front Street in response to the death of George Floyd, May 30, 2020 (Capital-Star photo).

This developing story will be updated.

From rural Blair County to downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvanians turned out in the thousands this weekend to mourn George Floyd, of Houston, who was allegedly killed by police in Minneapolis last week.

The demonstrations in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Erie drew national attention when peaceful protests gave way to unrest, looting and violent confrontations with police.

But as media reports and social media posts show, the protests against police brutality and racism spread far and wide across the Commonwealth.

Demonstrators expressed sadness and outrage over the video that circulated online last week, showing a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes before Floyd, who was black, became unresponsive.

“How am I going to explain this to my daughter?” said a demonstrator in Hollidaysburg, Blair County on Sunday, according to a video obtained by WTAJ-TV. “How are we supposed to explain this to our kids?”

WTAJ reported that the Hollidaysburg demonstration drew hundreds of demonstrators, many of them white.

Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh history professor who researches grassroots organizing, began compiling the small-town protests in a Twitter thread Monday, struck by what she saw as evidence of a widespread movement getting lost amid the news of unrest in larger cities.

Some demonstrators, such as those in Lewisburg, Union County met virtually to avoid public gatherings, according to WKOK-FM.

But candlelight vigils and marches also drew hundreds of people to gather in Carlisle, Cumberland County; the small cities of Sharon and Hermitage in Mercer County; Hanover in York County; and Chambersburg in Franklin County.

Tensions between police and protesters ran high in many of the big city protests this weekend, with police deploying pepper spray and billy clubs on crowds in Harrisburg and Philadelphia.

When more than 200 demonstrators turned out to a public square in Milton, Northumberland County, however, police officers joined in.

“At one point, a Milton borough police officer and two sheriff’s deputies from Union County joined the group, taking a knee in remembrance of Floyd,” according to a report from The Daily Item.

Police officers also visited a candlelight vigil in Selinsgrove, Snyder County, on Sunday that drew more than 300 people, and on Monday joined protesters in Lancaster City, according to Lancaster Online.

Pennsylvanians came out in droves last month to protest shutdown orders Gov. Tom Wolf issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

But Putnam said the last time she saw widespread social action on a scale rivaling this weekend was in March 2018, when researchers tallied 27 demonstrations in a single day calling for stricter gun control measures.

Those events – part of the March for Our Lives movement that sprung from the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida – were the result of weeks of coordination, with support from regional and state-wide advocacy groups, Putnam said.

The recent protests against police brutality, on the other hand, sprung up with just a few day’s notice in the middle of a pandemic, and appear to have largely been led by local activists, Putnam said.

“Almost everywhere I see, [they’re] organized and led by local young people, who are outsiders to the existing political groups or established civil society organizations,” Putnam said. “That is super rare, and really impressive.”

This story was updated at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, June 1 to clarify comments from Lara Putnam.

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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.