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The Small Town Protests

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One of the most amazing things about the protest against police violence is how universal they are. I have to say that an article about the electoral implications of these protests seems a bit gauche to me. But what is actually important here is that all of these towns are actually seeing real protest actions.

Protests denouncing the killing of George Floyd have taken place in more than 60 communities across Pennsylvania so far, led and attended by residents who match the diversity of the state. More than half of Pennsylvania’s 1.5 million-plus African American residents live outside Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, many in economically declining cities, some with a growing share of Latino residents. Many of these cities have police departments that focus attention disproportionately on black and brown people and are perceived as operating with impunity. Meanwhile, black and brown residents are economically marginalized and are underrepresented politically.

Nearly all Pennsylvanian cities with this profile have seen large, multiracial protests led by young local black activists — often people who have been organizing around the label and issue of Black Lives Matter for years — joined in the streets by white and Latino young people in ways and numbers they have never seen before. Reading, Wilkes-Barre, Bethlehem, Allentown, Easton, Lancaster, Harrisburg: in each, more than a thousand people marched in protest in the space of a few days.

The protests have been overwhelmingly nonviolent. In a few cases, police treated the protesters harshly; in others, the marches were followed by acts of vandalism. There were tear gas and arrests in Harrisburg, Lancaster, Erie and Pittsburgh, as well as in Philadelphia, where police arrested hundreds of protesters and many people were injured.

Yet violence has not deterred peaceful protests under the banners of Black Lives Matter and Justice for George Floyd. For example, after a dozen people were arrested for alleged rioting at King of Prussia mall on May 30, local students and youth organizers persisted, holding nonviolent road blockades, organizing peaceful protests and circulating a petition calling for the county commissioner to resign.

Black Lives Matter protests have even emerged in smaller and whiter suburbs and towns in deeply conservative counties, including Chambersburg (pop. 20,000), Carlisle (19,000), Meadville (13,000), Waynesboro (11,000), Lock Haven (10,000), Carbondale (9,000), Punxsutawney (6,000), and two dozen similar locales. Participants reflect the demographics of young people in these communities as a whole: small numbers of black students with lots of teenage allies, plus some older supporters. While the young black protest leaders in Pennsylvania’s midsized cities have often been organizing against police abuses and racism for years, some of the young organizers of small town protests describe this as their first time organizing anything.

I know some of these towns pretty well. At least Meadville and Lock Haven have colleges. Plus Meadville has Voodoo Brewing, which is outstanding. Punxy? That town….is not great. Other than the Groundhog Day festival, there is nothing going on there, at all. That it is seeing actual protests is a very significant thing. The people there are definitely not used to that. And if some of these towns once had significant labor protest, they certainly didn’t have major protests in support of black people.

It‘s the same in Ohio. It is both significant now and heartening for the future.

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