Protests in towns large and small

Some hope that continued demonstrations are a sign that change is coming

~

By Kimberly Palmiero with photographs by Martha Rial

The line along New Kensington’s city hall stretched a block long from Third to Fourth Avenue, as more than 100 people stood in silence for eight minutes for George Floyd.

Some on Saturday huddled on a corner by a memorial for patrolman Brian Shaw, slain during a traffic stop in 2017. Some stood across from a building that, like so many others in cities across the country, had become a spontaneous public message board for solidarity and hoped-for change. “Black Lives Matter” was scrawled in chalk.

Protestors line up around city hall for a silent 8:46 minutes to remember George Floyd following a rally to support Black Lives Matter in New Kensington, Pa. on Saturday, June 13.

Earlier, Raye Thomas, 36, of neighboring Arnold listened to the speakers with her four young sons who range in age from 6 to 11, and her daughter. She tells them to remember what they see and hear. 

“This is history,” she said. “I want this to be a better place for our children.

Raye Thomas, of Arnold, with her six-year-old son Raycen, at a protest for Black Lives Matter in New Kensington.

There’s been more than 500 demonstrations throughout the country since the Memorial Day death of Floyd, a black man killed on May 25 when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes. While protesters have shown up en masse in Washington, D.C. to press for police reforms and in the nation’s largest cities, protests in small towns continue and many hope this is a sign of widespread change.

There have been protests in rural Meadville, Pa., (pop. 13,000)  where people gathered in a park in the center of town; in Taylorville, Ill. (pop. 11,000); in Alpena, Mich. (pop. 10,400); and in hundreds of other communities with no particular claim to fame. 

In central Pennsylvania, organizers of a protest yesterday in Hummelstown proudly billed it as “the first civil rights rally” in the community of less than 5,000 people.  They too, paused for eight minutes and 46 seconds — roughly the length of time police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck before his death.

Jordan Pirozzi, age 4, of Arnold, attends a Black Lives Matter Protest with his mother Kayla Pirozzi (left) in New Kensington, Pa., on Saturday, June 13.

Janet Reese, 54, of Queens, in New York City, said the movement that’s overtaken communities large and small gives her hope.

 “I didn’t know so many white people cared,” said Reese, who is staying with family in New Kensington “I didn’t know they would join us in protest.”

“That black lives matter is obvious. We are equal. All lives matter. We are one. If you have a higher power — we are all one. Let’s love one another. It’s not about black and white.”

Her family gathers by video meeting each week — she has extended family in North Carolina and South Carolina — and do check-ins and discuss events as a family.

Public opinions may be shifting: A poll by Monmouth University in New Jersey conducted June 2 found that 49 percent of white Americans say police would use excessive force against a black suspect, compared to 25 percent in 2016.

With Congressional Democrats under increasing pressure to act, the House is holding hearings on the Justice and Policing Act which they say would increase police accountability and ban chokeholds. Senate Republicans are working on their own proposal, that would focus on data collection.

About 12,000 people live in New Kensington, a community built on aluminium manufacturing and where people are working to rebuild a base of jobs and bolster the business district. About 10 percent are black residents. It is one of a patchwork of towns along the Allegheny River near Pittsburgh that’s struggled with population and job losses in recent decades. 

Aaron Moore of Arnold and Jon McCabe, 24, of Lower Burrell, organized the event on Saturday in New Kensington that at one point drew an estimated 300 people, McCabe said “to bring people together.”