Black Lives Matter in Unlikely Places
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On a withering Sunday afternoon in August, 200 people seems an impressive turnout for a Black Lives Matter rally in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a city of 28,000 along the west branch of the Susquehanna River. This part of the state is overwhelmingly white, rural and conservative. But Frank Manzano, an organizer of the protest who is now dispensing optimism and energy from the steps of City Hall, is secretly disappointed. “I expected Williamsport as a community to show up,” Manzano would later tell me. “I just don’t know what we did wrong.”
In fact, the rally is a well-organized affair, police-permitted and supervised. People can register to vote, sign up to join the NAACP, buy a T-shirt, or receive a face mask or bracingly cold bottle of water for free. The temperature throughout the event’s three and a half hours remains in the 90s. The sun is cruel. “Thank God for this beautiful day,” Manzano says.
Directly across the street, standing in front of a clock tower, are three White men. Two are in jeans, the third in military olive from his hat to his black boots. Only his eyes are visible. On first glance, I failed, somehow, to notice the semi-automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. On closer inspection, Camo Man appears to have enough ammo around his midsection to kill every man, woman and child in attendance. A fourth armed White man soon joins the sedentary posse.
Manzano, who has a knack for exhorting the mixed-race crowd, has found a useful foil. “They walked to the other side of the street,” he says, raising his voice to be sure the posse hears. “They can’t handle the love over here.”
He and his colleagues start a series of chants: “Silence is violence.” “United we stand, divided we fall.” “No good cops in a racist system.” The crowd knows the words and joins in. That’s the source of Manzano’s disappointment. These are veteran protesters. Manzano was hoping for new blood.
Manzano and his group, which is called “If Not Us Then Who,” had invested many hours in generating enthusiasm for the event in Williamsport, which has the largest Black population in the region. They posted flyers. They interviewed people on the street to gauge interest and spur participation. They were expecting to see some of the new faces — especially black faces — who had assured them that they would turn out to protest. After all, a small group of self-avowed Nazis — swastikas and all — had marched in the town only two weekends before.
By the time he spoke in Williamsport, Manzano, who is 24, had been an activist for two months. On May 31, he and his band of “brothers” — consisting of three pairs of actual brothers and one close friend — took to the streets of their hometown, Milton, Pennsylvania, in a spontaneous protest after the killing of George Floyd. The succeeding weeks were a blur of meetings after work -- organizing, protesting and always “educating” themselves and others. The seven men, the oldest of whom is 25, each with at least one Black or Hispanic parent, discovered they had allies across Central Pennsylvania
Indeed, throughout the Susquehanna Valley, in one improbably small town after another, people came out this spring and summer to protest in behalf of Black lives. By the end of June, Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert in grassroots political action, had tracked more than 400 anti-racism events in 230 Pennsylvania communities. All but five of the state’s 67 counties, many of them rural, had hosted protests. (By comparison, there were women’s marches in 24 Pennsylvania communities in 2017, and Tea Party “Tax Day” protests in 29 communities in 2009.) A handful of Pennsylvania historians and political scientists I queried could think of no historical analog for the BLM protests.
After a string of successful demonstrations, attracting more supporters than they imagined possible, Manzano and his friends are now pondering what comes next.
Manzano is a bear of a man, but of a distinctly teddy sort. He grins warmly, alternates between calling me “Sir” and “Brother,” and heaps praise on the mentors and colleagues he has collected in the past two months. He also makes himself available for sometimes uncomfortable questions after his long shifts packing shipments at a local Walmart. He will soon start his last year of college at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he is studying finance and accounting.
Manzano’s White mother died when he was 10. His father, a Dominican auto mechanic with his own business in Milton, is unsupportive of his three children’s activism. “He told me this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Manzano, the eldest child. “He keeps asking me, ‘What change are you guys really gonna bring?’”
The question stings. The odds of upending the racial folkways of Manzano’s hardscrabble home town of Milton seem high. According to the U.S. Census, 93% of residents in Milton, population 6,500, are non-Hispanic White. His father, Manzano said, now sees his son with a target on his back in a place where it’s better to lay low. “My dad’s experienced racism. I know he’s experienced the discrimination and prejudice,” Manzano said. “So for him to say that we’re not going to change anything, it’s just, it’s so hard.”
Like others of his generation, Manzano finds no succor in passivity. But he also seems genuinely confounded by the racism he encounters. Pennyslvania, he points out, was never a slave state. “So when you bring your Southern heritage into Pennsylvania, what are you really saying?” he asks. For Manzano, the Floyd killing was the “last straw.” He is tired of micro-aggressions, of being told “I talk White.” But in a region where Blacks and Hispanics are few, their political power is minimal, and many Whites are vehemently resistant to cultural change, it’s the macro-aggressions that leave the largest wounds. The N-word is common around town, he said. So is a slur specifically associated with Hispanics. There is also a hybrid of the two — “Spigger.”
Black Lives Matter is the sum of its words. The phrase is both highly economical and endlessly expansive. If you believe Black lives matter, you can be White or Black, liberal or conservative, Christian or communist; there is room for you in the words, and in the movement.
That simplicity creates a quandary for opponents. To assert that Black lives don’t matter is to stake a claim for White supremacy in its most unambiguous form. To preserve ambiguity, opponents have adopted slogans that rely on subtext. Without subtext, “Blue Lives Matter” challenges nothing, and confronts no one. What renders it oppositional to Black Lives Matter, a sneering, contemptuous rebuttal, is the unspoken charge that the lives of police officers are threatened, and occasionally lost, because Blacks are uniquely violent. The subtext that gives heft to “Blue Lives Matter” is “Black Lives Are Criminal.”
“All Lives Matter” is more subtle. Under the guise of erasing racial distinctions, it seeks to safeguard them. By asserting that the lives of no group are discounted or elevated compared with those of another, it buttresses the status quo, in which Blacks die by police violence in disproportionate numbers and in which median Black family wealth is less than one-tenth that of White families, many of whom benefited from centuries of government support denied to most Blacks. All Lives Matter denies that justice requires change.
“White Lives Matter” is simply White supremacy as plagiarism. But, like every expropriation of Black property through the years, it’s not a victimless crime. The racial aggression that fuels Trumpism is anchored in the resentments of Whites who fear the decline of White supremacy and have convinced themselves that they are both the true victims of injustice and the only authentic Americans worthy of exercising power.
Trumpism generates its own branded racial slogans. At protests across rural Pennsylvania, Trump hats, Trump flags and Trump supporters invariably appear as counterpoints to “Black Lives Matter.” Indeed, for many, the word “Trump” itself holds the power to contradict assertions that Black lives do, can or should matter. Driving past the protest in Williamsport, a passenger shouted “Trump 2020!” out a car window. No one appeared puzzled by its relevance.
In June, 19-year-old Sascha Gutierrez and a friend organized a Black Lives Matter march in Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania, near Stroudsburg. Gutierrez told me she had feared that the two young women would march alone. Instead, around 150 supporters showed up. Gutierrez said that she didn’t see the march as political and didn’t want others to, either. But the decision was not hers alone. A counter-protest was organized by the local Republican Party chairwoman. “This is Trump Country” one sign stated. The implication was clear: Black lives don’t matter here.
The urge to depoliticize Black Lives Matter in places where politics run sharply against it is more than strategy. Many young organizers have little taste for partisan warfare; they are reaching for something at once higher and more durable. “Speaking out against the injustice of George Floyd’s death felt to some people, as signs at protests (especially outside of big cities) have repeatedly emphasized, as not a matter of politics but of ethics,” said Lara Putnam, the historian, via email. “At least some white participants spoke of their sense of obligation to step forward and bear witness to George Floyd’s death as a matter of Christian values, in explicit contrast to partisan politics.”
Sarah and Zachary Gates are White church people in their 40s. Zachary grew up in Pennsylvania’s Bradford County, where his family first settled in 1806. After living near Boston, the couple moved their family back to Bradford, settling in Troy, about 70 miles north of Milton. Troy is overwhelmingly White and Christian. “It’s very common for people to either be going to a Christian church or identify as Christian,” said Sara Gates in a telephone interview. Trump won 71% of the vote in the county in 2016.
Survey research shows that White Christians are more likely to harbor racial resentment than non-Christian Whites, with White evangelicals packing the most racial punch. Almost three quarters of White evangelical Protestants say police killings of unarmed Black Americans are merely “isolated” incidents, while fewer than a third of religiously unaffiliated Whites agree.
Sarah, a psychologist, said that Christian witness compelled her to hold a Black Lives Matter event in Troy. “I decided to have a demonstration partly because as a White Christian woman I felt as though it was partly my responsibility to do something,” she said. “But also because I just was seeing all over the country such a ground-swelling of unrest, and I emotionally wanted to express my feelings.”
Zachary was like-minded. “I think there was sort of this moment where both for Sarah and for me, we realized that for too long people of color have been having to carry their own water on the issue of trying to obtain equality,” he said.
Black Lives Matter was bound to be a fraught concept in Troy. But Zachary hoped that humility and deep community roots would soften resistance. “You see me at the baseball game, you see me in the store. You know, I’m not a bad person. My wife’s not a bad person. If we’re taking this position, engage us in conversation and see where it goes,” he said.
After Sarah and Zachary gathered a small group to discuss how they should proceed, the half-dozen participants decided to hold an event. Perhaps if they avoided the freighted words — “Black Lives Matter” — no one in town would feel uncomfortable.
But Sophie Williams, a graduate of Troy High School and a student at Dartmouth College, insisted on the integrity of “Black Lives Matter.” She encouraged her elders to put away their fears. “There is a lot of support for ‘All Lives Matter’ and ‘Blue Lives Matter’ in Troy (along with a lot of ideology and racism that I saw frequently growing up),” Williams said, via email. “So we wanted to publicly display some pushback to that type of hostility.”
Williams won the day. “She basically said, ‘Don’t be scared to walk down and do an actual demonstration,’” Sarah Gates recalled.
The flyer for the July 19 “Demonstration in Troy For Unity And Racial Justice” is nonetheless a delicately calibrated document. Wedged between biblical references was the qualified rationale for the occasion: “Because if all lives matter, black lives matter, too.”
Williams was also instrumental in encouraging Shahmar Woleslagle to attend the event. Woleslagle, a slight, soft-spoken, Black 17-year-old, is a senior at Troy High School. One of the school’s few nonwhite students, Woleslagle even agreed to speak at the demonstration, which was held on a lawn next to the public library. “I was very nervous to be here today,” he announced to the few dozen townspeople in attendance.
Later, Woleslagle told me he had been worried that the demonstration would be met with violence. In fact, the response was muted. A pickup truck flying a Trump flag revved its engine as it drove by. Two costumed and masked bodies — their gait strongly suggestive of high-school boys — walked past with a “White Lives Matter” sign.
Speaking to the small crowd, Woleslagle, who was adopted by White parents, recounted the difficulties of “the way people don’t like me for something I cannot control: my skin color.” He spoke of being a regular target of racist abuse in school and of ostracism outside it. In one statement, he revealed the kind of logical contortions his predicament engendered. “In my opinion,” he offered, “wanting to be accepted for the color of my skin isn’t racist.”
In August, Woleslagle agreed to meet me under the gazebo next to the library. I asked him for details of school life. “I’ve been called racist things,” he said. “Like, I’ve been called a monkey. I’ve been called the N-word multiple times.” Younger kids on the bus, talking among themselves, nonchalantly say the N-word in his presence. Kids who have gone to school with him for years ask him if he is from Africa. Until an adult at school finally intervened, one White student heaped daily abuse on Woleslagle in a class they shared.
What did teachers do about the mistreatment? “They hear it but they don’t deal with it,” he told me. Woleslagle said he rarely discussed his school experience at home, either. His father attended the Black Lives Matter event long enough to hear Woleslagle sing a song, he said, “but I think he left after that.”
In an email, Sophie Williams conveyed her own perception of the high school: “People frequently saying the n-word; class debates where arguments like ‘They’re just lazy and don’t want to work’ were really common . . . . people insinuating/agreeing that Mexicans (or all immigrants) are drug dealers and rapists; lots of Confederate flags.”
Another speaker at the Troy demonstration was retired Pennsylvania state trooper Edward Bowers, a longtime local resident who is Black. He spoke briefly of discrimination and bigotry but, like Woleslagle, he delivered the bad news with spare words and corked emotion. Picking up his own grandchildren one day at elementary school, Bowers said, other young children, racing to exit, peeled out the school door: “Last one there’s a n*****!”
In an unhinged interview on Fox News in early August, U.S. Attorney General William Barr called Black Lives Matter protesters “essentially Bolsheviks.” Bowers and Woleslagle come across as somewhat less ambitious revolutionaries. The gist of their presentations in Troy suggested less the vanguard of the proletariat and more of a vague, not terribly confident, hope that more White people might someday raise children capable of functioning in a pluralistic democratic society.
Marielle Miller grew up in aptly named Coal Township, just outside the town of Shamokin, about 30 miles southeast of Milton. A 2018 graduate of Susquehanna University, Miller is a White, self-identified queer. Like other young people who spoke to me, Miller expressed no hesitation when asked whether the local environment, including the high school from which Miller graduated, is steeped in old-school racism along with structural varieties.
“It’s not like there were kids running around with a KKK hood on. But it was very obvious who was raised in a home where there was not a lot of tolerance or acceptance,” Miller said. “A lot of it was, like, my classmates using the N word casually.”
Miller had hoped to move to a bigger city — Lancaster or even Philadelphia. But with employment prospects curtailed by the pandemic, Miller is home with parents, devoting time and energy to local activism, including Black Lives Matter, primarily through a small group called Central Pennsylvania Advocates for Justice.
In its spread across the Susquehanna Valley, Black Lives Matter has brought new energy to a network of small progressive advocacy groups in the region. “I think all these marginalized groups are now connecting with each other,” said Kalyn Essic, who teaches in Canton, near Troy, and has been active in protests in the area. “Whereas before they were fighting separate fights.”
A late July demonstration in Mifflinburg, west across the Susquehanna from Milton, brought together activists for causes ranging from LGBTQ rights and environmentalism to Black Lives Matter and the Susquehanna Valley Ethical Society.
The proximate cause of the Mifflinburg protest was a flyer posted at the entrance of the local Wenger’s Grocery Outlet, a popular discount supermarket surrounded by lush farmland just outside Mifflinburg. The flyer delivered a dismal stream of misinformation, political claptrap and conspiracy-tainted bile about Covid-19 before abruptly segueing to blame the LGBTQ “life style” for spreading “deadly diseases and sickness.”
Mifflinburg, a quaint village once known for its prolific manufacture of horse-drawn buggies, is only nine miles from Lewisburg, the seat of Union County and the home of Bucknell University, a liberal arts college that seeps education and its twin, prosperity, into the local community. Nonetheless, the Mifflinburg protest elicited one of the most vitriolic responses in the region. Counter-protesters packed guns. Confederate, Trump and Blue Lives Matter flags championed the cause of White nationalism.
Frank Manzano and others led the chants. This time, however, words flew in both directions. Marielle Miller was grazed by an airborne Bible inscribed with the words, “God hates fags.” Video of a White woman’s counter-protest rant was sufficiently hate-filled to enter the nation’s highly competitive social media outrage stream. “People drove by and yelled slurs and things,” Miller recalled. “But I would say that we prevailed that day because of our numbers and the amount of love that we had for each other.”
The protests have been galvanizing but even the newbies realize they are not equivalent to structural political and social change. “We are trying to build real, tangible, sustainable change in our communities,” Manzano said. Indeed, he repeats that line like a mantra. But how to achieve it?
“People are like, OK, what do you guys want, what you got, what are your demands, where’s the list, where’s your website,” Manzano said. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out in this moment. We just started this a couple weeks ago. My Brother, give us some time, you know?”
Yet the protests, and the constant churn of activism on such begrudging soil, is producing its own measurable change.
I asked Shahmar Woleslagle about his decision to speak up. Did it make him feel more empowered or more vulnerable? “I definitely feel more empowered,” he replied.
Tricia Williams, who helped organize the Troy event and is Sophie Williams’s mother, said she was so “alarmed” by Woleslagle’s remarks that she has already spoken to the high school principal and school superintendent about addressing racism in the schools.
Kalyn Essic, who started both a Pride club and an anti-racism initiative at her rural, overwhelmingly White school, is rethinking the books she teaches and looking for more ways to support marginalized kids in school. “I just wanted us to be on the right side of history,” she said.
Sascha Gutierrez, who said she was initially “terrified” by online threats when she planned her Black Lives Matter march, not only gained confidence in herself but in her community. “I was flabbergasted to see how many people showed up and actually really supported us.”
Marielle Miller said, “I do intend to keep up this work, hopefully for the rest of my life, because it has opened my eyes to so many things. You know, there’s no point in just sitting at home and watching the world crumble when you can do something about it.”
Frank Manzano worries that he will never feel safe raising a family in his hometown, where racism, he says, is “embedded.” Nevertheless, he’s invigorated by the fight. “I’ve never, never experienced anything that fulfills me like what I’m doing now,” he told me.
Jordi Comas, a Lewisburg town councilman and founder of the Hub for Progress, a grassroots networking organization, has been working for years to build grassroots capacity in Central Pennsylvania. Black Lives Matter produced a sudden bounty. “I was leading people,” Comas said in an email of his work before BLM. “Now I am following.”
At the Williamsport protest, the velvet barbs that Manzano has lobbed at the gunmen have altered the balance of intimidation. The gunmen have ceded the ground beneath the clock tower. A knot of protesters now occupies the conquered territory. The men retreat to the rear of the parking lot, perhaps 100 yards from City Hall, the farthest point from which they can (barely) observe the event. Their backs are literally up against a wall.
Small groups of protesters drift closer, gobbling up more terrain. At about 20 paces from the wall, a petite White woman stops and stares down the gunmen, her “Black Lives Matter” sign facing them. I ask the men if they would like to talk. No one responds. I ask what they hope to accomplish. Camo Man says, “No comment.”
Tracy Brown, mother of two of the young men in Manzano’s group, is talking of the painful changes wrought by the past weeks of protest. “We have lost family members over it. The hate I have heard from my own family members, my own friends,” says Brown, who is White. “If I had stood up in high school to what I saw, maybe I wouldn’t have to be standing up now.”
When the march begins, I join the stragglers at the rear. A middle-age Black woman, who appears new to protest, is struggling to keep up. When the crowd chants, “No Justice, No Peace,” she joins a few beats late with “USA! USA!”
We are walking through a threadbare section of town populated by what look to be poor people. These are some of the locals whom Manzano had hoped would join. In a modest way, some have — watching intently from porches, taking video with their phones, clapping, shouting, raising fists.
A White man in late middle age comes up from behind, walking a red bicycle. He wears a blue bandana over a balding pate, with unruly tufts of white hair protruding from its sides. Ruddy-faced, with several days’ worth of white whiskers, he is dressed in pumpkin-colored cargo shorts and a T-shirt featuring a zombie in a football uniform.
“It’s gonna come down dangerous,” he says to no one in particular. He begins marching.
Camo Man is the only gunman to make the trek. He’s large, more than 6 feet tall and perhaps 230 pounds. His gun is over his right shoulder. His left hand, at his side, forms a tightly clenched fist as he pursues his quarry. It’s a portrait of American derangement.
As the march moves in front of the River Valley Health & Dental Center, Bandana Man has moved into the mainstream of the flow. As the marchers chant, “No Good Cops in a Racist System,” his mouth begins to move, though it’s hard to tell what words are forming.
Police cars have been trailing the march. Officers, their holstered pistols a puny reply to Camo Man’s ambulatory arsenal, walk its fringes. They have been unobtrusive and professional throughout.
By the time the march concludes, having made a full circle back to City Hall, Bandana Man has moved to the front ranks. He is kneeling alongside others, his left hand steadying his bike, his right raised in a fist as he shouts, “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a momentary triumph of socialization, if not socialism.
The harsh sun has taken its toll. There can’t be more than 100 diehards left. The mood is warm, communal. People chat as they break down the T-shirt table and distribute the last bottles of water, still cold. Camo Man trudges across the parking lot, alone. The other White commandos have departed. No doubt desperate for shade, Camo Man slumps into a seat in a bus shelter, his rifle beside him, looking equal parts deserter and deserted.
In front of City Hall, people linger. Numbers are exchanged before long drives home to small towns dominated by hard realities. No honest, sane person would confuse this gentle civic scene with revolution. But everyone senses, intuitively, what it does mean. If enough people around here say Black Lives Matter, then, sure enough, they do.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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