by Maison Allen
On July 18, in the small town of Palmerton, Pennsylvania, a non-violent protest in support of Black Lives Matter turned aggressive and dangerous as protesters were confronted by armed and hostile counter-protesters. My good friend, Sierra Hahn and I, both Palmerton natives, organized the original protest to raise awareness and help people understand racism and white privilege through informative personal testimonies. Having attended other BLM protests, we expected individuals to yell obscenities at our small groups, nothing we couldn’t handle.
In the days leading up to the protest, we realized that this event had attracted the attention of counter-protesters determined to “defend their town” and spreading lies that we were a bunch of outsiders hellbent on destroying their town and looting their stores — turning it into a battle of “us vs. them.” We attempted to defuse the tension by publicly announcing that this was a non-violent, weapon-free event, but we were drowned out by a flurry of lies and speculation. As a result, people were, understandably, afraid of our protest. The rumor that we were “busing in” 300 people from large cities enabled the counter-protesters to gather hundreds of people — some armed, most aggressive — that scorching summer afternoon. Our group of roughly 50 protesters were cursed at, spat on, shoved, and grabbed as we tried to stay on message to convey why this protest was happening at all: to help people understand the extent of systemic racism and police violence.
Instead of concentrating on these important issues after the protest, discussion focused on claims that the counter-protesters were simply defending their town from alien criminals and vandals. Many who only heard about the protest on the news or social media seemed angry that we caused such a disturbance in their quiet hometown. The message of our protest was swept away in a sea of misinformation, fostered by a mob mentality.
What I learned from that experience is that protest is not always the most effective form of communication. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, protests erupted across the United States because people were furious about yet another senseless killing of a Black man at the hands of the police. We were furious too — and desperate to contribute to the greater movement, which is what led us to organize a protest. But as I reflected on this protest, I realized that not all cities or towns are created equally and what works in Allentown or Philadelphia may not work in Palmerton.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the borough of Palmerton is home to 5,336 people, and over 98% of them are white. Perhaps this is why the concepts of systemic racism seem irrelevant to this small town. How are we to know the struggles of the Black community when most of us grew up with few, if any, interactions with anyone who isn’t white? That lack of experience, lack of global thinking, tends to lead people to completely misunderstand the point of the Black Lives Matter movement.
When my fellow organizer and I planned the July protest, we made clear that we want to defund the police and properly fund social programs. While this message has certainly gained traction as activists and leaders illustrate what a world without police could look like, there are still many that shudder at the idea of having fewer or no police to patrol the streets. It seems that many Palmerton residents do not grasp the severity of racial injustice or why there is a movement against the police when there have been no recorded instances of police brutality here; in the eyes of many Palmerton citizens, our police have done nothing to deserve backlash. Thinking outside the scope of our town however, allows us to understand that there is a long historic record of racist policing, dating back to 1704 when police forces got their start as a way to patrol runaway slaves. Realizing that this country has a long, painful history surrounding police and the Black community is critical in understanding the cries to defund it.
In order to create a truly sustainable community, we need to focus on social justice, not just environmentalism. To create a long-lasting, thriving community, we must invest in education and initiatives that promote racial justice. Education was at the forefront of my mind when preparing for our July protest, but afterwards I was discouraged and cynical, unsure how to make my community understand the severity of this issue. Only after a period of reflection did I realize that dismantling a 300 year old oppressive system won’t be easy; one protest could not change people’s minds.
So what’s our next move? Surely, it can’t be to continue the same practice, knowing that we are speaking to an audience determined to misunderstand us. Instead, I’m advocating for education through individual interactions and through the schools.
We all must reckon with the institutional racism that is embedded so deeply into our society. In places like Palmerton, where individual prejudices are strong, we need a new approach to dismantle white supremacy. Schools have play a vital role in creating anti-racist curriculum, and we citizens need to have hard conversations about race. Gone are the days of simply “agreeing to disagree.” Talk with your grandparents, cousins, parents, friends, and neighbors; listen to their concerns and fears so that you can help them see why police brutality must end and the steps we have to take to do so.
While the protest in Palmerton was a step in the right direction, it’s the work we do to educate ourselves and our peers that will bring about true change.
Maison is a recent graduate of Moravian College, where she studied
writing and art; she currently works at the Lehigh Valley Zoo.