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When #BlackLivesMatter came to Tyrone, Pennsylvania

Photo credit: Mark A. Bonta/The Daylighter
Photo credit: Mark A. Bonta/The Daylighter

TYRONE, Pa. — The massive pickup truck slows down for the obligatory four-way stop out front of the Tyrone, Pa., municipal building, as the Black Lives Matter protestors stand expectant. It’s Friday, June 5, and they are clutching signs with slogans in black magic marker — “I understand that I will never understand, but I stand with you.” 

The driver, a young white man in a ball cap, stares straight ahead as he accelerates suddenly, roaring his engine and sending a cloud of acrid diesel smoke into the air — “rolling coal,” as it’s known here. 

The signal is understood to the protestors — more local disapproval.

Small-town racism

Later that same evening I’m chatting with some protestors on the opposite street corner when a sedan cruises by on the other side of the street. I can’t quite make out what the driver is yelling at the protestors — something about Trump. 

Then he heads down past the police station, and out of town. 

I ask what his beef was — they say it’s the same fellow who cruised by and made an unmistakable throat-slitting motion with his finger the other day. 

Scary. 

And these weren’t isolated actions. Earlier in the week, a white man passing by on the opposite side of the street screamed a racial slur at the first, lone protestor to turn out. 

Later, at the protest’s peak on Thursday, June 4, as the crowd prepared to march, several shouts of “white power” can clearly be heard from across the street. 

How widespread is racism in the Appalachian hills of central Pennsylvania, disparaged by so many as “Pennsyltucky” and the “Alabama” between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia? 

Perhaps as much as anywhere else in the country. Judging by the shouts, veiled threats and charged language I saw and heard on the Friday I visited the protest, racism in small-town Pennsylvania is visible enough if provoked. 

And yet, tiny black communities in central Pennsylvania towns like Mount Union and Altoona have existed for a long time. 

In that time these communities have been confronted by Ku Klux Klan racism and —  despite Pennsylvania’s Civil War-era status as a staunchly Union state — a white-separatist mentality usually associated with the American South.

There are plenty of folks in the deeply patriotic counties of rural Pennsylvania who see the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate, and those who fly it as the worst types of racists. 

Yet the flag does fly — off the backs of pickup trucks, in the windows of homes, and in 2020, a few intrepid folks scaled Brush Mountain above Tyrone and nailed a Confederate flag into the fork of a tree. 

A Confederate flag on Brush Mountain above Tyrone, Pa. (Photo credit: Mark A. Bonta/The Daylighter)

Organizing dissent

Richie Bonsell-Walter, the Black Lives Matter-Tyrone organizer, told me that at one point earlier in the week, two teenage counter-protestors appeared across the street, clutching “All Lives Matter” and “Trump 2020” signs. 

They engaged in friendly debate with the protestors, and Richie had the impression that the kids ended up joining the crowd on Thursday evening, when the protest reached a crescendo.

I ask Richie what it was that galvanized him to start a protest and vigil in a rural Appalachian town of 5,000, where the conventional wisdom has it that folks just don’t protest? 

What really opened his eyes, he says, was attending school in Johnstown, just west of Tyrone on the way to Pittsburgh. 

Johnstown has a sizable black community and deep racial divisions. His best friend there was black, and through their experience he was able to begin to understand the struggles of black people in central Pennsylvania. 

Scene from the protests in Tyrone, Pa. (Photo credit: Mark A. Bonta/The Daylighter)

I ask him about Tyrone — like him, I went to school here, though in my case many decades ago. 

He says the first time he ever saw overt racism in Tyrone was this week, at this protest, although he said that “microaggressions” are ever-present.

The lonely crowd

At the Friday protest, passing cars on Logan Avenue provide a gauge of the level of local support. 

I estimate that about one-third of people driving by are oblivious or otherwise show no engagement with the protestors one way or the other. 

Those who are over 50, in particular, look at most slightly bemused or bewildered: This is not something belonging to their world, they appear to think. 

Another third range from derisive and dismissive to openly hostile: Clutching camera phones and hanging out their car windows, teens shout “Trump 2020!” and cackle. Heads shake. A few middle fingers are raised. There’s some incoherent screaming. Cold stares accompany that universal sign of hostility — pickup trucks and old “beaters” revving their engines in first gear at stop signs. 

The protestors stand their ground and don’t engage; a few mutter comments or nervous jokes. 

But the rest of the passers-by are supportive — raising their fists, and giving the thumbs-up. They are men as well as women, friends of protestors and complete strangers. The group responds with happy shouts.

Scene from the protests in Tyrone, Pa. (Photo credit: Mark A. Bonta/The Daylighter)

At 8:45 p.m., Richie announces that they will kneel for eight minutes and 46 seconds, in a silent vigil to commemorate the amount of time Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he was dead. 

Cars still pass by occasionally, but the silence is respected. 

At the end, Richie gives a brief, impassioned speech about the 200 names on the vigil poster, and the need for justice in America in support of black lives. 

He claims he isn’t much of a speaker, but the group is impressed enough, and the night ends on a rousing note. 

Richie leaves to go have some ice cream at Gardners Candies with some of his fellow protestors — his mom and younger brother. 

The streets are quickly emptied, but there’s a promise to return on Saturday night.

Once upon a time in Tyrone

Small town folks watch major events from afar, feeling themselves distanced from the turmoil in the cities. 

But once upon a time — a good hundred years ago — Tyrone was important enough to be entangled in protest movements. 

Back then it was strikes against the railroad, coal mines, the mills, and other such industries, when the residents of Tyrone thought their burgeoning community would never stop growing. 

An old promotional publication dubbed Tyrone the “Hub of the Highways,” and the town was home to over 10,000 people — twice as many as today. 

The downtown district was packed with four- and five-story brick buildings, and rails and roads converged from all directions. 

But Tyrone was always a paper mill town, and it garnered a reputation as the “town that stinks.”

People looking for a higher quality of life didn’t want to live here, even though the jobs at the paper mill saved the town from collapse as other industries faltered and train traffic diminished. 

By the 1970s, the pulping part of the mill had closed, and with it the famous stink, but decline was well underway, as a highway bypass took shoppers past Tyrone’s downtown shopping district to hit the malls and plazas in nearby Altoona. 

Nevertheless, Tyrone’s pride remained, with one of the better school districts in the region, numerous championship high school sports teams and athletes, and a paper mill that continued to operate through thick and thin. 

These days, Amtrak still has daily passenger service at the Tyrone train station, and freight rail is also still rolling through, while new highway links have brought in new vehicle traffic. 

But with a reconnection to the world came more of what people thought of as big-city problems — such as Oxycontin, heroin and methamphetamines.

By the time COVID-19 came along, many small businesses were shuttered. 

The mood seemed fatalistic in the hardest months of the pandemic, as if people felt that the recent spate of new store openings was doomed by inscrutable political decisions about a disease that was having little or no local effects. 

Local traditions — sports, parades, graduations — were disrupted, folks were thrown out of work, and Blair County supervisors seemed in no hurry to change things. 

The gloom deepened. 

And then, just as local businesses started to reopen, George Floyd was killed on camera by a police officer in Minneapolis. 

In the ensuing days, protests began to gather nationwide, and with them came the usual troubles. 

This included widespread violence and looting — as was the case in Philadelphia — and violence in Pittsburgh and in the state capital of Harrisburg. 

Fear of property destruction became tangible in Pennsylvania’s small towns, as tiny groups of black and white protestors were met with counter protests by white men carrying large guns, purportedly showing up to guard local businesses from looters. 

This happened in Huntingdon, Lewistown, and Hollidaysburg, though not in Tyrone.

And despite the potential for violent discord — and the presence of borough police, city police, university police, township police and state police — everyone exercised their First Amendment rights, and some their Second Amendment rights, without incident. 

Dissent proliferates

By the beginning of June, the protests had spread to local county seats and smaller cities, such as State College, home to Pennsylvania State University, a town that has seen off-and-on protests against racism for decades. 

These include incidents in the late 1980s, and again in 2000, in which white racist groups targeted African American student leaders. The subsequent protests saw students make demand of the school’s leadership to diversify the curriculum and better protect minority students. 

This time, some 1,000 protesters showed up in State College, staunch and embittered by the police violence that had occurred in the previous few years in town — including the shocking 2019 slaying of Osaze Osagie by police

Osagie, whose family lives in State College and takes their name from African traditions, was in the grips of a mental-health crisis when he was shot by police in his own apartment. 

Protest signage in Tyrone, Pa. (Photo credit: Mark A. Bonta/The Daylighter)

Protests of all sorts have since proliferated around the region, sparked by the murder of George Floyd — in Lewistown, Huntingdon and Hollidaysburg, all county seats for this rural central Pennsylvania region. 

In Altoona, the local human-rights march reported up to 1,000 participants, including a show of solidarity between organizers and local police.

In Tyrone, the protests coalesced around the actions of just a handful of individuals. 

On the night of June 4, a Thursday, links began turning up on the Black Lives Matter-Tyrone Facebook group, and a video from local TV channel WTAJ depicted a couple of local kids, including Mr. Bonsell-Walter, demonstrating on the sidewalk outside the municipal building. 

Word spread quickly that night, and local people sympathetic to the cause decided they could hardly not show solidarity, they told me, since they lived a few blocks or a one-minute drive away. 

Eventually, over 50 people showed up that evening, and the mayor was guardedly complementary on his well-followed Facebook feed, though he did not come out to speak at any point. 

The Facebook group swelled to over 100 members. Thursday’s protests turned out to be the biggest of the week, as the group decided to do a march around the town, and several speeches about injustice from the racially diverse crowd broke up the chants. 

In the videos, some protestors, just teenagers, break down into tears as the reality of what is happening hits them. 

“They are not animals,” one white girl sobs. “They’re people!”

“I don’t want to be another face in the crowd”

The skies eventually opened up on Thursday night. Protest leaders can be seen in the videos telling marchers it’s OK if they don’t want to get soaked. But everyone sticks with it. Through the sheets of water, honking horns and passersby shouting support can still be heard.

The march ended where it had begun, at the municipal building and police station. In what would become a nightly tradition, they knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds in the worsening downpour.

During Friday’s protest, I ask Richie what the plans are for the future, now that there is an actual Black Lives Matter group in Tyrone. 

He’s not sure, but the sentiment seems to be that the protests and vigil could become something that lasts beyond the moment. 

Scene from the protests in Tyrone, Pa. (Photo credit: Mark A. Bonta/The Daylighter)

There is work to be done, particularly in local schools. People need to be educated about black lives, and weaned away from the racism that is so normal for so many here, as it is across America. 

“I don’t want to be another face in the crowd,” he says. He says he wants to encourage other people to speak out, and “work toward change.”

“Change can’t just happen in cities,” he says.

Every night since then, Bonsell-Walter and a small group of supporters have held a protest at the municipal building or elsewhere around town.  

The Black Lives Matter-Tyrone Facebook page has grown modestly, and updates included the troubling incident of a counter-protestor brandishing a “White Lives Matter” sign nearby. 

The ongoing protests also get a lot of approving honks. 

Yet progress, such as it is, is slow.

On June 11, Bonsell-Walter posted two new photos — of fresh, racist graffiti sprayed on rail cars over by the paper mill: racial slurs, and a swastika. 

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