Berkihiser at protest

Lancaster city police Chief Jarrad Berkihiser stands on a demonstrator's pickup truck to address several hundred Black Lives Matter protesters in front of the police station, 39 W. Chestnut St., on June 2, 2020.

Black leaders in Lancaster criticized the mayor for trying to stop protests when white nationalists sought to instigate chaos, and said the marches have been co-opted by those pushing their own agendas.

The Lancaster NAACP hosted a virtual town hall series called “We Are Done Dying” with local black leaders Thursday night to discuss the ongoing racial unrest across the country and in Lancaster County for George Floyd, a black man who was killed while a police officer knelt on his neck.

Here are the some of the key points from the town hall, on protests, policing and solutions. 

On protests

Kevin Ressler, the president and CEO of United Way of Lancaster County and a former mayoral candidate, said when Mayor Danene Sorace asked protesters not to demonstrate due to threats from white nationalists, she was signaling who was allowed on the streets.

“That tells me that the streets are not theirs to begin with,” Ressler added.

Sorace, contacted after the town hall, said the step was necessary because there were not yet lines of communication with protest leaders and that there’s since been a “shift.” 

“There has been a space that’s been created, because of their commitment to safety for one another and for the city staff, including the police, and vice versa that we didn’t have on Monday and I couldn’t be sure on Monday that we were going to be able to respond to the kinds of threat that was there on Sunday and that has appeared throughout this week,” Sorace added. 

Evita Colon, the owner and founder of advocacy organization Speak to my Soul, said the protests in recent days have been co-opted by people using the pain black people are experiencing to push their own agendas like anti-Trump one. 

Panelists also called for additional action that goes beyond the daily protests. Several said they had not gone to the protests or were there for some of the time.

“We can continue to march, but I’m not sure that’s going to be enough strategically to get us from where we are today,” said Elizabeth Guthridge, the Lancaster NAACP economic chair.

Panelists also questioned the intention of officers who have joined the protests, though some said they were appreciative.

Several expressed concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as cases increase each day and protests continue each day. An East Lampeter man, who was not wearing a mask and was arrested at Monday’s protes for rioting and assault charges, told a judge that he had tested positive for COVID-19.

On police

Police spraying pepper spray into crowds with children and clergy was problematic and needs to be addressed, Colon and Guthridge said.

One of the institutional issues with Lancaster’s police officers is that they are not representative of their community, and the police do not live within their jurisdictions, panelists said.

After a 2018 incident where a Lancaster city officer was recorded using a Taser on an unarmed black man, Sorace instituted a body camera policy for officers to wear. This was not a solution, Ressler said.

“The problem wasn’t that it wasn’t seen, it was that what was seen was unjust,” Ressler said. “The solution needs to be proportionate. It can not be something that just placates us.”

On solutions

The panelists also discussed a few possible solutions they hope to institute in their own communities to strengthen them. The following are a few of the solutions discussed: 

  • Spend money at black-owned businesses and invest in black communities to promote self-reliance.

  • Demand policy changes instead of performative actions from the city and police department.

  • Take these issues to the voting booth and elect officials that respond to community needs.

  • Utilize creative outlets and create spaces for black and brown youth to learn how to express their feelings

  • Research anti-racism literature to learn how to better oppose racism in day-to-day life

Panelists were Kevin Ressler, president and CEO of United Way of Lancaster County; Blanding Watson, president of Lancaster NAACP and vice president for its state conference; Shayna Watson, NAACP state conference; Evita Colon, owner and founder of advocacy organization Speak to my Soul; Elizabeth Guthridge, Lancaster NAACP economic chairwoman and owner of EAG Credit Solutions; and Dante Labron, CEO of Mayson Management.

This is the first part of a four-part virtual town hall series the Lancaster NAACP will host each Thursday at 6 p.m.