Lancaster city saw protests Saturday, Sunday and Monday over police brutality and the May 25 killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd. On Saturday and Sunday, the demonstrators numbered more than 1,000; the protests have been mostly peaceful. But Mayor Danene Sorace and police Chief Jarrad Berkihiser said at a news conference Monday that “a small group of armed men, possibly white nationalists, infiltrated Sunday’s protests in downtown Lancaster to instigate violence during a largely peaceful demonstration,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Jeff Hawkes reported. “Any time my officers were pelted with rocks or water bottles filled with cayenne pepper, it was coming from Caucasian individuals in the crowd,” Berkihiser said. City officials asked demonstrators — especially young children — to stay home Monday, but a downtown march went on nonetheless.
Imagine how much pain a person of color must feel to join a protest amid a pandemic that has disproportionately claimed the lives of black and brown Americans.
Please just try to imagine it if you can. Imagine what it must mean to weigh the costs and figure you have nothing more to lose.
Then imagine the hatred that spurs a person with no real stake in the debate — no purpose, except to agitate — to attend a peaceful demonstration to cause trouble. To initiate fights with the police and then cowardly let others deal with the consequences of your provocation.
Those were some of the dynamics playing out at the protests in Lancaster city over the weekend.
The demonstrators, for the most part, sent a powerful message about the urgency of this moment, the pain of this moment. That message must not be dismissed.
The reality is that black Americans have died at the hands of police. Black children are necessarily taught to be wary of the police, because of what has happened to their older brothers, their fathers and grandfathers, their uncles.
The killing of George Floyd in daylight, as he pleaded for his life, as bystanders pleaded with Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck, was yet another terrible episode in a long history of systemic oppression and injustice. Only this one was captured on video.
We teach our children to be “upstanders,” not bystanders, when they witness wrongdoing, and yet three other police officers allowed Chauvin to slowly and brutally kill Floyd.
So yes, people across the United States reacted in anger. And yes, some wrongly destroyed the businesses on which their communities depend. But most of the demonstrators, especially in Lancaster, were just seeking to be seen and heard.
Which is why we were dismayed by the police’s use of pepper spray over the weekend. Among those hit by the pepper spray were a 10-year-old child Saturday and an LNP | LancasterOnline managing editor Sunday.
We’re still in the throes of a pandemic, and a respiratory disease continues to kill people.
While we were relieved to see many of the demonstrators in Lancaster wearing cloth face masks, those masks were no match for the pepper spray. And chemical agents like pepper spray cause throats to swell, and skin and eyes to burn, so people cough and tear up; those who help them need to get close to pour water into their burning eyes.
Chemical agents should be used as an absolute last resort, especially now.
We understand the need to get control of individuals bent on mayhem, especially those who reportedly came wearing body armor and bearing firearms and symbols of white nationalism.
White nationalists, with their hateful and idiotic hopes for a race war, are absolutely not welcome here.
But from what we saw, the genuine demonstrators — with help from Lancaster City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El and the Rev. Roland Forbes of Ebenezer Baptist Church — were doing a fine job of deescalating tensions Sunday.
The two rounds of pepper spray deployed that day seemed to us to be excessive, especially with young children in the crowd. Moreover, a rally against police brutality shouldn’t yield more evidence to those in attendance that the police resort too quickly to harsh measures.
That said, there were positive things to which we want to draw attention.
First, the crowds we saw over the weekend — and again on Monday — were multiracial and intent on making the case for change. They shouted George Floyd’s name, and chanted “No justice, no peace,” with fervor, but they weren’t unruly.
And Monday, some city police officers — including Chief Berkihiser — joined the marchers. Lancaster police Sgt. Donald Morant, who is African American, told LNP | LancasterOnline’s Dan Nephin that he opposes police brutality, too. The community outreach sergeant also talked to protesters about the need for minority police officers. So, movingly, he offered immediate support to those marching, even as he made the case for a long-term solution.
Berkihiser addressed the protesters twice Monday afternoon. He told them he heard their concerns and said he and his police officers were “absolutely disgusted and outraged” by Floyd’s killing. He urged the protesters to attend the meetings of the city’s Community Police Working Group. He listened as demonstrators poured out their anguish and anger over being treated “like dirt,” as one young man put it, by those in power. Berkihiser even kneeled — very briefly — as the protesters kneeled.
In both Camden, New Jersey, and Flint, Michigan, police participated in marches over the weekend, conveying solidarity with the communities they serve. Camden was the site of serious riots over police brutality in 1969 and 1971, so to see police officers there following the lead of rally organizers was another hopeful sign.
We were impressed, too, by Mayor Sorace’s willingness to address the demonstrators Sunday. She seemed to be in a no-win situation: If she came down hard on the city police — over whom she presides — she risked losing their support; if she refused to condemn their use of pepper spray, she risked losing the crowd.
She asked Chief Berkihiser to have the police pull back. She welcomed the protesters to demonstrate peacefully in front of the police station. And later, she knelt with a group of community leaders in a circle to pray.
“I want to be an instrument in making this world better,” the mayor said Sunday. “I need your help. I need you to move the city forward.”
The mayor, the police chief, Sgt. Morant — and the Lancaster residents who marched and rallied peacefully — did just that.