Protests continued in Lancaster for the fourth consecutive day Tuesday over the May 25 Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Even as voters in Lancaster County went to the polls Tuesday to choose candidates for the November general election, demonstrators gathered in downtown Lancaster.
Even amid a pandemic, Lancaster County residents engaged in two thoroughly American practices Tuesday: They voted — many of them wearing masks to help limit the spread of COVID-19. And they peaceably assembled in protest, exercising the right granted to them by the First Amendment.
Despite the pain that underpinned the protests, despite some voting machine glitches across the county, democracy in action is a thing of wonder.
So is transparency in government.
Which is why we were heartened that Lancaster city Mayor Danene Sorace and city police Chief Jarrad Berkihiser took part in a lengthy online discussion Tuesday afternoon with LNP | LancasterOnline Opinion Editor Suzanne Cassidy about the policing of the protests over the past week. They were joined by the Rev. Roland Forbes, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and a member of the city’s Community Police Working Group.
For roughly 75 minutes, the three answered questions about the policing of not just the protests but of Lancaster year-round. The discussion was at times raw and emotional, and we’d strongly encourage you to watch the video.
Forbes, who is African American, spoke of the racial profiling and indignities visited on him by police, especially those outside Lancaster city. Though he’s the pastor of a major church, he’s viewed outside the city, he said, “as just another black man.”
He was followed one night as he drove his daughter home from work and was stopped and berated by a police officer. On another occasion, police quizzed him about where he’d gotten his newly purchased car.
This is a well-connected pastor and community leader. Imagine the treatment meted out to a young black man who lacks any connections to the powers that be.
Forbes said it’s “frightening to have to go into another municipality and feel as though you’re out of place, you’re sticking out like a sore thumb.”
He tendered a suggestion — which we enthusiastically endorse — that Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams and other county officials reach out to police departments in the county to encourage discussion on these issues.
“We’re not dealing with just a Lancaster city issue — this is a Lancaster County issue,” Forbes said. “People can discount racism and say that ‘you’re just paranoid,’ but unless you experience what people and I experience through life ... you will never understand it.”
As a grandfather, he said he worries that “if we don’t address these things, what will happen?”
Lancaster city officials, he said, make “an effort to be in relationship with people.” It can “sometimes be a rocky relationship,” he said, but they’re working on it.
Sorace said change “can’t happen fast enough,” because each time an incident like the George Floyd killing happens, “trauma is relived by people.”
Berkihiser compared changing the culture of policing to turning around the Titanic, but said, “We are working very hard to make it happen.”
He and the mayor addressed questions submitted by viewers of the livestream about the deployment of pepper spray on demonstrators Saturday and Sunday — a concern we raised in Tuesday’s editorial.
Both said they would review body camera footage to see if each use of pepper spray was appropriate. If bureau policy was violated, disciplinary action would be taken, the chief said.
Sorace said there were pressing issues that had to be investigated — an SUV, for instance, was driven into a crowd of protesters Monday night, nearly hitting several, and an incendiary device was detonated that same night.
But she said she was “not — underscore not — pushing (the use of force review) off until later.”
Forbes, Sorace and Berkihiser talked openly — and, at points, emotionally — about issues such as the militarization of policing; the fear some people experience in the presence of police; and the challenges of deescalating tensions and ensuring safety during large public demonstrations.
“My biggest concern,” Berkihiser said at one point, struggling for composure, “is losing my city. And I’m going to do my damnedest to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Mayor Sorace said — rightly — that there needs to be a wider conversation about systemic racism and how it affects people not just in policing but in education, employment and housing.
“This conversation has got to be elevated to our entire county, our state, our country,” Sorace said, urging “people who look like me” to call out racism and racial profiling.
And she asked, pointedly, “Where are our other elected officials stepping out and talking about racial equity as a priority?”
We’d like to know that, too.
One thing we know for sure: They’re not talking about it in the White House.
Homes and neighborhoods
On Monday, according to The Washington Post, U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered the streets around Lafayette Square near the White House to be cleared of the peaceful demonstrators gathered there.
President Donald Trump wanted to stage a photo op — with Bible in hand — at historic St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square.
“Officers from the U.S. Park Police and other agencies used smoke canisters, riot shields, batons and officers on horseback to shove and chase people gathered to protest the death of George Floyd,” the Post reported. “At one point, a line of police rushed a group of protesters ... many of whom were standing still with their hands up, forcing them to race away, coughing from smoke. Some were struck by rubber bullets.”
It was a horrific scene, but Trump reveled in it. “Overwhelming force. Domination,” he tweeted Tuesday.
It was condemned by Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, who said in a statement that there is “a fundamental — a Constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop.”
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she “did not think that what I saw was the America that I believe in.”
Here is the America we believe in: a country where peaceful protest is allowed and where government officials talk not of “dominating” citizens with “overwhelming force,” but of bridging divides and making racial equity a priority.
We believe in the America that retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen fought for and espouses in an essay published Tuesday in The Atlantic magazine.
Mullen, the 17th chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote of being “sickened” as he saw security personnel, including U.S. military members, “forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church.”
Mullen noted that American cities and towns must be viewed by U.S. military members as “our homes and our neighborhoods,” never as “ ‘battle spaces’ to be dominated.”
And he wrote: “We must ensure that African Americans — indeed, all Americans — are given the same rights under the Constitution, the same justice under the law, and the same consideration we give to members of our own family. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.”
We could not agree more.