Though she’s lived in Montgomery County most of her life, Carmina Taylor said the crowd gathered outside the courthouse in Norristown on Thursday was unlike any she’d ever seen.
“It’s truly a coalition of all races, all demographics, all ages,” Taylor said, ducking into the shade for a brief respite between greeting acquaintances.
Several hundred people assembled at a demonstration focused on recent inflammatory remarks made by a Montgomery County commissioner regarding civil unrest throughout Philadelphia and across the country over racial injustice and policing.
Earlier in the week, Commissioner Joseph Gale posted a statement to Twitter about the unrest in Philadelphia that said, in part, “The perpetrators of this urban domestic terror are radical left-wing hate groups like Black Lives Matter.”
Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale
PRESS STATEMENT: RIOTS & LOOTING IN PHILADELPHIA pic.twitter.com/zfDPBOUSA2
— Joe Gale (@JoeGalePA) June 1, 2020
It was not the first time Gale has courted controversy in his public remarks. And in the days since he released the statement, he has written other social media posts criticizing Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney over his order to remove the Frank Rizzo statue from in front of the city’s Municipal Services Building.
Gale did not return requests from WHYY for comment on Thursday.
Signs in the Norristown courthouse crowd echoed slogans and rhetoric ringing out across the United States: “Black Lives Matter,” “No justice, no peace,” and “I can’t breathe.” But a good share were specific to Gale, demanding he resign from office.
Taylor, who helped organize the day’s demonstration, doesn’t think there’s any chance Gale will voluntarily step down from his position, even as a petition circulating has already gathered more than 79,000 signatures. Nor does she believe pressure from the Republican Party will have much of an effect. Gale won his seat in 2015 after campaigning in the primary as an outsider, and without support from the party establishment.
So Taylor is going another route: She’s filing an ethics complaint over Gale’s use of his office, specifically county letterhead, to issue his statement, which she believes is an abuse of office.
“We have to continue … getting citizens to understand that it’s a long-term game, and we have to get him cited for ethics violations in his position as county commissioner,” Taylor said.
The other two members of the county Board of Commissioners appear to agree.
A few minutes ago @kenlawrencejr and I took the strongest step legally available and censured Commissioner Joe Gale for his racist comments distributed on #MontcoPA County letterhead. #BlackLivesMatter #GeorgeFloyd pic.twitter.com/wbbVeiyRL4
— Val Arkoosh (@VAArk) June 4, 2020
On Thursday, board Chair Val Arkoosh put out a resolution censuring and condemning Gale for his remarks. The resolution notes that under the local ethics code, employees are barred from using their office or public resources for political purposes. The commissioners concede, however, that because Gale is an elected official, not an employee, he cannot be terminated for such an infraction.
Many who spoke during the demonstration connected Gale’s remarks to a broader disregard for the rights of Black residents in Montgomery County and beyond.
“We’re all here because Joe Gale is a racist, because Joe Gale has sent a message to the world that Black lives don’t matter in Montgomery County,” said organizer Danielle Phillips, speaking to the crowd. Applause frequently drifted into loud chants of “Joe must go” throughout remarks from her and other speakers.
Phillips gestured toward the courthouse, and asked the people gathered to continue taking steps toward criminal justice reform in a court system she said disproportionately polices and punishes people of color.
“Joseph Gale made himself the spokesperson for this kind of hate, but know that it’s been going on,” Phillips said.
According to U.S. Census figures, just under 891,000 people live in Montgomery County. The vast majority, nearly 80%, are white. Several of those who spoke at the demonstration said the county’s 82,000 Black residents do not feel heard or adequately represented by their elected officials.
One of them is Norristown resident Mike Johnson, who said he was “disgusted” when he saw Gale’s statement.
“It was a slap in the face,” Johnson said.
He said he was at the demonstration to push for change, though he added that was unlikely to happen overnight.
As for the size of the crowd that turned out in the middle of a steaming hot Thursday morning, Johnson was unsurprised.
“One thing is Norristown … when we come together, we come together in large numbers.”