Nearly every day in early June, protesters turned out in Chambersburg’s town square to protest the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
That was noteworthy, even to locals who had spent years pushing for racial justice in this south central Pennsylvania community.
“To start seeing that organic movement happen in this small, very red county was phenomenal,” said Linda Worthy, 52. She and her husband, Marvin, 58, run an organization called Racial Reconciliation and consult with local leaders in government, business and education to address the racism they see entrenched in the community.
Marvin was “pleasantly surprised and inspired” to see the solidarity in the streets.
Across the country, the Black Lives Matter Movement grew this year to become likely the largest protest action in U.S. history. Often led by young people, demonstrations drew large and diverse crowds in places seldom known for political protest.
Chambersburg, a borough of 21,000, sustained protests through the summer long after some in larger cities dwindled. The town is more politically and racially mixed than the rest of Franklin County, which is 92% white, and majority Republican. But protests happened across the area, including Greencastle, Waynesboro and Shippensburg — elevating political fault lines and fractured alliances that have been lying beneath the surface.
“I certainly support Black Lives Matter, I wish our country would have made a lot more progress since the Civil Rights Act,” said 74-year-old retired Air Force pilot Rodney Shoop, a registered Republican. “We have made some, but not nearly enough.”
In Franklin County, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1, and President Donald Trump won here with 72% of the vote in 2016.
The momentum of Black Lives Matter protests in the area, and the subsequent backlash from some GOP leaders, pushed some disgruntled members of the party to break away. Nationally, support among white Republicans for Black Lives Matter rose from 16% in 2016 to 30% this summer, according to the Pew Research Center.
Shoop, who said he admires figures like Gen. Jim Mattis, a former defense secretary who has been critical of Donald Trump, had long been a Republican stalwart. He said he voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016, and his disappointment with Trump has grown, citing his handling of the pandemic as an example. In November, he plans to support Joe Biden, who he believes will help unite the country.
So too does Leslie Hanks, 72, a retired school teacher who voted for Clinton but did not change her registration from Republican to Democrat until 2018. She said it took her a while to get used to using a different label for her beliefs.
“I always considered myself to be a liberal conservative, I didn’t vote party line,” she said.
Perhaps the most visible conservative voice in Franklin County who has made his disdain for Trump known is District Attorney Matt Fogal, who garnered national media attention in June as a Republican willing to criticize the president and express support for Black Lives Matter.
Fogal, 48, who has held his seat since 2009, did not initially see his statements as significant. “I’m just a citizen here, a veteran and a voter, and I’m looking at the same stuff everyone else is looking at,” he said during a recent interview over Zoom, folders stacked a foot high on his desk.
On the DA’s shelf was a small statue of Rocky Balboa, who Fogal called a hero because “he can lose and lose badly, but he gets back up.”
In his day-to-day job as a prosecutor, his biggest priority is the opioid crisis, which has taken up increasingly more of his time over the last 12 years.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, followed by the protest over George Floyd’s death, Fogal saw an opportunity to engage meaningfully on a thorny issue. He has been meeting with members of the local Black community, and said the discussions have dealt with topics like policies about excessive use of force, and helped renew a push for police body cameras.
“There’s always this rush to an opposite talking point … So let’s talk about race. Don’t presume law enforcement is on the other side of this reckoning. Let’s get into this conversation,” he said.
Fogal penned a letter in which he chided Trump’s handling of protests in Washington, D.C., and threw his support unreservedly behind protesters, writing, “Silence is acquiescence. Black Lives Matter. Period. Full Stop.”
For this action, Fogal was cast out by the local Republican Party.
In a letter published in the Franklin County Journal, GOP Committee Chairman Allen Coffman wrote, “You have departed from the sensible conservative views of the vast majority of your fellow citizens.” The letter pointed out that Fogal was registered as an independent prior to holding office, and threatened he would no longer enjoy running unopposed if he chose to seek another term.
The letter also leaned into President Trump’s talking points about protests against police brutality, some of which mischaracterize the aims of Black Lives Matter protesters and paint them as more violent than the majority of protests have been.
“I really don’t think there’s a racial problem here,” said Dwight Weidman, former committee chair and current member of the county GOP executive committee.
Statements from the GOP sparked their own backlash. A petition in support of Black Lives Matter and Fogal, who has endorsed Biden, and has garnered hundreds of names.
‘More likely to vote’
Research shows that protest movements can make a difference at the polls.
The number of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests in Pennsylvania have been many times greater than other recent political demonstrations, such as the 2017 Women’s March, and the 2009 Tea Party movement.
“What was striking is that lots of different communities saw protests held embracing the label Black Lives Matter,” said Lara Elizabeth Putnam, a social historian with the University of Pittsburgh who has been studying social movements in Pennsylvania since 2016.
In May and June alone, Putnam counted at least 400 protests across 230 rural, suburban and urban communities in Pennsylvania.
“When people participate in protests themselves, it makes them more likely to vote, more likely to take some kind of political action,” she said. Putnam conducted interviews that revealed actions were often organized by high schoolers or recent high school graduates — often people of color. She says that could translate to higher youth turnout for Democrats this year.
But, she says, backlash is also predictable. There’s been an “intense mobilizing effect in support of the arguments Trump is making,” Putnam said, based on people sharing images of the most violent protests and spreading false reports of antifa coming to small towns.
“Clearly some Pennsylvania voters are finding that persuasive,” she said.
Asked whether the protests have triggered more engagement among the Republican base, Weidman, the member of the Franklin County GOP executive committee, said he wasn’t sure.
He’s confident, though, the area will repeat the blowout for Trump that occurred in the last election.
“There’s a constant flow of people in all day, donating, getting signs, getting literature, getting bumper stickers and asking to volunteer,” said Weidman.
Despite the public spat between the party and Fogal, the data so far supports Weidman’s assessment. Since November 2016, the latest voter registration totals for Republicans in the county have grown by 4,000 people. For Democrats, the number shrank by around 700.
‘What I believe’
Still, researchers say protest movements can boost fundraising efforts, especially for the party aligned with the cause.
Linda Worthy, of Racial Reconciliation, says the events of this past year have been galvanizing.
“We have a lot of Republicans run for office in this town uncontested and we’re like, ‘No more,’” she said. While it is too late to run candidates this cycle, she said they are focused on getting voters to turn out in Chambersburg’s 3rd Ward, where many of the borough’s Black and Latino residents live.
This year has also spurred smaller acts of political expression. Pastor Lois Waters, 75, who has lived in Franklin County much of her life, is a Democrat who usually keeps her politics quiet. Not after the events of this year.
“I was really impressed, because it’s driven by young people. I’m really amazed and encouraged and empowered,” she said.
She and her husband Donald run Unity in Christ, a nondenominational church congregation that meets in a single-story gray building north of town. Waters said she attended one protest gathering on Juneteenth, but largely stayed away from crowds due to coronavirus concerns.
But she felt moved — for the first time — to put out a lawn sign this year, in support of the Biden/Harris ticket.
“That was my way of expressing, this is my support, this is what I believe,” she said.
Then a few things happened.
“I got a note in my mailbox and it began, ‘Thank you for bravely posting this sign. That means that there is hope,’” she said. Another person dropped off a wreath.
Later, her sign was stolen. Outraged, she put up another one.
Reporter Laura Benshoff produced this story as a part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. WHYY is part of the America Amplified network. Benshoff spoke with Franklin County residents about the Black Lives Matter protests in their area this summer, to figure out if public demonstrations had spurred any greater engagement this election year.
Q: What did the people you talked to say about the experience of being interviewed for public radio?
Most people were very open to being interviewed about their views on Black Lives Matter and the upcoming election. Due to the polarized nature of the 2020 race, some were uncomfortable discussing their prior voting choices for fear of backlash.
Q: What surprised you about this type of community engagement?
It was surprising to me, for example, that people willing to publicly sign their names to a petition in support of DA Matt Fogal and Black Lives Matter might not be willing to talk about those views in an interview. But, talking about politics is uncomfortable and divisive, and people have wildly different comfort levels for talking to the media even about less thorny topics.
Q: What lessons do you have for others who want to do the same?
More than one person shared stories of backlash or bullying for stating their political beliefs. I think it’s important to keep in mind that this is a topic many people choose to avoid, and that you will have to cast a very wide net in order to find people willing to speak about their affiliations, particularly if they live in an area where theirs is not the dominant party.
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