Racial justice organizations from across the state gathered in Harrisburg Saturday on the Capitol steps, calling for action towards ending police brutality, disproportionate health care outcomes and the digital divide that largely affects rural and poor urban Pennsylvanians.
In a series of ranging speeches, punctuated with songs from the 1960s Freedom Movement, speakers touched on the numerous justice issues that activists have been advocating for across Pennsylvania since the first protests began in May, and that many of the groups present have been working toward for far longer.
“I think that quite honestly the legislators have been able to get away with us being so geographically divided and how we have different worlds across the state,” Carmina Taylor, one of the event organizers, said. “I’m very excited that for once we are really coming together and we’re connecting dots and that’s what’s most important here.”
Taylor is one of the founders of PA Women Rise, the group that organized the weekend’s event. Her organization came about after a Montgomery County commissioner Joseph Gale released a statement calling the Black Lives Matter movement a “left-wing hate group” and referring to protestors as “enemy combatants.” PA Women Rise pushed to get Gale removed from office, with resolutions introduced in the House and Senate calling for Gale’s impeachment. Those resolutions have yet to move from committee, but that type of action is what Taylor is trying to encourage other organizations to take up.
“I started going to townhall meetings all over this summer, going to protests and I realized that local communities were having racial injustice issues, but local organizers weren’t getting beyond the protest,” Taylor said. “So we wanted to become a model for local communities, to say, you know if you have problems with your locally elected official, you have to go further than a protest. So we decided to band together, and we established a statewide coalition called We Can’t Wait.”
She said that in her journey across the state, particularly as she got to know rural parts of Pennsylvania, she saw Black Lives Matter protests in parts of the state that are often thought of as mostly white and rural. What she realized is that a lot of the issues that Black Pennsylvanians were advocating for were shared by rural citizens, and there was a potential there for coalition building.
In particular, she noted that lack of health care and broadband access were present in both rural and urban communities and that lawmakers have not adequately addressed those concerns for either group.
“The only way we can shift the trajectory for leadership in Harrisburg, is simply flip the House and the Senate. Those are all rural counties,” Taylor said. “So I want rural voters to understand that we need to look at the leadership records of their incumbents, and make decisions on what’s best for them and everyone else in the Commonwealth.”
Calls to action did not stop with voting, though — Don Holmes, an organizer with Capital Region Stands Up, spoke about how, following the police’s use of pepper spray to break up protests in Harrisburg in May, he took to “annoying” his local officials in Cumberland County. He and other members of Capital Region Stands Up have been pushing for substantive reforms in the county for months, and Holmes said Saturday that they’ve had some successes, but are still working towards a civilian advisory committee for greater citizen participation in law enforcement reforms.
“They don’t want us to get the work done. They want us to simply stay in the streets, not get anything done, yell, be angry but not actually come to where we can get results,” Holmes said. “We have to make sure that the same energy we have out here in the streets, we’re taking to our governing bodies, and we’re annoying the hell out of them.”
With the election already underway, this rally kicked off a 30-day get out the vote effort that Taylor is working on with her network of organizers. Volunteers were on site to help register attendees to vote, and speakers closed out their statements with calls to not focus on the presidential election, but vote all the way down the ballot, and engage more heavily with state politics.
“When you have a leadership post in Harrisburg, all of us become your constituents,” Taylor said. “They need to be serving all of us and they’re not.”