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In Philadelphia’s white suburbs, Black Lives Matter protests both denounced and exposed racism. Will it make a difference?

What happened in the suburbs this summer “is the first step, but it’s only the first step,” said Swarthmore College’s Sarah Willie-LeBreton.

Protesters march by locals, bikers, and Trump supporters who were counter-protesting a Black Lives Matter march in Ridley on Aug. 1.
Protesters march by locals, bikers, and Trump supporters who were counter-protesting a Black Lives Matter march in Ridley on Aug. 1.Read more / File Photograph

For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the same amount of time that a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of a Black man named George Floyd, hundreds of people dropped to a knee in a Kennett Square intersection.

Naomi Simonson, who organized the event, looked around and wept.

She had grown up in Kennett, attended high school steps away, and in her 20 years never knew whether her mostly white neighbors and friends cared about the struggles of Black people like her. The sight of the crowd felt like an answer, she said.

“I was looking around to see people I grew up with and their parents,” Simonson said, and some police officers stopping traffic were on their knees, too. “That was when I became emotional.”

Two months later, in Ridley, there was emotion of a different kind as an angry white mob met Black Lives Matter protesters with shouts of “Kneel to your masters," “No one cares,” and “Go home.”

Replied one protester: “This is my home.”

Across the Philadelphia suburbs this summer, residents held protests, marches, and rallies in towns that are predominantly white and may have never before seen racial-justice protests.

Stuck at home due to the coronavirus, which also disproportionately strikes Black and brown communities, they watched the local and national uprisings unfold on TV. They had free time to educate themselves, reflect on their privilege, and organize and attend protests. The events ended up both denouncing and exposing racism in their communities.

While Philadelphia is majority-minority, with Black people accounting for more than 42% of the population, its collar counties — Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery — are on average 80% white and 10% Black, according to census data. Across the river, the New Jersey suburbs — Camden, Gloucester, and Burlington Counties — are on average 75% white and 16% Black.

But some areas are even more homogeneous. In Bucks County, for example, less than 5% of the population is Black; in Chester County, that number is closer to 6%; and in some towns along the affluent Main Line, it’s about 3%.

Most suburbs began thriving around the time of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as whites fled diversifying cities such as Philadelphia, said Sarah Willie-LeBreton, who serves as provost, dean of the faculty, and professor of sociology and Black studies at Swarthmore College. So in the past, some white people were involved in racial liberation movements, she said, but not in the suburbs.

Throughout June, suburban residents made their voices heard nearly every day in different towns outside Philadelphia. In recent weeks, these demonstrations have continued but become far less frequent.

It’s too early to tell what long-term impact this summer will have on Philly’s suburbs, and on hundreds of other small and midsize American towns.

But people involved in the movement have been heartened by the initial response — increased conversations about race; greater commitment by white people to educate themselves on racial injustice; less hesitancy to speak up against racism; and more openness toward participating in demonstrations.

Taking a stand in suburbia

Suburban protest organizers like Simonson could have journeyed to the city for large protests. The massive events — which were largely peaceful, but a few gave away to violence and destruction — sprung up across the country and world in June after Floyd’s killing, and then again in August after a Kenosha, Wis., police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back seven times.

» READ MORE: How George Floyd changed Philadelphia, a city 1,100 miles from where he was killed

But many suburban activists said they asked themselves: Why should we have to leave our neighborhoods? Why can’t we make a statement right here, in white communities where it is easy to disconnect from the oppression of Black and brown people?

» READ MORE: Protests ripple across Philly suburbs, from the Main Line to Norristown. ‘It’s not a one-race problem. It’s a human problem.’

Before their protests, organizers weren’t sure how many of their neighbors would be moved enough to come out on hot summer days in the middle of a pandemic. Simonson thought only her friends would show up to the Kennett Square protest.

Lindsay Wetmore-Arkader expected 50 to 100 people would come to her Main Line Families for Black Lives Matter Solidarity event in Ardmore, she said, but a couple of hundred did.

Taj Gray-Vause, who organized the Main Line for Black Lives march, anticipated 100 to 200 people. Thousands came.

The demonstrations brought moving scenes of solidarity — such as a mass of mostly white people marching down Lancaster Avenue, and mothers pushing strollers as they chanted, “Black Lives Matter.”

“We wanted [Black people] to know we stood with them,” Wetmore-Arkader said.

Yet the demonstrations also brought hateful, racist backlash, just as they had in big cities and small rural towns across the country.

» READ MORE: Small-town Pa. protests are a sign of big changes

While disturbing and sometimes frightening, some suburban activists say this kind of response can make it harder for white residents — who do not have the lived experience of being victims of racism — to stay on the sidelines as the racism of their neighbors is out in the open.

“Obviously those displays are horrible,” said Meredith Meisenheimer, a white woman who is involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in Stratford, Camden County. “But one thing they do is put to rest the idea that racism doesn’t exist here.”

At the same time, a lack of in-person resistance, particularly in wealthier towns, can be deceiving, said Willie-LeBreton, the Swarthmore provost.

Affluent people who hold deep-seated racist beliefs are more likely to keep them to themselves or voice them only in spaces where they know their views are shared, she said. They are less likely to counterprotest an antiracism march, which could cost them a high-powered job or social status, she added.

‘No one cares': Protesters face explicit resistance

After Floyd’s death, friends Taylor Shiflett, who is Black, and Ashley Dolceamore, who is white, wanted to get more involved in local protests, but they struggled to find Black Lives Matter events near their Collingdale-area homes. So they founded their own group, Delco Resists.

They say the work has been rewarding but tiring, because of negative responses and racist interactions along protest routes.

“It can be a little disappointing to put in so much work and see how much hate is in people’s heart,” Dolceamore said.

Vitriol was on full display in early August when Shiflett, Dolceamore, and hundreds of others marched through Ridley Township, eventually taking over MacDade Boulevard.

The demonstration began peacefully, with a few white onlookers spontaneously joining in as the racially mixed group marched by their homes.

But it devolved as groups of angry white people, many on motorcycles and in pickup trucks, drove along the route, cutting in front of protesters, revving their engines, and blanketing the crowd with thick black exhaust. As the protest passed a park, dozens waved American flags, blasted patriotic music, and shouted in an attempt to drown out the message.

As tensions rose, two white fists raised out the front windows of a passing car.

One maskless man followed the protesters, and chanted, “All Lives Matter.”

Later, when the protesters took a knee to honor Floyd and other victims of racism and police brutality, a counterprotester shouted, “Kneel to your masters!”

Annette Deigh, 41, a Black woman from nearby Morton borough, and her children, Donyae, 3, and Donlyn, 8, went to the protest because they were tired of seeing such hatred in their town.

“This is really important for us to fight for,” she said, noting they had been victims of racism “fairly often” and she was "not surprised at all” to see the resistance.

Donyae and Donlyn wore shirts with the words “My skin color is not a crime” and held signs that read “My thoughts matter” and “My future matters.”

While white people outnumber minority populations in the suburbs, “Black people are out here, too,” their mother said.

Measuring progress in predominantly white towns

How does one gauge progress in towns that are home to so few people of color? Three months after the height of the protests, can activists measure whether the initial enthusiasm was performative or indicative of change to come?

It depends on whom you ask.

In Stratford, a predominantly white township of about 7,000 in Camden County, supporters of racial justice have recently been listening to the experiences of Black people, Meisenheimer said, and asking them what they’d like to see change in their town. Racism in the school system is a top priority, she said. On the Main Line, Gray-Vause echoed this concern, adding that school curricula should address African American culture and history.

“I don’t think there will ever be some concrete win and then it’s going be like ‘Hey we’re done,' " Meisenheimer said.

Delco Resists is continuing its work, too, and planning more protests.

Willie-LeBreton, of Swarthmore College, said she has been “pleased” to see an increasing number of Black Lives Matter lawn signs near her home in Media, the Delaware County seat. Similar messages, some handwritten in crayon or even mowed into lawns, can be spotted in front yards throughout the suburbs.

“I’ve got some colleagues who say, ‘Those are just signs,' ” she said. “But I think signs are very symbolic, and symbolism matters.”

She said she also believes the proliferation of suburban rallies and the increase in conversations about race show the movement is making an impact in the suburbs.

“I’m curious as to where the conversations are going to lead us,” she said.

While promising, the conversations are also “exhausting," she said, and white people who are newly committed to the movement have never felt this way before. Black people have experienced the exhaustion for a long time, she said.

If people in predominantly white communities can carry through on the mission of recent protests, she said they could prompt changes in the way companies approach hiring and schools teach students about U.S. history and racism, cause officials to address affordable housing in the suburbs, and result in community partnerships with police departments. That’s a big “if,” though, she said.

What happened in the suburbs this summer "is the first step, but it’s only the first step,” Willie-LeBreton said. "It is not sufficient.”