SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. — An unlikely sound is rising from America’s vast flyover country, from the small towns between forest and farmland, places where change often marches at a glacial pace. In this town of 5,578 straddling Franklin and Cumberland Counties, that sound on Tuesday afternoon was 200 protesters chanting in unison in a picturesque, tree-lined public park.
“No justice! No peace! Prosecute the police!” they shouted.
The crowd was young and old, and reflective of Shippensburg’s largely white population. The protesters held signs saying they would no longer be silent. One was supporting both the Second Amendment and Black Lives Matter. Between speakers at the three-hour event, they pressed against barricades on King Street and chanted at passing cars, dozens of which beeped for the cause.
Among the throng was a baby goat bleating on a leash.
Shippensburg, just about halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, was the site of one of the many protests and vigils popping up in small towns, medium-size cities like Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, and more rural areas of Pennsylvania since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.
“That’s how you know this is different,” said Cole Goodman, a member of the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee.
Sharree Clark said Wilkes-Barre, a city of 40,800 people in Luzerne County, has seen multiple protests, and more are in the works.
“For here, this is unprecedented,” Clark, an organizer of protests in Wilkes-Barre, said. “I just think that the George Floyd situation set off an alarm, and it woke people up to racism and injustice. We’ve had several alarms, but this particular instance, it just forced it to a head. I am super-excited to know small towns everywhere are being awakened.”
Goodman, 26, attended a protest in Carlisle on Saturday and was pepper sprayed at a protest in Harrisburg last week. He spoke to the crowd in Shippensburg on Tuesday with Police Chief Meredith Dominick beside him.
“I know we haven’t seen a movement like this since the civil rights movement,” Goodman said.
One of Tuesday’s organizers was Taya Jenkins, 22. Having grown up in Shippensburg, where the populace is 85% white, she was accustomed to just a handful of people of color in her classes. She often saw Confederate flags in the area.
“Racism does exist here,” said Jenkins, who spoke to the crowd.
Nationwide, protesters have marched in states like Montana and Idaho, even in Kotzebue, a town of 3,266 in Alaska. Emily Best, a former Democratic state Senate candidate who lives in McConnellsburg, Fulton County, said she was proud to see a protest coming to her town this weekend.
“I’ve never seen a protest in McConnellsburg,” Best said in Shippensburg on Tuesday. “The protests are showing that we’re not all the same in rural areas. We’re willing to stand up for what we believe in even if the majority feels differently.”
Best, who has “Elect Women” tattooed on her shoulder, said there’s already evidence the protests are effecting change, and cited a recent letter released by Matt Fogal, the Republican district attorney of Franklin County.
“Black Lives Matter. Period. Full stop,” Fogal wrote. “I confess, when I first heard the phrase, my immediate reaction was that ‘All Lives Matter.’ I was wrong, and part of the problem.”
Most maps of voter turnout for the 2016 presidential election are deeply red in rural America, but zooming into some areas of Pennsylvania often reveals blue pinpricks of Democratic voters, including Shippensburg. Like many of the other blue dots, Shippensburg is home to a university. Others include Kutztown, Edinboro, and Bucknell in Lewisburg. In Clarion County, Isaac Leonard, 30, attended Clarion University and now lives in town. He’s helping to organize a protest there on Thursday.
“A university brings diversity into an area,” Leonard, a Bensalem native, said. “We’re just hoping it’s a step forward for the town and the university. We want people to know change isn’t a hashtag, it’s a movement.”
Many protesters at Tuesday’s event wore Shippensburg University shirts. The school, with about 5,500 undergraduates, sits just a half-mile from the park. Ace Walker, 22, came to the university from Southwest Philly, and said it took some time to get used to the culture in the area.
“I was hopeful something like this would happen,” he said of Tuesday’s protest.
Jenkins held a solo protest last week in Shippensburg that eventually attracted dozens of people. She said many of the protesters on Tuesday were unaffiliated with the college.
“School’s not in right now, so a lot of these people just decided to come out,” Jenkins said. “That’s really encouraging."