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What Black Lives Matter protests in Pennsylvania’s ‘Trump Country’ mean for 2020

Protests have occurred in at least 56 of the state’s 67 counties, including in more than 40 towns Trump won four years ago.

Cole Goodman, the youngest member of the executive board of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, takes a knee and speaks in support of Black lives during a protest on King St. in Shippensburg, PA, on June 9.
Cole Goodman, the youngest member of the executive board of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, takes a knee and speaks in support of Black lives during a protest on King St. in Shippensburg, PA, on June 9.Read moreMARGO REED / For the Inquirer

Noah Wilson didn’t think many people would show up to the Black Lives Matter protest he organized in Grove City, Pa., a town of 8,300 about 60 miles north of Pittsburgh.

For starters, the population is 95% white, and Donald Trump won almost two-thirds of the vote in 2016. Then there were the hateful posts Wilson, who is black and Asian, saw on social media in response to the protest plans, including, he said, threats of lynching.

But when June 4 arrived, about 150 people turned out to march for racial justice after the death of George Floyd, the unarmed black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. They prayed together and knelt in front of the police station for almost nine minutes — the amount of time the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck.

As the demonstrators marched peacefully, some business owners stood outside their stores with assault rifles.

“I was scared, as anybody would be with your children in hand… and seeing somebody with assault rifles,” said Marisa Jackson, 39, one of Grove City’s few black residents. “You’re not sure what their intentions are; they’re there to protect bricks and mortar.”

Protests flared in Philadelphia and other major cities across the country following Floyd’s death. But while images of tens of thousands marching in metropolitan areas captured the most attention, protests also sprouted up in small towns where such demonstrations almost never take hold.

In Pennsylvania, protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement have occurred in at least 61 of the state’s 67 counties, according to a running list kept by the Pennsylvania Capital-Star website and a review of local news stories. More than 50 protests have taken place in towns Trump won four years ago. The list includes Mansfield in Tioga County, Bedford in Bedford County, and Tyrone in Blair County, all of which Trump won in 2016 with more than three times as many votes as Hillary Clinton.

Protests can affect electoral politics by energizing voters, leading to increased turnout and even campaign donations, studies show. And antiracism protests in deeply conservative areas are unusual, people who study protests and politics said, suggesting they could have an impact in the November presidential election.

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

“You’re going to see more contributions being made right now, you’re going to see more candidates coming out, you’re going to see political platforms being changed,” said Daniel Gillion, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor who studies protests. “I think the entire electoral process is starting to change.”

Winning a statewide election in Pennsylvania can be a matter of playing very slim margins, as Trump’s 44,000-vote victory showed in 2016. While the focus for Democrats is often on more densely populated cities and suburbs, every vote matters. Clinton picked up 124,000 votes in towns Trump won by 75% or more.

Pennsylvania is again considered a crucial battleground.

“I fundamentally believe we’ll be picking the president. We need every vote. We need every county,” Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, said Friday. “We cannot afford to avoid any part of the state or any county or any voter that is reachable. We take Pennsylvania out of Donald Trump’s column, he has no credible path" to reelection.

Even as public opinion has rapidly shifted in favor of the Black Lives Matter cause, Trump has bet his call for “law and order” will win the day, especially as some peaceful protests were overtaken by looting. Trump has urged governors to “dominate” protesters, referred to demonstrators as “thugs,” and drawn widespread criticism over his administration’s use of force to disperse them outside the White House so he could cross the street for a photo-op at a church.

It remains to be seen whether Democrats suffer backlash over activists’ calls to “defund the police,” a slogan whose meaning is evolving but generally refers to reallocating money away from police departments and toward social services.

» READ MORE: Defund the police: What does it mean, and what would it look like in Philly?

What is clear already: These protests are taking place in new communities and drawing out new participants.

“The conversation has changed dramatically overnight,” Fetterman said. “People are energized and outraged at a level I haven’t witnessed certainly in my adult lifetime.”

Andy Harkulich, chair of the Mercer County Democrats, said: “It’s very refreshing to me in my area, to see these kinds of things. … We’ve seen rallies, but not like this.”

“Grove City is definitely Trump country,” he said. “I think the country is changing."

"Just look at the thing with the Confederate flag,” Harkulich said, pointing to NASCAR’s decision to ban the flag from races. “That’s unbelievable.”

And while the protests may be small in many cases, more important is the rest of the community that notices them.

There are always liberal voters in rural, conservative areas — and conservative ones in big cities — but a protest is a public display that can help shift the conversation by allowing people in the political minority to see they are not alone, empowering them and sometimes connecting them into a loose community.

“It’s a little bit like a standing ovation,” said Omar Wasow, a Princeton University politics professor who has studied protests’ political impact. “There’s a moment where the show ends and people are like, ‘Are we standing? Are we not standing?’ … And if a few people stand, that can cascade through the whole audience.”

In one study, Tax Day protests in 2009 led to increased support for tea party positions, Republican voter turnout, and conservative shifts in policy — in good weather. When protests were rained out, so were the political impacts.

While the current protests won’t suddenly turn conservative areas liberal, Wasow said they help create a climate where “it becomes more normal for there to be this kind of expression or politics in small-town communities.”

Many of the small-town protests have drawn resistance, such as the gun-wielding response in Grove City. A militia group showed up to a protest in Kittanning, about 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where two dozen people demonstrated on a recent Saturday.

Some towns saw Facebook-fueled rumors of planned riots and looting.

“The number of protests in the small towns is really striking, and it’s striking that it’s happening in the face of concerted social media disinformation as well as, doubtless, some intentional disinformation and locally generated rumor mongering,” said Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh history professor whose work includes studying electoral trends in Pennsylvania.

Counterprotests can actually help amplify the political impact of protests because they generate sympathy, Wasow said. In the 1960s, he found, nonviolent protest helped drive up Democratic turnout, especially when it was met with a response from police or vigilantes. Violent protests had the opposite effect.

“Visible resistance is actually not a bad thing for a cause supported by a statistical minority, because it just helps draw attention,” said Wasow, who like Gillion and Putnam believes the protests will likely help Democrats in November to some degree.

Consider Matt Fogal, the Republican district attorney of Franklin County in south-central Pennsylvania. After watching 75 people march outside his office in Chambersburg, the county seat, Fogal wrote an open letter in support of the cause. “Black Lives Matter,” he wrote. “Period. Full stop.”

And he denounced Trump without naming the president: “For my fellow Republicans, I encourage you to exhibit political courage and never put the party before the country or conscience.”

» READ MORE: A rural Pa. prosecutor on how the George Floyd protests led him to call on fellow Republicans to ditch Trump

There’s a backlash that naturally follows political protests, but that doesn’t tend to show up at the polls, Gillion said.

When he studied Black Lives Matter protests in recent years, he found they increased turnout among black and Democratic voters. But Republican voters, who in polls voiced strong negative feelings toward the protests, had no corresponding spike in turnout.

Gillion expects a similar effect with the current protests. “It will for sure create a Republican backlash," he said, "but the Republican backlash might not be materialized in terms of voter turnout.”

Democrats are hoping the protests in rural areas and small towns will help mobilize their supporters.

“It has permeated our rural areas in Northeast Pennsylvania just as much as it has the big cities,” said John Tucker, chair of the Pike County Democrats. “I think that right now, we have not seen these types of protests up here in our area in the last 30-some years I’ve been here. I think the past three years, everyone has gotten motivated to say what they believe.”

Along Pennsylvania’s northeast border with New York, about 250 people marched outside the county courthouse in Milford this month, according to the Pike County Courier. The town is home to about 1,000 people. Trump won 62% of the vote in Pike County.

“I do believe it’s going to show in the election in November,” Tucker said.