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

As demonstrations over police violence against African Americans could be heard outside his Chambersburg office, Franklin County District Attorney Matt Fogal decided to speak out.

A protester raises a fist as others kneel in Philadelphia on June 4, 2020.
A protester raises a fist as others kneel in Philadelphia on June 4, 2020.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Matt Fogal, the district attorney of Franklin County in central Pennsylvania, describes himself as a small fish in a small pond. He’s the chief law enforcement officer for 155,000 Pennsylvanians, and the spotlight isn’t really his thing. But as demonstrations over police violence against African Americans broke out across the country and outside his office in Chambersburg, he decided to write an open letter supporting the protesters.

He also called on Republicans to put “country before party” when they vote in November.

“Black Lives Matter. Period. Full stop,” Fogal wrote in the letter, which has been shared widely on social media and printed in several newspapers. “I confess, when I first heard the phrase, my immediate reaction was that ‘All Lives Matter.’ I was wrong and part of the problem.”

At the end of the letter, he condemns President Donald Trump’s speech and photo op at a Washington church on June 1.

“For my fellow Republicans, I encourage you to exhibit political courage and never put the party before the country or conscience," Fogal wrote. "In Union There is Strength.”

Fogal, district attorney since 2009, is a member of the Army National Guard who responded to Hurricane Katrina, and was deployed to Kosovo and Afghanistan. He talked with The Inquirer about how watching protesters be teargassed in Washington and hearing them outside his office window solidified for him the need to speak out.

The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What prompted you to write this letter?

“I struggled mightily with the idea of making a statement. I’m an elected official, and I don’t really like attention or need attention. I don’t have the hubris to think people need to hear from me. That was counterbalanced by the very strong feeling I had that this is an unprecedented time, and I wanted to make sure those I serve here know what side of history I’m on in this moment, and where I encourage them to be."

Have you gotten any pushback?

"I have. That’s sort of where we are, the tribalism and the silos of thought and the lack of individuality is about as troubling to me as anything.

“I’ve also received a real outpouring of support from all backgrounds — that, for sure, includes Republicans. And quite frankly, it’s the Republican Party, but only in a technical sense. I don’t believe that what has functioned over the course of the last number of years is the Republican Party. I think it’s been taken over and doesn’t necessarily represent what I know to be the Republican Party. It’s anti-science, pro-conspiracy, and seemingly anti-truth. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not leaving the Republican Party. The Republican Party has been infiltrated.”

You pretty explicitly condemn Trump’s photo op with the Bible at the church and encourage people not to support him. Did you vote for him in 2016?

“No. I didn’t vote for Trump, and I will not. I’m a citizen who has sat back for, I guess, 4½ years, including his campaign, and watched him on the news like every other citizen. Particularly within the last three months, the more I see, the more I hear, I’m thinking, ‘Why is no one saying anything? Why can’t anyone say what is obvious?’ So I thought, well, ‘Guess what, pal? You’re an elected official, and you’re small potatoes — but you didn’t say anything.’”

Do you sense Republicans are shifting in their support of Trump in your area?

“I know what others in my party have been saying quietly and among themselves, and they’re saying, ‘This is serious.’ Many are like me. My heart has been broken over a very long period of time over the state of our country.”

As a law enforcement official, what changes are you planning to make to address systemic racism in policing or in the courts in Franklin County?

“I think it’s a bigger issue than saying, ‘Well, we’ll do this with police and then racism is fixed.’ There’s work to do there. The racial divide and problem are obvious — if anyone disagrees, I don’t know how to communicate to that person. But the issue goes beyond policing — employment opportunities, housing, education. It’s not about a policy change but a heart change.”

Anything else you want to say?

"There’s an image circulating of a little girl holding a sign that says, ‘We said black lives matter. We didn’t say only black lives matter but we just need your help.'

“So, as a so-called chief law enforcement officer, I can’t get that image of that little girl out of my head, and if anyone can look her in the eyes, when she’s begging you to just say the words — it would mean so much if you just said the words — I’ll say the words every day. What I’m seeing in these demonstrations and what I’m hearing is not militant. It’s people earnestly asking for us to do the right thing, and that little girl, she matters. And I want her, wherever she’s at, I’d love to look her in the eye and say, ‘Young lady, you matter.’”