Last Thursday Coatesville, Pennsylvania, was home to what’s become a familiar sight: a protest of more than a thousand people chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe.”
But Coatesville is no ordinary place for a protest. About an hour drive west of Philadelphia, the old steel town of about 13,000 is a far cry from the liberal metropolises that typically host protests and demonstrations, underscoring the vast breadth of the reignited Black Lives Matter movement and the growing political importance of the suburbs.
“I think people are tired,” said James Logan, Coatesville’s assistant city manager, in a telephone interview Monday. “It’s just been boiling for so long and now it’s just running over.”
In the two weeks since the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who lost his life after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, more than 700 cities and towns spanning all 50 states have been home to the historical Black Lives Matter demonstrations, extending past the country’s traditionally liberal cities and into suburban and rural communities. From Greenwich, Connecticut to Waco, Texas to Wenatchee, Washington, protesters are standing up against police brutality and racial injustice, tapping into a level of civil engagement that city officials say they haven’t seen in decades.
In Coatesville, Logan said the recent protests were reminiscent of when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. visited the town in the 1960s.
“Let’s just say modern day? I’ve never heard, when I look at our history, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Logan said.
City officials and attendees have been struck by the way the demonstrations have taken root on their own instead of by an overarching organization. Logan said Coatesville’s June 4 protest — which was attended by over one thousand people — started as a simple Facebook event from a resident.
In Ashland, Ohio, Keon Singleton started protesting alone, jogging with a Black Lives Matter sign around the mainstreet of his adopted town, where he is a college student athlete. After someone streamed it on Facebook, Singleton’s lone jog became an 80-person march. He has kept the demonstrations going daily.
“I never even heard of a protest in a small white city,” said Singleton, a Baltimore native who had never organized a demonstration before. “It starts in these small white communities….it’s really good people, they just don’t know what’s going on in the black community.”
When Hayley Mason decided to put together a vigil on the 4th Street bridge in her hometown of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, for example, she had no playbook or official organizing experience. After the killing of Floyd, Mason walked around town to gauge interest for an event, and visited the local chaplain who recommended a black reverend to speak. She invited her Republican state representative as well as his Democratic challenger. And she secured a permit from the city just in case.
Mason expected maybe 10 people to attend, given that the town of 7,000 is mostly white and conservative. But 250 people showed up, including the GOP representative. “I went from ‘please let someone come out’ to ‘oh my gosh where are we going to put everybody?”said April Feagley, who helped Mason promote the event.
“In small towns, things happen kind of organically,” Mason said. “It feels very different waking up in Huntingdon after that turnout…that turned a feeling of angst into ‘wow I didn’t know our small town was capable.'”
The organic nature of the demonstrations in such unconventional areas has the makings of a movement, and political strategists from both sides of the aisle have taken notice of the coalitions emerging from the protests five months out from election day.
“I have been shocked about seeing this biracial coalition of people,” says Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist based in Georgia, where Amaud Arbery was shot and killed by two white men while out on a jog in February. “I see more white people in Atlanta marching to the governor’s mansion than I see black people…I see more parents I know in suburban areas marching with their children.”
There is also generally broad support. A CBS News poll found 58% of Americans disapprove of President Trump’s handling of race relations, compared to 33% who approve. The survey also showed 57% say police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person.
“It reminds me in some respects of what we faced immediately after, where there was a big outcry,” says Republican strategist Matt Gorman, referring to the Florida school shooting that galvanized protesters. “While 2018 certainly wasn’t fought on gun control, you saw in the suburbs it popped…it became something you saw in ads, where it wasn’t expected before.”
The demonstrations in suburban areas represent a political shift made apparent in the 2018 midterm elections, where voters turned off by President Trump fueled the Democrats’ takeover of the House. CBS News exit polling found that 53% of suburban women supported Democrats that year, a six-point swing from the previous midterm.
That trend appears to be continuing. A Fox News poll last week found Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden with a nine-point advantage over Trump in the key battleground state of Wisconsin, driven by a 14-point lead among suburban voters.
Over the past week, Wisconsin held protests in all 10 of its biggest municipalities, including in places like Janesville, the home of former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Waukesha, a key swing county outside Milwaukee. Democrats say the breadth of those protests present lessons for the party heading into the election.
“The turnout for Black Lives Matter protests in rural Wisconsin punctures the false choice between racial justice and economic issues,” said Ben Wikler, chairman of Democratic Party of Wisconsin, a key battleground state. “I can’t think of another moment when so many people have gathered spontaneously, especially to fight for black lives…in a state that has some of the highest racial disparities.”
That the demonstrations are without modern precedent would be an understatement in some areas. Over 150 people came to a protest on Saturday in Vidor Texas, which was a hotbed of KKK activity as recently as the 1990s. And nearly 100 people demonstrated in Howell, Michigan, another town associated with the Klan.
And in Orange, Virginia, where a confederate monument stands outside the courthouse, residents held two Black Lives Matter demonstrations last week. “I’ve never seen anything like this in Orange,” said Elizabeth Shepherd, who attended the event with her family. “The most striking part was the relative lack of counter protestors and the number of people who honked in support as they drove by.”
Orange is about 75 miles northwest of Richmond, Virginia, which was the capital of the confederacy and remains the capital of the state. The town is part of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, a longtime Republican stronghold that flipped to Democrats in 2018 with the election of Abigail Spanberger. The congresswoman participated in demonstrations in the Richmond suburbs, marching from the Chesterfield County Police Headquarters to the court house.
Other protests took place in suburban areas like Chagrin Falls, Ohio; Fairfield, Connecticut; and St. Charles, Missouri.
Moving forward, both parties are trying to navigate the terrain. “This isn’t a gun control protest that draws partisan lines…it’s more unifying than other marches,” said Gorman, the Republican strategist. But, he says, the conversation presents opportunities for the GOP when it comes to policy prescriptions, especially as Democrats argue for cutting police budgets. “You have to be very clear on where you stand on those policy prescriptions like defunding the police..to not just appeal to Republicans but to appeal to those suburban areas.”
Tharon, the Democratic strategist, says the party needs to “have a rural and suburban strategy, that [seizes] on the white guilt…you have got to make them feel like hey you are part of this as well. Black Lives Matter is not just a black issue.”