Judging from the vitriol some locals hurled at anti-racism protesters in nearby Watsontown on Sunday, we have a long way to go in bridging the divide in our country.
The protesters want justice, peace, freedom from harassment. They want equality, a worthy cause that is spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, something we will celebrate on Saturday. As we see too often, though, some people favor equality only if it is for people who have the same skin tone.
Some Watsontown residents said they were embarrassed by the ugliness of the "counter-protesters," who taunted, cursed at, insulted and told the protesters to leave town. Early on during the three-hour demonstration, the shouts and arguing nearly boiled over into something uglier when both sides moved to the middle of Main Street. That led borough police to shut down the street to traffic, Police Chief Rodney Witherite said.
Why so much anger?
To everyone's credit — including the local police, county sheriff's deputies and state police who at times stood between the groups — the arguments did not turn physical, especially since several counter-protesters and at least one protester were openly packing handguns.
The basis for some of the anger seemed to involve conspiracy theories, such as the Democrats or the communists are controlling the Black Lives Matter movement and many of the protesters come from out of state to join the local protests.
The organizers of the Watsontown protest — a group of brothers and friends from Milton led by K.J. Williams and called, "If Not Us, Then Who?" — held peaceful protests in Milton, Mifflinburg and Lewisburg over the past several weeks. The protests, like those across the country in support of Black Lives Matter, were sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25. The explosive reaction to the all-too-real video, which followed a series of deaths of Blacks during interactions with police, set off the protests, marches and riots nationwide.
People like those in Watsontown upset by the peaceful protest by nearly 200 people (smaller than the 500 who protested in Lewisburg), didn't seem to, or want to, understand why these protests are taking place. The protests are about more than Black men dying in police custody. The counter-protesters likely haven't been followed in stores, pulled over by police because they looked suspicious, called hurtful names, ignored when they tried to make changes quietly.
One woman at Sunday's protest in Watsontown even questioned why the police would even allow the protest rather than just clear out the protesters. The woman, less familiar with the First Amendment than she was with colorful words starting with the letter F, then learned from an acquaintance that the protesters had a right to "free speech." Not to mention "the right of the people peaceably to assemble."
The day was not without its little victories, though. Some individuals from both sides met and talked and even agreed with each other on some points, among them that politicians of both parties seek to divide people and that the Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan.
Protest organizer Williams later shared incidents of racism he experienced as a child and as a high school student, such as being called the n-word.
"Hate is being taught in this area," Williams said. "What we have to do is teach that that is not right."
Proof of that came not long after. As the sign-carrying protesters began their march through borough side streets, one handgun-wearing counter-protester shouted obscenities, showed the marchers he had two middle fingers and yelled, "Keep walking!" and "White lives matter!"
We do have a long way to go.