The pandemic provides an opportunity to focus on justice and equity in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Six days after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, choking out his last breath on May 25, 2020, 400 protesters 854 miles to the east in Erie, Pennsylvania peacefully assembled in the city’s downtown. For several hours, the crowd gathered in the city’s downtown park located a block north of City Hall and the city’s police station, chanting in chorus and holding signs bearing messages against police brutality.
As day gave way to night, some protestors headed home. Others remained, and some began gathering near the entrance to the police station just after 9 p.m.
Then came a broken window and spray-painted signs near the police station entrance. Police ordered protestors to disperse. They did not.
Fireworks hurled throughout the streets and at police illuminated the night’s sky. Police took the streets in riot gear while other officers, perched on a lower roof above the station, fired tear gas into the crowd.
At 11:55 p.m., Erie Mayor Joe Schember declared the city to be in a state of emergency.
As detailed in the Erie Times-News: “Police by about 12:30 a.m. on Sunday had rounded up the last of the protesters, who were made up of men and women of all races, black and white. A police officer had kicked one of them, a 21-year-old woman, in the shoulder as she sat in the middle of State Street and refused to move.”
The video of the officer kicking Hannah Silbaugh went viral on social media, amplifying the call for police reform. Clean-up efforts the following day were led by residents and local business owners, some of whom, like Hannah Kirby, owner of Ember+Forge coffeehouse, had their storefront windows shattered just hours earlier.
The May 31 Facebook post from Ember+Forge read:
Ember+Forge was built to be a welcoming space for our Erie community. While yesterday’s events have left us hurting, it pales in comparison to the grief in our Black community.
We stand firm in our belief that the Erie community is strong and has a bright future – but this future only happens when all of our citizens are heard.
We’re assessing the damage and cleaning up and will be closed Monday (6/1).
The next Saturday, on June 6, 2,500 people took to the streets in Erie to remember George Floyd. The event remained peaceful.
In the weeks that followed, Jessica and Nick Taylor and their production company MenajErie Studio conducted interviews with the mayor, local entrepreneurs, scholars, and others in Erie in the wake of the Covid-19 and social unrest. In the four-part series’ first installment, as the camera pans past a storefront displaying a Black Lives Matter sign, Nick says: “I think what the pandemic has done has brought our attention to all these things that have been issues for a long time. Now we have the time to stop and really take a deep dive into some of the inequalities and inequities that exist, not just in Erie but in the world.”
“I’ve always framed the discussion of the pandemic as a way to expose what was already present,” says social work professor Dr. Parris Baker, as the fourth installment opens.
Here, Jessica and Nick look at how those in a community, living through a devastating pandemic, grapple with questions being asked across a country working to find the words and ways to address systemic racism and community and police relations – What is the role of protests in civil dialogue? How can the unheard be heard? What is the role of civic leaders? Of police officers? Of business owners? Of citizens? – as they look for ways to have conversations decades deferred.
In addition to Baker, others featured include: Dr. Ferki Ferati and Angela Beaumont, president and director of operations at the Jefferson Educational Society; Erie Mayor Joe Schember; Blane Dessy, director of the Erie County Public Library; Patrick Fisher, director of Erie Arts & Culture; Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro’s co-owner Karen Thomas; Ember+Forge’s Hannah Kirby; and Bridgeway Capital Erie Office Director Cathryn Easterling.
In prior installments, Jessica and Nick examine the economic and cultural impacts of the pandemic in Erie, which you can watch here and here.