Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Fountain Hill Police Officers Association. Following the protest, Hellertown Police Chief Robert Shupp addressed the subject of excessive use of force during a borough council meeting.
Estimates for the number of people in attendance at a peaceful protest against racism held next to Hellertown Borough Hall Saturday ranged from 150 to 250, however organizers said they were happy with the turnout and the message it sent, regardless of what the exact count was.
The mid-day demonstration with social distancing and required use of face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic was organized by Saucon Democrats in response to the death of George Floyd in Minnesota last month. Floyd, an African-American man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Floyd’s death has triggered a wave of protests and civil unrest across the globe, but particularly in the United States, where the gatherings have recently spread from cities to smaller, less diverse communities such as the Saucon Valley.
According to a 2018 U.S. census survey, the population of Hellertown borough was 94.7 percent “white alone” (including individuals who identified as Hispanic or Latino) and the population of Lower Saucon Township was 95.1 percent “white alone” (including individuals identifying as Latino or Hispanic). The combined population of the two municipalities was 16,669 as of the 2018 survey.
Tension that may be a reflection of a lack of diversity locally was evident at Saturday’s event, as numerous passing motorists shouted things like “All lives matter” or tried to drown out individuals who were speaking at a microphone set up under a tent.
Many more passersby honked their horns, however, presumably in support of the gathering.
A protester from Quakertown who stood at the corner of Main and Water streets throughout most of the two-hour event estimated that about 50 passing motorists had instigated some type of harassment in an effort to disrupt the demonstration.
Their efforts failed, however, as those in attendance continued to rally by holding up handmade signs to draw attention to issues involving racial injustice, including Floyd’s killing and the deaths of other African-Americans at the hands of U.S. police forces.
After viewing a video shot at the protest on social media, some commenters suggested that the turnout was staged and the result of paid organizers descending on the borough.
However, at one point an event speaker asked attendees to raise their hands if they were local residents, and most hands shot up.
“The idea that this was a protest of ‘out-of-towners’ being paid $25 an hour–nothing but a barefaced lie,” said protest organizer Bill Broun. “Virtually all 200-plus people at this event were from Hellertown or Saucon Valley, generally, with some from Coopersburg and Center Valley. … Some speakers and a tiny number of Lehigh Valley activists came, but 90 percent of the people there were locals–not that it should even matter.”
Conspicuously absent from the event, one speaker said, were local elected officials.
Northampton County councilwoman Tara Zrinski asked for a show of hands from anyone holding local elected office and the only one that went up belonged to Lower Saucon Township councilwoman Priscilla deLeon.
“We should be all asking here today, where are you?” Zrinski told attendees. “I know why I am here. I am here because Black Lives Matter.”
Also absent from sight were Hellertown Police. Even though the demonstration was held right outside police headquarters, no officers passed by it on foot or in vehicles.
Broun, however, noted that police were helpful to his group in preparing for the event; a process which involved meeting with Hellertown Police Chief Robert Shupp twice.
Last week Saucon Source reached out to Shupp to request an interview about the Black Lives Matter protest movement and its impact–if any–in terms of the department’s community policing protocols. We have so far not received a response. Likewise, emails to Lower Saucon Township Police Chief Thomas Barndt, Lehigh University Police Chief Jason Schiffer and Fountain Hill Police Chief Ed Bachert as well as Acting Chief Wayne Holschwander, Mayor Carolee Gifford have all gone unanswered.
Steven Fritzinger, a labor union representative for the Fountain Hill Police Officer Association, released the following statement on behalf of the union:
In response to the murder of George Floyd the Fountain Hill Police Officer Association condemns the heinous act committed by Derek Chauvin. We are a department proudly comprised of various genders, ethnicities and races who believe in the equal protection and application of the law for all people. In light of the national response we have reaffirmed our oath and commitment to exemplify the power of diversity and community partnership.
ON MY HONOR, I WILL NEVER BETRAY MY BADGE,
MY INTEGRITY, MY CHARACTER, OR THE PUBLIC TRUST.
I WILL ALWAYS HAVE THE COURAGE TO HOLD MYSELF
AND OTHERS ACCOUNTABLE FOR OUR ACTIONS.
I WILL ALWAYS UPHOLD THE CONSTITUTION,
MY COMMUNITY, AND THE AGENCY I SERVE.
Despite or perhaps because of police’s absence from the protest and their silence on the issues George Floyd’s death have raised with regard to law enforcement, justice and race in America, police were among the people discussed by some of Saturday’s speakers.
Kerry MacLean, a Lower Saucon Township resident, his wife, Sheila, and their two sons, recalled their experiences dealing with racism and the police as a family over the past seven years.
When Jon-Luc MacLean was the target of racially-motivated bullying at Saucon Valley High School four years ago, the school district failed to adequately address the pattern of behavior, his father said.
Jon-Luc was subjected to things like having a Confederate flag thrown on him and being told to “wear it with pride,” Kerry MacLean said. Along with their other son, he was called things like “jigaboo” and “porch monkey” as well as the N-word. But it wasn’t until a white student made a mocking, racist video of him eating chicken wings that he fought back against the abuse, and then he was the only one who was charged, at least initially.
Many of these things were documented in a 2017 Rolling Stone article and a 2018 A&E documentary that was produced about racism in the Saucon Valley School District. The MacLeans also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district, alleging that officials failed to protect their children from harassment to the extent that their right to an education was abrocated. The district ultimately settled the suit out of court, and was required to institute or maintain programs to combat racism and bullying in schools.
Trying to explain the history of his sons’ race-based bullying at school in order to obtain justice for him was made more difficult, MacLean said, when a white police officer told him he didn’t understand why there would be any issues related to the Confederate flag.
Ultimately Northampton County then-district attorney John Morganelli became involved in the case, which led to charges being filed against the other student, who has never been publicly identified because he was a juvenile at the time.
But questions remain about why local police didn’t do more at the time, Kerry MacLean said, noting that when a department news release first went out about Jon-Luc’s charge, there was no mention of the racist bullying that preceded it in it.
“There are elements that are going to move forward with their agendas in police departments along with good cops,” Kerry MacLean said. “We need to start with the voting booth. Town council members appoint police chiefs.”
Jon-Luc MacLean also addressed attendees and said that after his experiences with racism in the area, he was happy to see such a robust turnout for the event.
That doesn’t necessarily mean though that racism is on its deathbed locally, he said, and that everyone can’t do more to respond to it when they see or hear it.
“We are all complicit in silence,” he told demonstrators.
Jon-Luc MacLean said that about two months ago, he was told that a group of his peers had allegedly said they wanted to chain him to the back of a truck and drag him around.
If that statement was made, jokingly or not, it was likely a reference to the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. in Texas, which is where the MacLeans originally hail from.
“I love this country,” Jon-Luc said, referencing his east Texas roots. But in terms of the Confederate flag, he added, “if you’re caught flying that…you can’t claim Southern heritage anymore.”
“I’m going to go out and educate people as much as possible,” he said of his future plans, before randomly inviting a teenage protester to come up and answer the same question.
Fifteen-year-old Shane Yardumian of Hellertown, who will be a sophomore at Saucon Valley High School in the fall, was put on the spot but didn’t miss a beat when asked what he plans to do to help eradicate racism in his community.
“I’m going to treat people with kindness and respect, because if you don’t treat them with respect and kindness they won’t listen,” Yardumian said.
Another man who spoke at the event was Joel Paulson of Hellertown. Paulson, a Saucon Valley graduate, is now a student at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia.
He stressed that educational reform is critical to countering racism in communities everywhere.
“Black lives can’t matter until we are taught that they matter,” he said. “Until I matter as much as the rest of you in this community who don’t look like me we will never change.”
Though the event was primarily about racism and its effects on the black community, another form of discrimination–transphobia–was highlighted by a young person who described how he has experienced it.
Jay Matthews, a transgender 14-year-old originally from Allentown, said he experienced “a lot of transphobia” while attending Saucon Valley schools recently.
“I know how it feels to be discriminated against just for existing,” he said.
That so many people know how that feels is why more people need to speak out, Sheila MacLean told demonstrators.
“I’m not brave,” she said. “I’m just a mother who is so concerned for her two black sons that I had to do something.”
MacLean said there is prejudice in the community to the extent that police have been called on her boys when they were walking in their own largely-white neighborhood.
In another instance, she said her son was patted down in front of his peers at school when he was wrongfully accused by a white student of stealing something.
“Even when they were dehumanizing him he still had respect,” she said. “He said, ‘no ma’am.'” That same respect wasn’t reciprocated, she said, when it was discovered that the other student had lied about what had happened. Instead of an apology, “they offered him a cookie,” she recalled.
“This is what we have been living with for seven years,” Sheila MacLean said. ‘Solidarity does make a difference. It’s up to our white brothers and sisters to stand up and say, ‘we have a problem.'”
The event ended with several other speakers sharing thoughts and ideas, including a Hellertown minister who said she is committed to doing more to end racism in the community.
Pastor Jodie Harney of Mountainview Moravian Church–who was not speaking on behalf of the congregation–called on other Saucon Valley clergy to take a stand on the issue of racism.
“We need to do better. White clergy needs to do better,” she said. “I will hold (other pastors) accountable as I hold myself; accountable to do better.”
Note: Saucon Source has an updated comment policy that includes zero tolerance for racist comments. Before commenting on our Facebook page, please take a moment to review it. The purpose of this policy is to help maintain our online community as a safe and welcoming place for everyone.