Protests against police brutality come to Punxsutawney

In the wake of George Floyd's death and other protests across the country and the world, Punxsutawney residents demonstrated against police brutality along East Mahoning Street on Monday afternoon.

Emmet Jamieson, Editor-in-Chief

On Monday afternoon, protestors held a demonstration in Punxsutawney calling for an end to police brutality and justice for innocent people killed by police.

The demonstration comes a week after the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who allegedly paid for groceries with a counterfeit $20 bill and then died while in police custody. Protests against police brutality began soon after in Minneapolis, and protests have since spread to cities across the United States and the world.

Many of these protests have featured some violence, but the demonstration along the stretch of East Mahoning Street beside Barclay Square was nonviolent. Protestors arrived around 2 p.m. and stayed until around 9 p.m. Several Punxsutawney Police Department officers, including Chief Matt Conrad, stood by. The protestors held signs and chanted “black lives matter,” “hands up, don’t shoot,” and “no justice, no peace” to passing cars and people. At 6 p.m., the protestors lay face down with their hands behind their backs (the same position Floyd was in when he died) and yelled “I can’t breathe” (Floyd’s last words), and at 8 p.m., they held a candlelight vigil.

Punxsutawney resident Cheyenne Painter, 24, organized the protest. She garnered support by advertising the protest on her Snapchat story and on Facebook Live. Besides wanting to speak out about Floyd’s death and police brutality, Painter said she also felt angry at Brian Bartels, a white man who had incited a violent riot in Pittsburgh when he destroyed a police car stationed near PPG Paints Arena. Painter felt he had “hijacked” an otherwise peaceful protest.

“I organized this because I feel silence in the face of oppression and injustice is choosing the side of the oppressor,” Painter said. “I think it’s our job as white people to understand this movement and do something. I also came here because of the FBI investigating in Pittsburgh right now for a guy hijacking a peaceful protest and making it evil. They’re coming at us from within now.”

Other protestors at the demonstration echoed Painter’s reasons for protesting. Megan Sherry, 18, also a Punxsutawney resident, held a “Black Lives Matter” sign at the protest. She said she was there because she believed police brutality and George Floyd’s death were wrong. 

She said she wanted to contribute to a peaceful protest, and she shared Painter’s stance that many violent riots had started due to those with “ulterior motives.” She said, though, that the riots were happening for a reason and focusing on the destruction rather than its causes is counterproductive.

“Riots happen when people aren’t being heard,” Sherry said on her Snapchat story. “Racism is real and it needs to end. We cannot be silent anymore. Those who only pay attention to the riots and not the reason are part of the problem.”

Painter said she got the police’s consent to protest, and she said the officers decided to stand with the protestors because they too felt strongly about what had happened to Floyd. A few officers patrolled the sides of East Mahoning Street, and Chief Conrad sat farther away in Barclay Square. He said the officers were there not to keep the protestors in line, but instead to ward off others trying to disrupt the protest.

Some passersby did attempt to disrupt it. One woman drove by and yelled for the protestors to shut up and go home, a man and a woman waved American flags from their car while displaying a sign that read “Let’s go Trump! Where are you [protestors] when blacks kill whites!”, and a person allegedly spit at protestors from their car window. Some protestors then stepped into the street to berate the person, but the officers urged them back onto the sidewalk.

Although some did show disdain for the protest, many others showed support by blaring their car horns and chanting along with the crowd. A van from the Salvation Army arrived near the end of the demonstration and supplied protestors with snacks and drinks. One man, 63-year-old Dave Cash, stopped his van in the middle of the street to cheer on the protestors, but officers ordered him to move since he was holding up traffic. Cash later returned to the protest to donate bottles of water and join the line.

Cash, a lifelong resident of Punxsutawney, said he was “filled with pride” for the protestors. As an older man, he said he was happy to see young people standing up for social causes, especially in a town like Punxsutawney.

“I love this protest, man,” Cash said. “I’ve been here my whole life, and Punxsutawney’s not always been friendly to people of color and people of other lifestyles. To see this kind of thing happening, to see young people like this, this is what it’s going to take to make change.”