On Saturday, June 6th at 10 am, over 3,000 protesters met at the Bristol train station in Lower Bucks County. The event was a Unified Peace Walk for Black Lives Matter, a movement that has taken the nation by storm in the wake of reported cases of police brutality against people of color, the most recent of which was the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
I spoke to five of the individuals behind the march, all of whom are active members of the community. They are Korah Leonne, Shafonda Fennessy, Jamal Evans, Keevon Johnson, Brittany McClain
Korah Leonne is a Bristol native and Temple alum who appointed Fennessy, Evans, Johnson and McClain to take on the task.
“They have already demonstrated leadership in the community… so it was easy for me to do.”
Most demonstrations have taken place in major cities, but this town just north of Philadelphia is just as important in seeking change according to Jamal Evans, a data analyst and minister at Norton Avenue First Baptist Church in Bristol.
“Racism and injustice happens everywhere… Sometimes those suburban communities have predominantly Caucasian descent there, and sometimes they may feel like you don’t belong some places.”
Lower Bucks County, like much of the nation, has a history of racial discrimination and segregation. Bristol has a population that is nearly 80-percent white. Leonne remembers the first time she recognized her race when turned away at a local pool as a little girl when she wanted to swim with her friends.
“Plain as the day was gone they told us no blacks allowed.”
Shafonda Fennessy, the project manager of the march, is a meeting and event planner who grew up in the Bristol community. She recalls countless times where she received stares as a young girl when out in town with her white grandmother. Years later, the stares and mumblings continue when in public with her white husband.
“It’s [racism] not dead in this community and surrounding areas, and that’s what this walk is about and that’s what we want to change.”
Jamal Evans says that growing up in Montgomery County he faced instances of racial profiling by police countless times. He hoped that the march conveys a sense of unity to local police, and they will take steps to ease tensions in everyday interactions.
“It’s been a trust issue for a very long time between the black community and police departments… If they wave to us and speak to us at the local Wawa or Walmart and they see that we’re not bad people, I think the relationship will grow, and I think policing for them will be easier and trust on our end will be forged a lot quicker.”
Keevon Johnson, the president of Freedom Neighborhood One Community Center and program manager for runaway youth shelter in North Philadelphia, explained this movement’s message is different than previous ones.
“I think what’s a little different about this protest is our aim and our call for whites becoming allies. I don’t think that has been raised or has been highlighted enough throughout the nation. So, it’s not to address or express our anger… We’re putting things in place to manage that now. But I think we really want individuals to become educated, and to continue the conversation in their spaces.”
The changes desired by organizers go beyond the heavily emphasized police relationships. Brittany McClain is a family therapist and basketball coach at Council Rock North High School. She is also the vice president of Freedom Neighborhood One. She says that mental health in the black community needs attention and reform as well, and that “African Americans are 20% more likely to report a serious psychological issue of distress.”
To those who disagree with the movement, the organizers say the response will always be kindness.
“We need to approach people with kindness. We need to approach people with facts… So that they can see us for who we are and promote that change in the community. We want them to treat us like we treat them” said Fennessy.
The organizers are asking the community to stay active in this fight beyond the protest.
“We have to consistently knock on the door… consistently ask what’s on dockets, what’s being voted on and how do we get a seat at the table” said Evans. He reminds the community to remain hopeful, because, “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”
“People need to understand that they have a voice” said Johnson. “Our community members are very creative and innovative. Strengthen what’s already there. So, if there’s someone who wants to get involved, get in touch with us, jump on our board, jump on the committee. And I think if we do those two things we can really create change.”
The group that organized Saturday’s march hope that Bristol is just one example of a community united to make long-lasting change with the guidance of dedicated residents.