Michelle Cotton doesn’t believe her work is done.
So Cotton, who was among the organizers of a Black Lives Matter protest in Lebanon on June 4, 2020, that drew more than 400 people, has helped organize a follow-up gathering on July 3 outside Lebanon County courthouse.
“We Not Done Yet – Black Lives Still Matter,” promotional materials for the protest proclaim. The motivation for a second protest, they say: “Our police still do not wear body cams! Come voice your concerns.”
Cotton, 39, is a Lebanon native who worries about the politics of racism in her hometown.
“I feel that Lebanon County, as a whole, has a lot of underlying racism that doesn’t really get talked about,” she said. “There are certain restaurants you can’t eat in, certain areas we stay away from. Something needs to change.”
People in her community have been the victims of racial profiling by the police, she added.
“Last year, when the whole George Floyd was going on, and Breonna Taylor — those were, I think, for the country the last straw,” Cotton said. “So why do this in Lebanon? It’s not happening here. Well, I don’t want to wait until it does happen here.”
She said a second protest is needed “because the promises that were made after the first protest, by the mayor and the chief of police, haven’t come to fruition.”
Body cameras haven’t come
Foremost among Cotton’s concerns is the lack of body cameras for police, which she insists the mayor and police chief – who attended last year’s protest – promised would be provided. Cotton said event organizers met with the mayor recently, and neither she nor the police chief will be attending this year.
Cotton said they’re getting excuses to explain why body cameras have not been purchased for the city department.
“Everything was kind of blamed on COVID,” she said. “My response to that was, ‘OK, granted.’ Now, will you come to the second protest and say that now’s our chance to do it?
“When protesting was the big thing last year, the mayor was right in the forefront. She begged to speak. Now, she’s not showing up.”
Lebanon Mayor Sherry Capello acknowledged that she does not plan on speaking at the protest this year, but she disagreed with Cotton’s assessment on the issue of body cameras.
Capello said protest organizers participated in a Community Conversation on Nov. 20, where the city provided an update, and she said city officials have given further updates at City Council meetings.
“I informed the organizers in a meeting last Friday that the (body-worn cameras) were ordered, and should be received by the end of summer,” Capello told LebTown in an email. “After the training of all officers, the City would implement the program and we believe that we are on target with the date I provided last year of having the program in place by the end of the year 2021.”
City officials are working through a grant process to provide funding for the cameras, she said. They got a price estimate for the gear last Sept. 22, she said, and submitted a grant application through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency on Oct. 15. Formal notice of a grant award was received on Feb. 1.
The PCCD requires a policy for the cameras to be submitted and approved before the cameras can be ordered, Capello said. A policy was submitted on March 5, she said, and the PCCD issued its approval on May 26.
The cameras, Capello said, “were ordered at the beginning of June.” She did not immediately respond to a question about the cost of the cameras, or how much of total cost was covered by the PCCD grant.
The mayor also noted that police Chief Todd Breiner is currently on vacation.
Hoping for good conversations
Cotton said she’s hoping for a turnout of at least 200 people on Saturday.
She also hopes another outcome of the protest is “more town hall meetings … where we can talk about racial equality.”
“We’re also going to talk about the importance of voting. We need to get some new people, and fresh ideas, in,” she said. “I’m hoping a lot of good conversations among our neighbors get started.”
She believes that most people in the Lebanon community support the Black Lives Matter movement, but those who don’t “are why we’re doing this.”
“I’ve been told to knock it off, to leave the country,” she said. “I was told, ‘I hope what happened to George Floyd happens to you.’ I get a lot of threats.”
Her message to those people: “I invite them to the protest. I hope they show up.”
The event begins at noon on Saturday outside the courthouse at 400 S. 8th St. Flyers for the event note that participants “are strongly encouraged” to stay on 8th Street between Oak & Elm streets and the adjacent sidewalks, and not to go onto the grass or steps of the municipal building or the property of Congregation Beth Israel across the street.
The event is expected to last 90 minutes, Cotton said. Speakers, singers and spoken-word poets will be on hand to keep people engaged, she added.
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