Every Sunday morning, Kevin Burrell walks a few blocks from his downtown Harrisburg home, where he’s lived for 20 years, to Market Square Presbyterian Church. There, he serves breakfast to those in need. He loves his church and is very involved.
But on one particular Sunday, Burrell stayed home. It was the weekend before the U.S. presidential inauguration and state capitals around the country were preparing for what the FBI warned could be armed protests by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
“I was very concerned as a person of color,” said Burrell, who is Black. “I didn’t leave my house. I’ve never felt this way in my community and my neighborhood.”
State, Capitol and city police, along with Pennsylvania National Guard troops, patrolled the Capitol grounds and surrounding roads, hoping to deter anyone with violent intentions from coming. And it worked. Hardly anyone showed up.
But that wasn’t much consolation to Burrell, considering what he witnessed in the past months. Neither were local officials’ promises that they would keep the city safe during that inauguration week reassuring, not when Burrell had already seen men strapped with guns and Confederate flags parading the streets of his neighborhood.
Burrell described his feelings with words like “unsettling” and “unnerving.” His partner, Jon Podany, who is white, jumped in, as we do when we feel those we love are minimizing their experience, saying that Burrell was being too polite.
Podany, painted a picture of chaos, fear and white privilege on display.
For this Harrisburg couple, the string of protests that began in April wasn’t something they could switch off with a remote or scroll past on their Facebook feed, not when it was happening in their own backyard.
Such was the case with many residents, businesses and organizations in the neighborhoods surrounding the Capitol. And while everyone interviewed supported the right to gather and voice an opinion, they weren’t happy that some people purposely intended to invoke fear among those who call the city their home. Each was directly impacted by the large protests, especially the ones that weren’t kept to the Capitol steps.
“I love my neighborhood,” Burrell said. “It’s usually very peaceful and predictable. I’m very connected to this place. But now I’m feeling I need to be more mindful of my comings and goings.”
In April, a large group of people arrived in downtown Harrisburg for a “ReOpen PA” rally, kicking off what would be months of protests, some tense, many peaceful, by both left- and right-wing groups.
A string of Black Lives Matter protests began in May, the first of which led to clashes between some marchers and police. There were additional anti-lockdown rallies, and, during November and December, numerous “Stop the Steal” protests that opposed the U.S. presidential election results.
At the first “Reopen PA” rally in April, people gathered to show their opposition to Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders to shut down nonessential businesses and to stay at home to try to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Many brought pro-Trump flags and homemade signs saying things like “Freedom is essential,” or “Honk to reopen.” Others drove their cars and trucks around the Capitol honking and gridlocking streets.
Podany remembers people racing cars down the streets.
Pam MacNett, head of the Capitol Area Neighbors group, has video footage from her security camera of a man walking past her house with an assault rifle. She also recalls seeing an armed person walk by the Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School’s State Street campus.
“I really wish they would stay at the Capitol grounds,” said Dave Rushinski, principal of the school. “There are people whose livelihoods depend on these small neighborhoods.”
Andrea Grove is the owner of Elementary Coffee Co. on North Street in Harrisburg, about two blocks from the Capitol steps.
Grove said that one of the reasons why she chose to open up shop downtown in 2019 was specifically for its proximity to the Capitol. She wanted Elementary to be a safe space for protesters, especially Black Lives Matter protesters, to refuel and receive help, if needed.
In fact, Grove participated in some of the Black Lives Matter rallies this past summer.
While she recognized there was definitely passion and strong emotion fueling the BLM, ReOpen PA and “Stop the Steal” rallies, something about each felt different to her.
“The tone changes quickly when there are guns,” Grove said.
After the ReOpen PA rally in April, Grove and employees began internal discussions about how to stay safe and respond to future protests like that one. She said that they talked about de-escalation and workers’ comfort levels.
Grove had a feeling that Elementary could be a target for right-wing protesters. She isn’t shy about making her political stance part of her business. Social media posts and signs on their shop windows reflect their views. Grove said that Elementary had been “trolled” on social media by some “Proud Boys,” a far-right group, before.
But when armed men wearing “Proud Boys” jackets showed up outside their North Street shop on the day the U.S. Capitol was stormed in January—that was scary, Grove said. The group of men yelled and shouted racist slurs at Elementary Coffee while employees remained inside.
Grove could see neighbors looking out their doors and walking by the scene, which made her feel a little bit better.
By the time the state brought in troops and police during pre-inauguration weekend, local residents and businesses had already witnessed their fair share of rallies. They already knew what was possible.
The Philadelphia Inquirer published a story that weekend, as well, quoting Harrisburg residents on what they were expecting.
“Harrisburg, Pa., is not Washington D.C.,” wrote reporter Anna Orso. “The ornate state Capitol building is smack in the middle of the city’s downtown. There is no two-mile National Mall lined with monuments leading up to it. It’s surrounded by shops and cafés, and hundreds of people live a football field’s distance from the stairs.”
She was right.
Podany remembers a Saturday he spent outside painting his and Burrell’s porch steps. It was a quiet weekend morning until the protesters arrived. He described the noise and yelling that he could hear from his house and the air that felt thick with tension.
On the days before the inauguration, some businesses closed or boarded up, like Mangia Qui and Rubicon, both under the same ownership. Some residents chose to stay home, including Burrell and MacNett.
People asked Grove if it was time to erase the “Black Lives Matter” sign written on the windows. She had her concerns like they did, but she couldn’t stand the thought of giving into fear.
“If we don’t stand for these things now, when do we stand for them?” Grove said. “We decided to just keep doing our thing and there’s a strength in that.”
Burrell described his experience with the protests as seeing a genie let out of a bottle—something coming to the surface that had been lingering underneath. But the division that Burrell witnessed has given him a renewed strength in the work he does with the Harrisburg Human Relations Commission.
“We are not done with these issues,” he said. “We need to work.”
For Grove, the experience included exchanging phone numbers with people who live near the shop, in case anyone needed to call on each other. Ultimately, she believes it all drove conversation and strengthened neighborhood bonds.
“The downtown community is strong,” she said. “People are going to look out for each other.”
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