Marissa McGowan

Marissa McGowan of Jeannette speaks at the “Rally for Black Lives” on Thursday at St. Clair Park in Greensburg.

— Pennsylvania Capital-Star Photo/Tom Lisi

GREENSBURG — A few blocks from where Vice President Mike Pence would later lead a crowd in four-more-years chants at a “Cops for Trump” campaign event in front of the Greensburg police department building, about 80 residents rallied at a nearby park for racial justice.

“We know Mr. Pence is right down the road, but he chose to meet with the police and not the community, so we’re going to meet as a community to try to make our community better,” said Lisa Roberts, a lifelong resident of Greensburg and an organizer of the “Rally for Black Lives.”

Greensburg is the county seat of Westmoreland County and about 35 miles outside Pittsburgh. The predominantly white county of about 350,000 voted for Donald Trump by a two-to-one margin in 2016. And while the president often used racial undertones in his campaign four years ago, his warnings about the destruction of suburbs and lawless streets are drawing close comparisons to the segregationist George Wallace during his 1968 run for president.

Roberts, who is Black, said after the rally she’s experienced and heard second-hand from family and friends about instances of white people in nearby communities stoking fear and taunting Black people in the area more often than usual since the Black Lives Matter movement took off around the world.

“I’ve heard of more stories of people literally walking down the street and someone screaming the n-word at them,” Roberts, 41, said. When she walks down the street with her face mask that reads “I can’t breathe,” “The looks that I get — I’ve had comments, I’ve had people tell me that I shouldn’t be wearing it.”

But on the flip side, Roberts said she’s been moved by the support from white people for Black Lives Matter-themed events. “If you looked out at the audience, the majority of them were white people,” she said of the Friday event. “That’s something that being from Greensburg I never would’ve imagined.”

Several speakers at the rally talked of the pain and fear they experienced growing up as one of the few Black kids in their schools, and in an area with few Black-owned businesses or institutions.

Lorence King, a Greensburg resident, said it was a major struggle when he moved with his parents from Penn Hills to nearby Mount Pleasant when he was a teenager. ”Coming out here, it was a culture shock. So I felt really alienated,” King said before the rally. “I’ve had people try to run me over, you know, swerve and yell racial epithets at me out windows.”

He also recalled in his senior year at Mt. Pleasant Area Junior-Senior High School when FBI agents launched an investigation after students hung a Confederate flag and a banner reading “white power” on a water tower next to the school.

“I knew some of the guys who did that, and they’d been harassing me for years,” King said.

Another speaker, Marissa McGowan, 31, from Jeannette, said she loves where she’s from but her young children need more support and role models who look like them in the community.

“I’m just here today thanking you for supporting us, but also asking you to give more for our children to look up to,” McGowan, who is Black, said to the largely white audience. “We need more Black-owned businesses, we need more playgrounds, we need more books in the educational system, we need more Black teachers and officials.”

Soon after the rally in St. Clair Park ended, Pence emphasized in his speech a few blocks away the Trump administration’s support for police.

“Your president knows, this vice president knows, and the overwhelming majority of the American people know that the men and women of law enforcement are the best people in this country,” Pence said. “Law enforcement isn’t the problem, law enforcement is the solution.”

Statewide polls indicate that the president has recovered only slightly from plummeting numbers earlier in the month, when former Vice President Joe Biden averaged an eight-point lead, according to RealClearPolitics. The latest averages show that lead has narrowed to six points.

Greensburg City Councilman Randy Finfrock, a liberal Democrat, attended the rally. In an interview with the Capital-Star, Finfrock, who is white, said the fact that Greensburg and the county are so overwhelmingly white has made everyday life for racial minorities here difficult.

Asked whether Trump will have the same level of success in November as he did four years ago, Finfrock said it all depends on who turns out to vote.

“My sense is that opinions have hardened,” Finfrock said. “All the [campaign] money that’s going to be spent in Pennsylvania, it’s not going to mean much, because I think people have decided.”

Pence’s stop in Greensburg came the same day Trump suggested in a tweet that the U.S. delay the November election, an idea other prominent Republicans have so far disagreed with.

Pennsylvania Democrats criticized the vice president’s stops in the state ahead of his visit. “Mike Pence is coming back to Pennsylvania to spin Trump’s failed record, but Pennsylvanians know the truth: Donald Trump has broken his promises to our communities and left us behind,” said Pennsylvania Democratic Party spokesman Andres Anzola in a statement. “Trump’s chaotic, erratic COVID-19 response has cost over 6,700 Pennsylvanians their lives and millions more their jobs. And it never had to be this bad.”

While other counties in Western Pennsylvania have experienced a startling spike in COVID-19 cases over the last six weeks, Westmoreland County’s daily infection rates have stayed lower but stubbornly remained in the double digits.

Tom Lisi is a correspondent for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this article first appeared.

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