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Opinion
Francis Wilkinson

Black Lives Matter in Unlikely Places

A movement takes small-town Pennsylvania by surprise.

Members of "If Not Us, Then Who?" lead Black Lives Matter marching through Williamsport.

Members of "If Not Us, Then Who?" lead Black Lives Matter marching through Williamsport.

Photographer: Paul Weaver/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Image

On a withering Sunday afternoon in August, 200 people seems an impressive turnout for a Black Lives Matter rally in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a city of 28,000 along the west branch of the Susquehanna River. This part of the state is overwhelmingly white, rural and conservative. But Frank Manzano, an organizer of the protest who is now dispensing optimism and energy from the steps of City Hall, is secretly disappointed. “I expected Williamsport as a community to show up,” Manzano would later tell me. “I just don’t know what we did wrong.”

In fact, the rally is a well-organized affair, police-permitted and supervised. People can register to vote, sign up to join the NAACP, buy a T-shirt, or receive a face mask or bracingly cold bottle of water for free. The temperature throughout the event’s three and a half hours remains in the 90s. The sun is cruel. “Thank God for this beautiful day,” Manzano says.