Part 4. From Washington, Pa. to Youngstown, Ohio
In much of southwestern Pennsylvania where I traveled, Black Lives Matter is seen as little more than a license to shoot police officers. To Precious Brown, a 17-year-old rising high school senior in Youngstown, Ohio, it is something else entirely.
“I believe that all lives matter,” she said at the small rally she had organized in the city’s center, “but I wanted to focus today’s event on black lives because it often feels like those lives – our lives – don’t matter to a lot of people.”
“We are making a stand,” said Brown’s mother, Lydia Walker, a community organizer and volunteer who had come out to support her daughter. “We need to stop all violence – the violence we experience from the police, the violence we inflict on ourselves, the violence of the judicial system, which incarcerates us disproportionately.”
Unlike the places I had visited in Pennsylvania, Youngstown has long been a racial and ethnic melting pot, and has for almost as long experienced the tensions of such places. The county seat of the Mahoning Valley, where large coal deposits were discovered
over 200 years ago, Youngstown later became a center of the steel industry. By the early 20th century, the city had been settled in successive waves: western Europeans; eastern and southern Europeans; African Americans; Middle Easterners. Nativist backlash came early and often violently, and Youngstown became a center of Klan activity, its members first battling Irish and Italian Catholics in the city streets.
Southern Blacks were brought in greater numbers to replace striking workers during the great Steel Strike of 1919, which produced a second backlash, this one racial, and animosities lingered on after the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s, taking down 40,000 manufacturing jobs in its wake.
Today, Youngstown is a city of 65,000 people, evenly divided between blacks and whites, with a median household income less than half the national average.
“I don’t ever think violence is the answer,” said Brown. “All lives matter. But think of a block of buildings where one of them is on fire. All the buildings matter, but we need to focus first on the one that’s burning.”