Voices of the movement: Meet the women who organized the anti-racist protest in a divided Lebanon

"We should be embracing each other."

  • Alanna Elder

(Lebanon) — A railroad divides the city of Lebanon, Pa. in half. In some people’s minds, there is literally a wrong side of the tracks.

“There’s this stigma, this thing, where Blacks and Puerto Ricans — people of color — we all come from the north side,” said Michelle Cotton, who has a white mother and a Black father.

Cotton, 38, has lived in Lebanon all her life, mostly the north side. She moved in 2013 to the other side of town.

witf · Voices of the movement: Meet the women who organized the anti-racist protest in a divided Lebanon

“I had a landlord illegally charge me three times security if I wanted to get the house that I have now, and I paid it because I knew that’s just what it is,” she said. “He even said to me, ‘You’re coming from the north side and how do I know you’re not going to ruin my property?’ I had to sign in the lease that I was not a prostitute or sold drugs.”

Lebanon, a city of about 26,000 between Harrisburg and Reading, has seen major demographic shifts in the past few decades, driven by a growing Latino population. In 20 years, the city’s census breakdown by race and Hispanic origin changed from about 16% Latino and 3% Black to 44% Latino and 5% Black. For most of Cotton’s life, the local economy has been evolving, too, growing out of the shadow of the 1986 closure of the town’s steel plant.

Cotton says she grew up learning unspoken rules, like what restaurants and bars to avoid for the overt racism. She watched her mother face prejudice from her family and the community for her parents’ interracial relationship. For a long time, Cotton was one of a few biracial students in the district.

“We got it bad,” she said. “We were teased. I was always asked if I was adopted.”

Michelle Cotton organized a small Juneteenth celebration at South Hills Park in Lebanon.

Alanna Elder / WHYY

Michelle Cotton organized a small Juneteenth celebration at South Hills Park in Lebanon.

Beginning around the time she entered high school, she met a more diverse set of friends, mostly people of color who moved from New York, Philadelphia, and Puerto Rico.

“That was everything for us,” she said. “But a lot of older people were like, ‘There goes the neighborhood.’”

Cotton says that ‘us and them’ sentiment is still very much alive.

For instance, the year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Cotton remembers people complaining that local Puerto Rican children were being given too much priority by school officials.

“I want to change that mentality, you know? We should be embracing each other,” she said.

‘Unacceptable for our children’

Cotton has tried to bring people together in this way before.

She wanted to hold a town hall after one of the many police brutality events that made national headlines in the past few years, though she could not remember which one.

“And I’m going, ‘Who’s with me?’ Nobody wanted to do it. It never got anywhere, and I’m just on social media talking about how much Lebanon should speak out,” she said.

To Cotton, police brutality is a Lebanon problem as well as a national problem, one she has observed through friends’ and family members’ experiences with police.

Cotton feels especially driven in her advocacy because her 4-year-old son is autistic and she has custody over her 32-year old brother, who has autism as well. She fears what could happen if they are ever stopped or questioned by police.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

A person wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus walks across a rail crossing in Lebanon, Pa., Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

“We shouldn’t have to be fearful of that,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to be afraid of what this is going to turn into. So, yeah: everything is because I’m a mom. This is unacceptable for our children.”

After George Floyd was killed, Cotton asked around to see if this time anyone was willing to organize in Lebanon.

The response was much different.

Cotton learned two younger women, Paige Hall, 20, and Abigail Bragunier, 19, were planning a protest, and joined them.

“I have been so outside of my comfort zone, but if it gives even any kid who grows up in Lebanon a chance to be more comfortable with themselves, to not have to go through the self-hatred that I had to go through,” said Hall, who is Black, “then, it has to be done.”

Paige Hall calls on local leaders to stand by people of color in Lebanon

Alanna Elder / WITF

Paige Hall calls on local leaders to stand by people of color in Lebanon

Hall describes herself as an introvert and an empath. “I really try to stay away from people because it will affect me greatly.”

At the protest, Hall said to hundreds of community members through a megaphone, “We need to have these difficult conversations with open minds and open hearts; we need to let our feelings be felt.” She implored local authorities to show Lebanon residents of color that they would protect them.

Hall’s friend, Bragunier, who is white, was the other lead organizer.

“I was born into a very racist place and even I knew as a kid this wasn’t right. But Paige is one of my best friends and when I told her I was so mad about George Floyd — and I was, I was so mad — she was like, ‘Do some research.’”

Bragunier says she became more conscious of systemic racism in 2014, when New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner with a chokehold on Staten Island. This year she wanted to do something with feelings and awareness she had just let sit before.

The protest the group organized drew hundreds of people to gather at the Lebanon County courthouse, before an impromptu march to the county jail.

In the lead-up to the event, Bragunier says she received threatening messages on social media.

“It got serious when somebody told me exactly where I worked,” she said. “They knew where I was that day. My family didn’t want me to leave the house. I lost a lot of sleep, and so did Paige, a lot of sleep over it.”

Michelle Cotton (middle), and Abigail Bragunier (right) kneel in front of protesters with Lebanon activist Amaury Abreu (left).

Alanna Elder / WITF

Michelle Cotton (middle), and Abigail Bragunier (right) kneel in front of protesters with Lebanon activist Amaury Abreu (left).

Bragunier hopes to go to college and maybe become a lawyer. She was accepted to Kutztown University but cannot afford tuition yet, so she is becoming certified as a nursing assistant first while studying on her own. Waiting for people to arrive at a Juneteenth celebration organized by Cotton, Bragunier was reading one of her friends’ political science textbooks.

Neither Bragunier nor Hall see a long-term future for themselves in Lebanon.

“That’s why I’m trying so hard to make a difference while I’m here. But for my health, for my peace of mind, I can’t stay here,” Hall said. “Lebanon just taught me I guess how to be tough. How to just, stick it out, push through.”

She is a songwriter and is considering moving to Atlanta for the music scene.

“There are a lot of Black artists down there and there’s a lot of Black prosperity down there. I feel like that’s definitely what I need to be around,” she said.

Michelle Cotton says she and her family are glad they have put down roots in Lebanon. But she says local leaders, including police, need to seize this moment in a way that makes the town more inviting for all.

“Talk to us. Open up something to the public where we can say what has happened to us, our family, our friends, and then act accordingly.”

 

WITF’s Alanna Elder is part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

This story is part of the “America Amplified” initiative — a national public media collaboration focused on community engagement reporting. WITF, StateImpact Pennsylvania and PA Post are part of the project.

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