In 1991, Regis Bingham sat in front of his TV watching a video of the beating of Rodney King, a 25-year-old black man, by four Los Angeles police officers.
The four officers were arrested and accused of using excessive force, as well as assault with a deadly weapon. All four were acquitted at trial – and five days of riots began in Los Angeles.
Racism and police brutality were part of the soundtrack to Bingham’s childhood – whose father was part of the first class to integrate into the University of Arkansas.
“African Americans have been saying this has been happening for eons. Now you get a chance to see it,” said Bingham, who lives in Williamsport.
From King to George Floyd, videos have surfaced again and again over the years, often inciting protests, riots, anger and pleading for change.
But what does this mean in Williamsport?
Cleveland Way arrived in Williamsport in 1996 and, for him, it was a much different city than it is today. The quiet, rural community was hesitant to welcome outsiders, especially many who were seen to be coming from cities like Pittsburgh or Philadelphia for recovery programs or housing placement.
The sentiment was that they were bringing their drug and crime problems with them, and if Williamsport could only keep them out, the problems would go away, Bingham said, calling it an “us versus them” mentality.
Shortly after arriving in the city, Way stepped off the bus to go to work. He was stopped by police, questioned and searched because he looked like a suspect they were searching for – a black man.
But Way is quick to say it wasn’t just a bad police department. “The society as a whole just seemed unwelcoming.”
Darroll Smith grew up in New Jersey, living in a world that was predominantly black, latino, jamacian or hatian. At age 17, he moved to Williamsport and began attending Loyalsock High School.
“It was a big change,” Smith said. But he wasn’t met with rampant racism. Instead it was subtle. Parents were a bit uneasy when their kids brought Smith to the house, jobs were hard to get and occasionally the ‘N’ word would be said around him.
When should he say something? When should he just let it go? These were questions he asked himself often.
At 18 years old, in the early 2000s, Smith stole a bicycle. It was the first time he had been in trouble with the law, but he was charged with a felony burglary.
Now a felon, Smith was forced to forgo career dreams of being a police officer or nurse.
“I had to put that I had a felony on my application,” he said. “I had to stick with low-end jobs. With low-end jobs you have low-end mindset people.”
It’s been 24 years since Way stepped off his bus and nearly 20 since Smith received his felony charge, and both are quick to admit that a lot has changed.
Way, now the director of the American Rescue Workers’ Men’s Program, is proud of the progress he’s seen in the city. He now works with many African American men, helping them get housing and jobs – but it’s tough.
“I’ve witnessed two people of the same caliber or character going for the same situation (one white and one black) – and one won’t get it,” he said. “That’s not a blanket statement,” adding that it depends on the person who is making the decision and their background.
Star Poole recently moved to Williamsport under desperate circumstances after her home burned down in a fire. She and her five kids have worked hard to get by through the years, but despite difficult circumstances Poole is dedicated to investing in her community.
For her, the majority of Williamsport is happy for her investment. They are eager to welcome her to boards like the Williamsport Area School Board, or local groups like Alternatives to Violence.
“For the most part this area loves diversity, they want change,” she said.
But it’s slow, she added, as many minorities continue to struggle below the poverty line, working to break into the middle class or white collar job market.
‘Things are changing’
Jermiah Washington has lived in Williamsport his entire life. He teaches at Williamsport High School tells his students a story they find hard to believe.
“When I was a child I saw a (Klu Klux Klansman) – From here to the end of the block,” he describes the distance. “I don’t think I’ll ever see one again. That’s how much things have changed.”
It’s easy to look at things like the death of Floyd and the current unrest and lose hope, but Washington said it’s important to look at the big picture.
Something as real as a neo-nazi group trying to hold a rally in Brandon Park can be frustrating disheartening for minorities in the region, but the outrage from the community is important to notice.
“It wouldn’t have been a big deal in the early 80s, it’s a huge deal now because we’re so appalled by it,” Washington said.
But he went on: “Things are changing. They probably need to change a bit faster.”
Washington hopes that more minorities will come into positions of leadership in Williamsport and that the police department will continue to work toward connecting with the community.
Just looking at the good in the city isn’t enough, he said. “If we’re afraid to say, ‘Hey, we can improve this,’ or ‘This is good but this need’s fine-tuned’ then we’ll never get things better.”
“It’s not un-American to critique,” Washington said.
One of the best ways for Williamsport to progress is by accepting new ideas and new people, according to Bingham.
“When you have a community, and you have people that are not feeling a part of the community, they have no choice but to seek to destroy the community. They have no vested interest,” he said.
‘Come alongside them’
It’s about talking and understanding different cultures. That’s what Way is urging the white community in Williamsport to do.
“A lot of stuff is different now,” Way said. “Come alongside them and talk to them … Accept the culture the way they are.”
As the first African American mayor of Williamsport, Derek Slaughter, has broken many barriers. But he said it is still just as important now to have conversations with people, even hard conversations, about ways to make positive changes.
“Conversations are helpful. But it’s got to lead to meaningful changes,” Slaughter said.
As a small city, Williamsport is unique in that it’s residents have the opportunity to have their voice be heard. Slaughter has an open-door policy, always ready to meet with members of the public.