Activism stronger than ever amid racial, socioeconomic tension in York City

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
More than 100 people gather for the Families Belong Together Rally in Continental Square in York City, Saturday, June 30, 2018. The peaceful protest is one of hundreds of events taking place nationwide in opposition of family separation and internment camps that have become the result of government policy on immigrants and refugees caught illegally crossing the boarder between the U.S. and Mexico. Dawn J. Sagert

York City's struggles with racial, socioeconomic and violence-related issues are proving to be driving factors in local activism groups throughout York City.

It's been a rough year in the city; there have been 32 shootings, a noted lack of minority representation in city government and heated exchanges between officials and residents about alleged gentrification.

More:York City Police target 6 fugitives after spate of shootings

More:York City Latino population is growing, but government representation remains absent

More:Minorities' concerns scuttle York City plan to outsource economic development

However, city residents aren't backing down.

At least five local activist efforts have started up since 2016, and others may have not yet made it into the public eye.

To break them down, there's:

  • Black Love Movement: Founded by Shareef Hameed, who recently moved back to York City from North Carolina. Hameed immediately started the movement in response to the violence in the city and holds weekly meetings at Penn Park to address the issue.
  • The Community Street Soldiers: Led by Shiloh Baptist Church Rev. Larry Walthour. The group began in 2016 and marches through parts of city neighborhoods often affected by constant violence to promote awareness.
  • The Movement: Founded by Anu Banks in 2016 before also welcoming Tonya Larry and Raymond Johnson Bull. The Movement holds weekly Facebook Live videos with guests discussing race, wealth disparity and opportunities in the city. 
  • The Princess and Pine Infill Zoning District: Founded by Bob Wood in January in the neighborhood of Princess and Pine streets. The organization serves as  "grass roots project initiated by neighborhood residents, business people and property owners for the purpose of improving the neighborhood," according to its Facebook page.
  • Latinos Unidos of York: Founded by Lou Rivera and a group of other Latino locals in January.  The recently certified nonprofit organization "empowers the Latino community and strengthens the bonds to create social, civic and economic integration of Latino families," Rivera said.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said the city welcomes and appreciates the groups' efforts and their community-building.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich speaks as organizers hold a press conference to introduce 10,000 Acts of Kindness, a year-long collaborative effort to spread kindness and goodwill, outside of the York County Administrative Center in York City, Friday, June 29, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

While the mayor said the idea of local activism groups isn't new, he has seen improvements and organization within the groups.

"I think this is a great, positive surge," Helfrich said. "They're building community, and that's what you need to do. You can't help each other unless we know each other."

He added that while problems such as violence in the city aren't going to be fixed overnight, the efforts are doing wonders for bringing the community together.

"You don't judge whether you're going to win a marathon in the first minute," Helfrich said. "I've seen community building, particularly on the west end. I see more people saying hello to each other and using first names with each other, and that's where everything starts."

To get to know the groups further, look below:

The Black Love Movement: Hameed livestreamed on Facebook after the shooting of Tony Orr Jr., and after positive responses he decided to meet in Penn Park every Monday.

More:York City man faces trial in homicide of Tony Orr Jr.

Shareef Hameed

"We meet at the park to spread love in the community," Hameed said. "Black people are often the victims, so we go out, ask people what they need or want in the city, encourage them and spread love."

The first meeting was July 16, and roughly 25 people showed up in Penn Park. 

"People just are really being affected by the violence and it's hitting home, so we're saying enough is enough," he said. "Not one person can stop this; it has to be a collective effort. If we team up, we can make an impact to get people to put their guns down, get an education and love each other." 

The Community Street Soldiers: Led by Walthour, a group of roughly 20 city residents march through the streets of specific neighborhoods every Wednesday to engage with the community.

Pastor Dr. Larry Walthour II prays as York City pastors join together to end gun violence at West Princess Street and Belvidere Avenue in York City, Monday, July 3, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"We have to become reconnected with our community and re-engaged," he said. "If we're going to have change, it's going to have to start with the community; it's not a law enforcement or elected official issue." 

The group, open to any gender or ethnicity, focuses on particular segments of a neighborhood often affected by constant violence.

"The violence is the symptom more than the cause," Walthour said. "We are mostly about community revitalization and creating job opportunities and bringing resources to the community so they don't have to resort to criminal activity in the first place." 

The Movement: City resident Larry started The Movement in 2016 to welcome those in the community and to have an open forum for all residents looking to make a change in the city.

Tonya Larry

What started as a podcast has now become a weekly Facebook Live video, featuring Larry and other guests from the community who have conversations on her porch.

"We were just talking about life and what was going on in our communities like violence, murder and depression," Larry said. "We wanted to let people know it's okay to talk about these things that are going on in the community."

What inspires the group, she said, is simple: the youth and community.

"Our purpose is our community and our youth," she said. "We started getting popular because people like to see people of their own race and gender speaking things that are on their minds; they can relate to it."

Princess and Pine Infill Zoning District: Wood, an organizer for the neighborhood organization, has long fought to focus on neighborhoods in the city, not just downtown.

Bob Wood

Most recently, the organization started a program encouraging residents to embrace the neighborhood's diverse population and learn a second language.

"We want people to see that this is one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the city," Wood said. "We have an older white population, an established black population and an emerging Latino community. We want people to know that the melting pot idea can work."

The effort, he said, began because of the city "flatlining."

"We're on the bottom of the list of cities, and sometimes cities become unmanageable and neighborhoods have to respond," Wood said. "The city has been focusing on downtown; it's time for the neighborhoods to really be the city."

Latinos Unidos of York: Latinos Unidos in York was founded by local activist Rivera in January to support Latinos in the community.

Members of Latinos Unidos of York, a nonprofit organization empowering the local Latino community, unveiled its new logo Friday, June 1, in front of The Parliament Art Gallery and Tea Bar at 116 E. King St. in York City. Logan Hullinger photo

"We aim to empower the Latino community and strengthen the bonds to create social, civic and economic integration of Latino families," Rivera said.

The movement is long overdue, he said, as the city has been growing exponentially in terms of Latino population specifically.

"York City is about 60 percent black and brown," he said. "I think it's important to be able to engage our communities and to make sure they're well-represented in city government, on boards and commissions, in the work force and as business owners. We don't see that right now, but it's getting better."