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York County public defenders protest the death of George Floyd

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Employees of York County Office of the Public Defender protest Monday, June 8, 2020, outside the county's Judicial Center. Photo by John Pavoncello.

About 20 employees from the York County Public Defender's Office on Monday gathered outside the judicial center to protest the death of George Floyd and others who have died at the hands of police.

The protest was one of 80 demonstrations organized by public defenders' offices nationwide. It came a week after protesters on three occasions descended upon York City to demand justice for Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis who on May 25 died after a police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes.

In total, the protests drew thousands to the city's streets.

"People of color and people of low socioeconomic status are taken advantage of," said Ashley Keefer, an assistant public defender. "Today, that stops."

More:Third Floyd protest of the week in York City takes form of celebration of life, allies

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Keefer is in a unique position when it comes to harm at the hands of the police. She is serving as the defense attorney for Ryan Smith, who was in handcuffs when he was shot by former Southwestern Regional Police Officer Stu Harrison in handcuffs in 2018.

Harrison has been charged with simple assault, though York County District Attorney Dave Sunday has requested that the criminal case be dropped. Common Pleas Judge Maria Musti Cook is scheduled to hear arguments next Monday in regard to the request.

Although Smith is a white man who Keefer said has mental health issues, the incident represents another example of someone without a voice being taken advantage of, she said.

Diana Spurlin, senior assistant public defender, rallies with coworkers outside the York County Judicial Center as part of a nationwide demonstration  in response to the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 8, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Nationwide, though, most of the conversation has been surrounding race.

Floyd's death has further escalated tensions and at times has prompted violent protests across the U.S., a nation already mired in the coronavirus pandemic and a struggling economy.

The incident provoked comparisons with similar events, such as the death of Eric Garner, who in 2014 died after being choked by New York City Police when he was confronted for selling single cigarettes.

Like Garner, Floyd told the officers that he could not breathe.

"I've been at demonstrations in the '60s, and I didn't think at my age I'd still be seeing civil rights demonstrations going on now. I thought we'd be past this," said Bruce Blocher, the county's chief public defender.

The four former Minneapolis Police officers who were at the scene of Floyd's arrest have since been fired and charged.

Derek Chauvin, the white officer who pinned Floyd, has been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Members of the Public Defender's Office rally outside the York County Judicial Center as part of a nationwide demonstration, in response to the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 8, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

The three remaining men, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, have been charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

The Minnesota City Council has since formed a veto-proof majority calling for the disbandment of the police department, which has a history of violence and discrimination.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf last week announced he would appoint a watchdog and create a commission to investigate misconduct by any law enforcement agency under his purview.

And York City Mayor Michael Helfrich on Monday announced that Rabiya Khan, an investigator for the city's Human Relations Commission, was back on duty to handle discrimination-related complaints.

Khan was one of 103 employees furloughed earlier this month as the city looked for ways to cut costs because of severe tax revenue losses amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The demonstration organized by public defenders, though, wasn't the only event in York City on Monday.

Farther south, about 60 protesters gathered in Penn Park to kick off what will be a weekly meetup to pay homage to those who have died at the hands of police — and discuss what needs to be done moving forward.

Community members come together to rally at Penn Park for change in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 8, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

At 6 p.m. each Monday, demonstrators will gather for discussions and march throughout York City. After Monday's remarks, the crowd marched to the west end of the city.

"Without effective communication, it only fuels the frustration and conflict of our community," Felicia Dennis said. "Internal struggles and misunderstandings will arise because there is no good and clear communication."

Speakers at the event touched on numerous ways to bring about change, such as avoiding businesses that don't support local efforts to bolster minorities, increasing police accountability and demanding that minorities be humanized.

But before that happens, they emphasized, constant and open communication must become common practice.

"We've been in the dark too long," John Jamison said.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.