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Split Ticket: How Protests Against Police Brutality Divide And Motivate Voters

Jared Murphy and Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

As protests against police brutality sweep across the country, polling suggests most Americans support law-enforcement reform. In our year-long Split Ticket series, we’ve been asking four voters about the issues that could sway their decision at the ballot box. This month, the many reported acts of police brutality – and the President’s response to them – have deepened one voter’s commitment to be heard in November.

'We can't ignore it'

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Savannah Henry is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh.

Two years ago, when Savannah Henry first arrived at the University of Pittsburgh, a Black teenager named Antwon Rose was killed by a white police officer in East Pittsburgh. That ignited Henry's work as a student activist, but her distrust of police goes back further.

Trayvon Martin happened when I was 12,” she said. “And it’s always stuck with me. When I see police, I get scared. I don’t like being around police. They make me uncomfortable. If a cop’s behind me on the road, I get terrified.”

Henry, who was the same age as Martin when he was killed, will be a junior at Pitt this fall and is a progressive. She has a virtual internship with Planned Parenthood this summer while she’s quarantined at home in Erie. That’s where she was in May, when she started getting messages about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was,” she said. “Because, as a Black person in this country, every time you hear about a Black person being killed by a police officer – which happens all the time – you can’t let yourself get super, super overwhelmed by each death. If that were the case, you wouldn’t be able to function as a human.”

But when protests started, she wanted to be there, so she and her friend borrowed a car and drove to Pittsburgh.

“I wore two masks all day because I was nervous about getting sick,” she said. “But I just feel like things are so terrible in the world right now and I would risk getting sick for standing up for what I know is right.”

When Henry came home, she quarantined at home and got tested for COVID-19 (she didn’t get the virus).

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Linda Bishop is retired and lives in Mars, Pennsylvania.

Democrat Linda Bishop is in her sixties, is retired and lives with her husband in Mars, Pa. They haven’t been to any protests because they’re both vulnerable to the coronavirus. Still, she’s paying close attention to what’s happening.

“We can’t ignore it!” she said. “Black and brown people have never been able to ignore it. It’s part of their daily life, the discrimination and racism that exists. But white people have had the privilege of being able to tune it out. We can’t do it anymore and we shouldn’t do it anymore.”

Both Bishop and Henry want to see an overhaul of how police departments are structured, and think redirecting money from police budgets is a good place to start.

“We've gutted social programs in communities of color and yet reinvested that money in police,” Bishop said. “Let's reverse that.”

Bishop feels her own white privilege more strongly these days, and is pouring her energy into the November election. She’s contacting her elected officials and doing grassroots organizing in the suburbs, where she sees support for President Trump eroding somewhat.

“I talk to people in the area that do feel that enough is enough,” she said. “But whether that will translate into enough votes to keep him from being reelected, I don’t know.”

'Black Lives Matter doesn't really care about solving the problem'

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Ed Cwiklinski lives in Bethel Park.

Republican Ed Cwiklinski thinks President Trump’s done a good job responding to the protests, but says the President’s snide comments just give Democrats ammunition.

“If you don’t like Trump you’re going to see it as, he’s part of the problem,” Cwiklinksi said. “That he’s just a white guy with white privilege. He’s not woke.”

Cwiklinski is in his forties and lives in Bethel Park with his wife and kids. He’s doing some side work in IT while he looks for a full-time job. Cwiklinski does think police brutality needs to stop, but does not see it as a symptom of systemic racism.

“I believe that there’s a disproportionate amount of minorities and African Americans that get singled out by police and that needs to stop,” he said. “It’s a road too far for me to say [people of color] don’t get the same education opportunities, job opportunities, college opportunities. I don’t see that as being a big systemic racism problem.”

Cwiklinski said he went to the Black Lives Matter website, and didn’t see a list of solutions to solve the problem, so he doesn’t understand what changes the movement wants.

“If you had four years to get together a cogent thought...I see nothing,” he said. “It leads me to believe that Black Lives Matter doesn't really care about solving the problem.”

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Mary Henze lives in Jefferson Hills.

Republican Mary Henze lives in Jefferson Hills, is in her fifties and has been on disability for about a decade.

“All lives matter,” said Henze. “If Black lives matter, stop the violence within your own race.”

Henze said she was heartbroken when she saw the video of George Floyd, and thinks cops with bad records should be fired.

“There are a lot of people who get into police work because they need the feeling of power,” she said.

But she also thinks that white people are victims of police violence more than people of color.

Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed Floyd, "was wrong, he was a bad cop,” she said. “But there are also cases of white men [being brutalized by police]. They just don't hit the media.”

A plethora of studies show the opposite. For example, an analysis by The Washington Post shows that Black people are killed by police at twice the rate of whites.

What this means for November
For progressive Savannah Henry, Trump’s response to police brutality and the recent protests has been maddening.

“I've never felt such deep, deep, deep hatred for a person in my whole entire life” she said. “If you can support Trump after he's literally said terrible things about every single marginalized population in the world besides straight white men, I can't not be mad or uncomfortable around you because I'm a Black woman. I just don't understand how people can ignore that."

Henry voted by mail for Bernie Sanders in the June primary. But Trump’s response to the protests has done what even her fears about climate change and a conservative Supreme Court didn’t do – convince her to vote for Joe Biden this November.