A peaceful protest in York Tuesday over the death of George Floyd eventually moved to the steps of the York City Police Department. York Daily Record
In the same week George Floyd was killed by police during an arrest in Minneapolis, a civil rights investigator was furloughed in York.
The small City of York Human Relations Commission had gone from two workers to none as the city grappled with a loss of revenue during pandemic shutdowns.
But commission investigator Rabiya Khan saw the wave of Floyd protests and the dawn of a new civil rights movement growing in York.
“It was a really bad time to get rid of our agency,” she said.
The message made its way to city leadership, and on Monday, Mayor Michael Helfrich brought her back to work.
Now, the agency tasked with protecting human rights in York has one part-time worker. Khan works 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Leaders at human relations commissions across the state are hoping the new movement will inspire city, county and state leaders to finally invest in civil rights protections that have been recommended for decades.
In November 1968, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission told York City leaders a local commission would help to prevent the very violence that left an indelible mark the next summer. Three reports by urban expert David Rusk call for a countywide commission.
But as recently as Wednesday, county leaders had not responded to questions about whether they would direct funds toward such a commission.
Across the state, civil rights leaders understand the communities they serve are struggling through budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic. But they also agree now is the time to make protecting human rights a priority.
“The work that we’re doing has got to be adopted and supported by local governments and police departments throughout the state in order to reverse the harmful effects of racism,” said Rue Landau, executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday released his plan for police reform, and Landau is encouraging similar actions in other Pennsylvania communities.
“If we want to end racism, it cannot be based on political cycles. It needs to happen now and every day, and our work needs to be normalized. We can no longer wait for right mayor or right police commissioner to be in office,” Landau said.
For that work to be done effectively and in a timely manner, city and state commissions are calling for countywide commissions.
“The state is overwhelmed. Local cases don’t get seen until a couple years later,” Khan said.
That was true recently when the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission decided and closed the Grandview case two years after it started. The state agency determined five black women were discriminated against when former county commissioner Steve Chronister called 911 twice for alleged slow play.
The Grandview incident happened at a public golf course in Dover Township, outside of the city where the York commission has no jurisdiction.
In recent years, there have been other racially charged incidents outside of the city. There were racially tinged issues at the York County School of Technology after the 2016 election, and there have been numerous other incidents in suburban school districts. Muslims were asked to stop praying together in a Dover park because community officials were getting complaints about letting “terrorists” use the facilities. A Dallastown pastor was harassed after he used his church sign to wish Muslims a blessed Ramadan.
“There’s obviously a community need for a countywide human rights agency, not just for protection but for education,” said Khan, one of the Muslims who was asked to leave a Dover park.
But other than Democrat Doug Hoke, she said county commissioners have not supported a countywide human relations commission.
County spokesman Mark Walters did not respond to a question about whether county commissioners would consider such an agency.
‘Worth the investment’
“If we don’t see it now, I don’t know if we will,” Khan said. “What will it take? These issues obviously aren’t going away. The county commissioners have to see this is worth the investment.”
There are similar needs in Pittsburgh.
Megan Stanley, executive director on the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, said her agency gets about 300 calls a year. But only 100 of those calls are for incidents in the city. Most of them are for incidents in other parts of Allegheny County. Those calls get referred to the state commission.
While Allegheny County does have human rights commissioners, it does not have a staff. But recently, in the wake of Floyd protests, the commissioners called on the county to hire a director of equity and inclusion for the county.
By having more localized commissions, people will be able to get faster results, Stanley said. The state commission, which has also had personnel cuts in the last decade, can take years to settle a case as it works through a backlog. Local commissions can usually resolve issues in 6 months or less for housing cases and a year or less for employment cases, she said.
“Local commissions tend to have more staff and capacity to work through the volume of discrimination cases,” Stanley said. “We can help people faster.”
Chad Dion Lassiter, a national expert on race relations and the executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, welcomes the idea of more human rights agencies in the state.
The state commission’s regional offices currently handle cases or assist with cases in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Justice would be delivered sooner if there were more commissions handling cases, he said.
“The moment we’re in, against a backdrop of budget constraints, is a time where we should be adding to the complement of human relations commissions all over the country,” Lassiter said.
Just as businesses and individuals are reevaluating their behaviors to become part of the solutions, local leaders should be considering how they allocate funds and what it says about what they value, commission executives agree.
“It’s time to invest,” Lassiter said. “It’s long overdue. We need to add human relations staff across the state. There’s a budget shortfall in every state. Where are our priorities? Now’s the time. The country is moving in a new direction. We’ve gone from the original sin of slavery to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to fighting white supremacy to now a moment where we can create a new bridge to a new America.”
Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
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