The line of hundreds of people stretched more than six blocks along East Philadelphia Avenue in Boyertown on Tuesday, June 2, for a peaceful demonstration in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in memory of George Floyd.
Floyd died May 25 in Minneapolis after being handcuffed and held face down while a white police officer kept a knee on his neck.
“We have the opportunity to be a beacon of light, a refuge of hope,” said Don Heller, who helped organize the event. “We have an opportunity to honor the name of George Floyd and many other black people that have died unjustly at the hands of law enforcement.”
Heller said the idea for a silent peaceful rally resulted from his experience demonstrating alone on Sunday, May 31.
As he stood quietly in the heart of the borough’s business district, Heller said some approached him with words of support, but others attempted to intimidate him, threatened him and even pelted him with empty beverage cans.
Heller, 39, a former pastor, said when he moved to the community with his family in 1990, he was astonished to see KKK clansmen, dressed in the traditional white robes and hoods, handing out pamphlets on Boyertown’s street corners.
“There has been a lot of progress here since then,” he said. “There are a lot of people who care. That is just the collective heart that we have here in Boyertown.”
Heller said his intent in organizing the rally was to help others see that black lives matter in Boyertown.
He teamed with Nikole Ackley, 31, owner of the Spirit Holistic Center, a Boyertown-based holistic wellness center, to promote the event on social media, and it took off.
“This is not anti-anything,” Ackley said. “This is pro-community, pro-justice, pro-peace.”
Brandon and Shannon Vining of Boyertown learned of the rally from a friend just an hour before its scheduled 5 p.m. start. The couple hurriedly gathered five of their seven children, grabbed a wagon for the two youngest and headed to the assembly point.
“I didn’t take time to put on makeup,” Shannon said. “We knew we had to be here.”
The Vinings’ children are of mixed racial backgrounds, so the peaceful demonstration hit home for them.
“This is important to our family,” Shannon said. “Our children are pretty awesome people, and we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have concerns for their safety.”
The event also was aimed at showing support for the local police.
“They are here helping to protect us and keep us safe,” Heller said. “We have the opportunity to continue building a relationship with some great men and women standing around us that truly care about the advancement of our community.”
Barry Leatherman, chief of the recently formed Eastern Berks Regional Police Department, which patrols Boyertown, posted a statement supporting the peaceful assembly on the department’s Facebook page earlier June 2.
“We would like to remind everyone concerned that peaceful assembly and demonstration, along with free expression of ideas, are a constitutionally protected activity,” Leatherman wrote. “The exercise of these rights by citizens of our community and our country in a peaceful manner that does not violate laws, jeopardize the safety or property of other persons, or restrict the free and orderly movement and travel of others is something that we all must respect.”
Leatherman added pointers aimed at keeping the activities of participants and observers safe and legal.
As Heller and Ackley thanked the members of Eastern Berks and other area police departments for their protection and service, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause.
"There are many different people here," Heller said. "We may look different, we may act different, we may think different. That is our strength."