Above: Troy Johnson of Aliquippa speaks up on election turmoil
MILTON, Pa. — Kareem Williams Jr. sits on a park bench in the center of town and waits for the racists to attack. He tells himself he is ready. It’s a cool Saturday morning in fall, and the valley is alive with the rumble of pickups.
When the trucks stop, here at the red light at the corner of Broadway and Front Street, drivers gun their engines. Some glare directly into Williams’ eyes.
Williams is a Black man. The drivers are white. All their passengers are white. Williams returns their gaze with equal ferocity. He tells himself he is ready. He is not. His back faces the Susquehanna River. His car is parked a block away. If these white men jump from their truck, fists or pistols raised, Williams has nowhere to run.
The light turns green. Engine roar blasts the river. Williams follows each truck with his eyes until it’s gone.
“I always knew racism was here. But it was quiet,” said Williams, 24, a factory worker and a corporal in the Pennsylvania National Guard who grew up in Milton. “Now, in this election, people are more openly racist. The dirty looks, middle fingers, the Confederate flags.”
To Williams, and to many non-white people he knows in central Pennsylvania, this rise in overtly racist behavior is linked inextricably to the reelection campaign of President Donald Trump. In yards up and down the Central Susquehanna Valley, Williams sees Confederate flags and Trump flags flying side by side. People with the most Trump bumper stickers seem the most likely to shout hateful things.
As the presidential election approaches, Williams said, such threats grow more common, more passionate.
“On election day I’m going to be in my house. I’m not going anywhere,” said Williams, known by his nickname K.J. “If these racists are looking to protest, they’ll go to Harrisburg or Philadelphia or D.C. If they’re looking to kill people, this will be the place. They’re gonna come here.”
Experts on American racial history agree. For Black people living in towns like Milton, they say, the threat of white terrorism is the highest it’s been in generations.
“Historically, most acts of racial terror have been enacted in rural communities, small towns or medium-sized cities,” said Khalil Muhammad, a history professor at Harvard University. “The conditions for wide-scale anti-Black violence are today more likely than at any point in the last 50 years.”
‘That’s a powder keg’
Within a month, 230 communities in Pennsylvania organized 400 anti-racism events, said Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh who studies grassroots movements.
“That is an insane number,” Putnam said. “It’s an order of magnitude larger than the number of places that ever held a Tea Party event.”
Many protests happened in towns where African Americans and other non-white people constitute a tiny minority, surrounded by rural communities with virtually no people of color at all. Those areas are overwhelmingly conservative, said Daniel Mallinson, a political science professor at Penn State Harrisburg. Out of 6 million votes cast in Pennsylvania in 2016, Trump won the state by 42,000.
But in Milton he dominated, carrying the surrounding Northumberland County by 69%. In front yards and country fields, Trump flags and Confederate flags comingle.
“Traditionally when we think of political candidates, we think of yard signs. But a lot of Trump flags went up in 2016, and in a lot of places they didn’t come down. It’s a visual representation of tribalism in our politics,” Mallinson said. “There’s a lot of implicit and explicit racial bias in central Pennsylvania.”
As local critics and defenders of the white establishment grow more engaged, state and national politics raise the stakes. Pennsylvania is the likeliest state in the nation to decide the presidential election, according to FiveThirtyEight, a polling and analytics aggregator. Statewide polls place Democrat Joe Biden ahead of Trump by 7%, the same as Hillary Clinton’s lead in Pennsylvania three weeks before the 2016 election.
Large-scale voting fraud has never been detected in modern American politics. Yet Trump often claims he can lose only if the 2020 election is fraudulent, which stokes fear and anger among his core supporters, experts said.
“They fully expect Trump will win,” said John Kennedy, a political science professor at West Chester University outside Philadelphia. “When they hear the results on election night, that’s a powder keg.”
Trump also appears to encourage the more violent factions of his coalition. The president repeatedly has declined to promise a peaceful transition of power. He defended Kyle Rittenhouse for killing an unarmed protester in Kenosha, Wisconsin. During the first presidential debate, Trump appeared to encourage white terrorists, urging the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” and insisting that “somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.”
Some white people in central Pennsylvania appear to be following the president’s lead.
“Do I worry about right-wing vigilante violence against peaceful protests if people are protesting Trump after the election? Yes,” Putnam said. “It’s happening. And there’s every reason to think more of it will happen.”
In September, Trump proposed designating the KKK and antifa as terrorist organizations. Antifa is not an organization, however, but rather an idea shared by some on the left to aggressively challenge fascists and Nazis, especially during street protests.
“President Trump has unequivocally denounced hate groups by name on numerous occasions but the media refuses to accurately cover it because that would mean the end of a Democrat Party talking point,” said Samantha Zager, a Trump campaign spokesperson. “The Trump campaign will patiently wait for the media to develop the same intense curiosity on these actual threats to our democracy as it has with regard to hypothetical scenarios from the left.”
In July, neo-Nazis rallied in Williamsport, 20 miles north of Milton. In August, a white person fired into a crowd of civil rights marchers in Schellsburg, Pennsylvania, wounding a man in the face. At a recent event for police reform in Watsontown, three miles north of Milton along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, white counter-protesters yelled that Black people “live off white people.”
Overlooking the protest, on the balcony of the Mansion House restaurant, white men stood armed with assault rifles.
“They looked like snipers,” Williams said. “Trump is the motivator in all of this. He has a huge following here.”
The last time America witnessed such an open embrace between white supremacists and the White House was the administration of Woodrow Wilson, said Muhammad.
“You have to go back 100 years,” Muhammad said. “We have every reason to be extremely vigilant about the possibility for violence over the next several weeks. Anywhere where people are flying Confederate flags are places where people ought to be mindful of where they move in public.”
Racism in the land of Chef Boyardee
The side streets of downtown Milton end in rich river bottomlands where the autumn corn grows 7 feet tall.
At the outskirts of town, Chef Boyardee controls the high ground.
Air in the valley was black with factory smoke when an Italian chef named Ettore Boiardi moved his pasta sauce canning company from Cleveland to Milton in 1938. Today the company is owned by Conagra Brands, but a brick smokestack still towers above town, “Chef Boyardee Foods” in tall white letters down the side. From Boiardi’s brick mansion on a nearby hill, views are hemmed by Appalachian ridgelines turning red and russet in the October sun.
Matthew Nolder walks with his wife Meagan and son Mekhi past a house with a Trump flag and yard sign in Milton, PA, on Friday, October 9, 2020.
A few blocks away lives Matthew Nolder, one of 112 people in this town of 6,595 to identify as African American, according to the U.S. Census. On a recent Friday evening, Nolder opened his front door to take his German Shepherd, Diamond, on a walk.
Directly across the street, Nolder saw the apartment of Milton’s best-known white supremacist, the same man who recently drove his truck through a crowd of protesters outside Milton police headquarters, according to news reports.
“He tried to run us over with his pickup,” said Nolder’s wife, Megan, who is white. “When we came home that day, I had a panic attack. I’ve got extra door locks that I’m buying. Deadbolts. We’re talking about security cameras.”
Diamond tugged Nolder down the street. On the next block they passed a red Dodge sedan that also charged the protesters. Further along is a house that flies the Confederate flag.
Two blocks from his home, Nolder stopped at another flag. This one features Donald Trump firing a machine gun with a bazooka slung over his shoulder, sitting atop a velociraptor.
Political signs in Milton, PA, on Friday, October 9, 2020.
“Our president is riding a damn dinosaur,” said Nolder, 35. “At first it’s funny. Then it’s terrifying.”
The arc of Nolder’s life shows what can happen when a Black person defies Milton’s majority. In the seventh grade, Nolder and two white friends told jokes that a teacher found offensive. The white students stayed in school.
Nolder was permanently expelled. He was 13.
Years later, six white Milton police officers tackled and tased Nolder as he experienced a panic attack. Afterward, he organized a protest at police headquarters. Only a handful of people came. None were people of color.
Nolder felt alone, vulnerable.
“That made me think maybe I should just stay in my house,” said Nolder, who later earned a master’s degree and became a family therapist.
In the wave of activism following George Floyd’s death, Nolder attended peaceful protests up and down the central Susquehanna valley. But the threat of violence hung in the air. At the Watsontown rally, one counter-protester approached Nolder while reaching for the handgun strapped to his belt. Megan Nolder noticed. She shoulder-checked the man, stalling his advance until a police officer intervened.
“Growing up in Milton, racism was always here,” Nolder said. “But now we’re met by people with guns. A lot of that is because of the president.”
Local police leaders agree the threat of violence is growing. Watsontown Police Chief Rodney Witherite said he is preparing for trouble this election by purchasing safety helmets for his officers and adding overtime shifts.
“You can see the tension is rising,” said Curt Zettlemoyer, the police chief in Milton.
Political experts across the state say Trump is primarily responsible. Thomas Baldino is professor emeritus of political science at Wilkes University. Over the course of his academic career, he has lived in small towns all across Pennsylvania.
For the first time in his 71 years, Baldino is considering buying a gun.
“The times are palpably different. It’s kind of terrifying,” he said. “Trump accelerated the polarization. For anyone who isn’t white, there’s a certain amount of concern I would have for their safety.”
The passing roar of pickup trucks and Harley-Davidson motorcycles wasn’t always the loudest event in Milton. At a few minutes before noon on May 14, 1880, steam-powered fire whistles blew at a local rail car factory. The resulting fire leveled downtown Milton, according to the town’s historical society. Among the first structures to rise from the charred ground was a barber shop on Broadway.
The narrow brick building still stands, and it still houses a barber shop. Against the Grain is owned by Frank Rodriguez, who operates an antique barber’s chair by the front door. Taped to the window is a white piece of paper with “Black Lives Matter” typed in small black letters; a Puerto Rican flag hangs from the back wall.
Rodriguez is not African American, but he joined the recent marches for police reform. In a small town like Milton, everybody recognized his face. Some white people took to Facebook, threatening to repeat the Great Fire of 1880.
“People said they were going to kill me,” said Rodriguez, 40. “They said they were going to burn the shop down. Trump made it cool to be racist again.”
As Rodriguez spoke, K.J. Williams walked in.
“The usual?” Rodriguez asked.
“Nah,” said Williams, palming soft curls off his forehead. “I want to switch it up.”
Rodriguez pressed his heavy razor to Williams’s temple. Black hair fell in waves to the floor. They talked about the election, and the local climate of rage. On Facebook, someone wrote to Williams that “Your black life doesn’t matter to me, boy.” Beneath the balcony of men with rifles, a white person at the Watsontown protest held a sign that read “Go back to the jungle,” Rodriguez said.
Soon Williams’ hair resembled the buzzcut he received six years ago, when he first joined the national guard. Like many in Milton, Williams owns guns, and he’s trained to use them.
After all the talk of threats and fear, Williams tried to sound unafraid. It didn’t last.
“I’m going to do what I have to do to protect myself. Protect my family,” he said. “But I’m worried about people finding out where I live.”
Christopher Maag is a columnist for NorthJersey.com.