WEST CHESTER, Pa. — This community was designed to be a respite. Like many suburbs, it grew rapidly in the 1960s and ‘70s as people fled nearby Philadelphia, with its poverty, racial strife and inequity.
But after the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, and as protests continue throughout the country, that comfortable distance is dissipating.
Places such as West Chester, and the surrounding Chester County, have been pushed to confront the racism that permeates nearly every aspect of American life.
With suburbs such as this one potentially deciding this year’s presidential election, political strategists are carefully watching them to see whether President Trump’s promise of “law and order” wins him support or whether voters are more aligned with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s condemnations of white supremacy, police brutality and violence against peaceful protesters.
In West Chester, one of the early efforts to move forward came recently at a rally dubbed the “March for Peace, Justice and Humanity.” At least 5,000 people gathered.
For more than eight minutes, the mostly white crowd knelt in silence — marking the amount of time that a Minneapolis police officer jammed his knee into Floyd’s neck. As time passed, tears rolled down several cheeks. Michelle Roberson, 57, felt anger building in her chest as she prepared to speak.
“Where was this crowd June 28, 2017?” she said, uttering words she hadn’t planned to say until just then. “I will ask it again: Where was this crowd on June 28, 2017?”
That was the day her black, 18-year-old daughter, Bianca Nikol Roberson, was shot dead while driving by a 28-year-old white man in another vehicle.
Bianca had been driving home from shopping for school supplies ahead of freshman orientation at Jacksonville University in Florida. She was on Route 100 near West Chester when David Desper fired a Smith & Wesson out the window of his pickup truck. The bullet hit her in the head. Her car crashed, and she was declared dead at the scene.
Desper fled but was later arrested. The union machinist was originally charged with first-degree murder but pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, eligible for parole in 17 years.
In the awful aftermath, white friends would privately tell Roberson that Bianca’s death was a hate crime, but investigators told her they could find no evidence that Desper was racist, and she believed them. Yet everything that happened after Bianca’s death convinced her the county suffers from systemic racism.
It seemed that everyone with a position of power — the police, the media, the prosecutors, the judge — gave the young man every benefit of the doubt while casting stereotypes upon her daughter and her family, she said. She didn’t know what to do. She was a suburban mom and a nurse at a retirement community, not an activist.
“A white man kills your child,” she said, “but yet you have me around all white attorneys, all white cops, all white sheriffs, white judge, white reporter. I mean — who do I trust?”
Chester County is home to more than half a million people, 85 percent of whom are white while 6 percent are black. The county backed Democrat Barack Obama for president in 2008, Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 and Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, making it a closely watched swing county in 2020.
County residents often boast of their community’s long-ago role in the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglass gave one of his last speeches, which focused on “the race problem,” in West Chester in 1895. Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist credited as the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, grew up here and has been frequently quoted lately.
But the county also once enforced Jim Crow policies, and it segregated its schools until 1956. In 1991, members of the Pennsylvania Ku Klux Klan marched through West Chester, although they were far outnumbered by counterprotesters. In 2002, the school board named a new high school after Rustin — then debated changing it when they learned the civil rights leader, who died in 1987, was gay and had belonged to the Young Communist League.
Just before her death, Bianca had graduated from Bayard Rustin High, now one of the top public schools in the state, with a largely white student body.
Roberson is upset that more of her neighbors didn’t speak up after her daughter was killed — including local black leaders.
“There’s a slave mentality,” she said. “You’re living in West Chester, you’re driving this great car, you’ve got this wonderful business, you’ve got this beautiful church — and it’s because they allowed you to have this stuff. So you don’t want to say anything to defy what is allowing you to have this stuff. So either you stay mute or you tiptoe around it or you only speak about it behind closed doors.”
Since Bianca’s death, everywhere Roberson looks, she sees racism. She wonders how things might have been different if her daughter had been white and was killed by a black man — or if the massive crowd that gathered at the early-June march had showed up in 2017.
Roberson was livid when she saw an invitation for the march, which she felt already had adopted a suburban tone of being “very nice, very pleasant.”
Originally, a group of local activists had planned to hold a march on a Friday night. That worried local business owners, who were supposed to reopen that day after being closed for months because of the coronavirus. There were worries that the looting, violence and fires that had consumed parts of Philadelphia could spill into their community.
West Chester Mayor Dianne Herrin, a white Democrat, said she knew that she couldn’t stop people from gathering, nor should she. To put her constituents at ease, she took control. Local activists agreed to cancel their march and instead attend a Thursday march hosted by her, the police department, the county sheriff and the local NAACP. When some black constituents objected to Herrin being in charge, she delegated the selection of speakers to Lillian DeBaptiste, an African American community leader. Roberson reached out to the organizers and asked to speak, making clear that her tone would be different but necessary.
Standing before the crowd, Roberson let loose with everything she had been keeping inside for years.
“Here in West Chester, we tippy-toe around,” she said to agreeing cheers. “We don’t like to make people feel uncomfortable.”
She told the crowd how most days it is difficult to get out of bed, how she had to take a medical leave this year to address her depression and had since lost her job. Her voice was booming and strong, filled with heartbreak.
For so long she had felt alone in her grief, and now she was overwhelmed by the supportive crowd.
Maybe this moment would be different, she thought. Maybe the policies and the laws would change. Maybe she would finally feel something when she marked her ballot.
“There’s a difference between moment and movement,” she said in closing. “I don’t want a moment. I need a movement.”
The crowd chanted: “Bianca Roberson! Bianca Roberson!”
In the days that followed, people reached out to tell her how sorry they were that her daughter died. She told some that she didn’t need anyone to feel sorry for her or stand by her — she needed them to talk with their friends who need their eyes opened.
“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “Fix it.”
She has tried to fix things herself. She has voted faithfully. She has started a memorial foundation in her daughter’s name and advocated at the statehouse for gun-control legislation that went nowhere. She has thought about running for a local statehouse seat.
While there is a new eagerness to have more diverse leadership, she wonders whether white voters actually want the legislative changes that she would push for. Or do they simply want to feel good?
“All I keep hearing is people saying, ‘Oh my God, you would be the first black female to hold the seat.’ But that’s not what’s important to me,” she said. “I do not want to be that token.”
The march itself spoke of the need for change, but it was cultural more than political. There was little mention of Trump or Biden or the presidential race, despite the teams of volunteers with voter registration information roaming the crowd and a black woman standing on the courthouse steps with a sign that read, “Vote + Protest = Your voice.”
Many of the signs in the crowd were self-reflective. “I will never understand but I stand,” one said.
Since the march, the mayor has found herself pondering why Floyd’s death has “broken through the apathy” in a way that previous tragedies did not. Maybe it’s because young people — including her two sons, ages 18 and 22 — are demanding change, she said.
Or maybe it was because those previous incidents had a “tinge of gray” to them — such as a pellet gun mistaken for a real one — that allowed just enough room for white people to not come to terms with what had happened, to look away. The march showed her that many are no longer looking away.
“Seeing the citizens of our community come out in such a powerful and yet peaceful way and with such a strong message was incredibly fulfilling to me,” said Herrin, 58. “I haven’t had a moment exactly like that before in my life.”
Herrin was campaigning for mayor in 2017 when Bianca Roberson was killed, and she said she immediately thought, “If she weren’t a person of color, would this have happened?” But it was not a question widely discussed, and most of the activism that resulted focused on gun violence, not race.
“I do believe if it happened now,” she said, “the response would be very different.”
Roberson doesn’t share the optimism.
“Racism happens everywhere,” she said, “but we have some of these communities that are influential communities like West Chester that want to believe that it does not happen here.”
She doesn’t know exactly what needs to happen, but it needs to be more than just a few new policies or laws, charges filed or people fired. Already, she believes she has seen the vigor displayed at the West Chester march slowly dissipate.
“Will there be change? I don’t think so,” she said. “And I want to be positive about it, I do, but I don’t believe so.”