The wave of rallies for racial justice that swept America this summer arrived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with dueling marches in support of Black Lives Matter and of law enforcement – and dueling online petitions to “defund the police” and “defend the police”.
Then the local police chief, Mark DiLuzio, shared a racist post on Facebook – not realizing at the time, DiLuzio later said, that the image he shared had objectionable language attached. The post attacked LeBron James and other basketball players for striking to protest police violence against people of color, calling the players “anti-white” and “spoiled little brats”.
In the outcry that followed, DiLuzio apologized and resigned. But the episode laid bare just the kind of local tensions that Donald Trump’s “law-and-order” re-election campaign seems determined to appeal to – and to exacerbate, the president’s critics say.
In less than eight weeks, voters in the Bethlehem area will endorse or reject Trump’s message. And which option they choose could have national, even global, repercussions. The surrounding Northampton county is one of only three counties in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania to have voted for Trump in 2016 after voting twice for Barack Obama.
If Northampton flips back to the Democratic column in November, the state of Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes could flip with it, putting Biden on the road to the White House. But if Trump’s law-and-order pitch lands here, Northampton could help deliver Trump four more years.
“I think the majority of Northampton county voters are very smart and informed, and they can see right through” Trump’s law-and-order pitch, said city councilperson Paige Van Wirt, a Democrat. “They can see that peaceful protests are very different from looters and rioters. And we’ve been able to have both in Bethlehem because we are a peaceful place.”
But that’s not the view along all of Main Street, where Joe D’Ambrosio has been cutting hair since the Kennedy era.
“I see it as a landslide and I think ‘law and order’ will prevail in this election,” said D’Ambrosio, an enthusiastic Trump supporter since before the 2016 election. “Every time there’s another riot or another city burns, that’s more votes for Trump.”
Trump’s victory in Northampton county in 2016 was fueled by first-time voters and many Democrats who described feeling undecided until the last moment, disliking Hillary Clinton – and then pulling the lever for Trump.
This time around, Democrat Joe Biden, who grew up in the state, holds a small, single-digit lead in polling averages of Pennsylvania, meaning the race could go either way. But potentially working against Trump this time is the relative scarcity of undecided voters, with a meager 4% telling a recent Monmouth University survey that they could not make up their minds.
Meanwhile a roiling summer of turbulent news about the coronavirus, large street protests including some that have witnessed violence, and an endless string of new reports of white police officers killing people of color across the country have shocked and reverberated in Bethlehem as they have elsewhere.
The activist group Lehigh Valley Stands Up, named for the river valley that cradles Bethlehem and neighboring Allentown, hailed the news of the police chief’s resignation in a Facebook post. “This is what the power of the people looks like!” the post said. “It was incredibly clear that the police chief was not acting in the best interest of every Bethlehem resident.
“Let this be a lesson. Racism and bigotry will not be tolerated by the people. Whether it’s on social media, in policy, or in private conversation. We are holding you accountable. And we will replace you.”
But there are many people in Bethlehem who take issue with the Black Lives Matter movement, and some of them subscribe to the Lehigh Valley Good Neighbors Alliance, a Facebook page that was started just this summer.
A recent post described how “the left is gaslighting you” by denying violence at protests, an “urban crime wave” and an “immigration inundation”.
“When we call this destruction of our cities riots, we are called racists,” the post reads in part. “So we ask ourselves, am I crazy? No, you’re being gaslighted.”
A separate petition on change.org to “defend the police”, with thousands of signatories, echoed Trump’s warnings at the recent Republican national convention that “quiet neighborhoods” were threatened by “urban chaos”.
“If we continue to remain silent, our hometown is in danger of experiencing the same skyrocketing chaos, violence and lawlessness already plaguing Philadelphia, New York City, Seattle, Minneapolis and Portland,” the post read. “Our families’ safety and the very social fabric of our community is now at stake.”
Then came the Facebook post by DiLuzio, who did not reply to a request for comment left at his former office. He told local media that he thought the post that led to his resignation was funny because it featured Wayne Knight, an actor on Seinfeld, which he said was a favorite show.
“I do agree that it compromised my position. I figured, the hell with it – I’ll just retire now,” DiLuzio, who was chief six years, told the local Morning Call newspaper. “I served honorably, and the people that truly know me know that I have no regrets about my career and no regrets about my retirement.”
Van Wirt, the city council member, said “the resignation of chief DiLuzio was painful for Bethlehem.”
“But it wasn’t just a Facebook post,” Van Wirt said. “It started when the George Floyd murder occurred. The very first statement put out by the chief never acknowledged the word ‘racism’, or that there was institutionalized racism in police departments. It was more of the ‘bad apple’ theory.
“And I think that his own response to the changes that are happening around us unfortunately remain mired in a 1950s style of policing, and that was a very law-and-order message.”
Back in the 1950s, D’Ambrosio, who used to be a Democrat, had not yet opened his barbershop in Bethlehem, which in its postwar heyday was home to Bethlehem Steel, a global icon of American industry.
Now, D’Ambrosio said, he knew some Trump supporters who would not put out a yard sign because they were afraid of retaliation. “There’s an underlying fear of this group of people going around the country causing all this trouble,” he said. “This isn’t the way it used to be, but these people have turned it into – I don’t even know what this group is – antifa or whatever it is.”
Van Wirt said that a lot of the old-school, industry-rooted Democrats in the Lehigh Valley who voted for Trump could come home to their blue roosts in November.
“They’re not looking for a miracle,” she said. “They’re looking for peace, they’re looking for prosperity.
“Our voters – they’re not so stuck in their ways that they can’t see a path forward.”