When You Can't Change Their Minds

When You Can't Change Their Minds

It's the last week of May, 2020. Richie Bonsell-Walter holds a rainbow Black Lives Matter sign over a mop of bleach-pink hair. He's standing in front of the small public library in Tyrone, Pennsylvania. The sun is setting. A black pick-up truck pulls up to the curb where we're standing. The driver is a white man wearing a muscle shirt and baseball cap. "Do you know how many Black men were killed by police last year? You should know if you're out here protesting," he spits. Without pausing for an answer, he continues. "Nine. You know how many white men were killed? 57."

"But it's disproportionate," Richie says."And cops are never convicted." The man rolls his eyes, revving his engine as he drives away.

Richie is unflappable. "I'm not out here to change minds," he says. "I'm here to show people what's happening. I'm here so they can't ignore it." It's his 18th night in a row out here with his sign. He will continue for the next month.

Tyrone is a rural hamlet of just over 5,000 people on the Little Juniata River in central Pennsylvania. Its residents are 97% white. Donald Trump won the county by 71% in 2016 (he won the state, which will again prove a crucial battleground in this year's election, by less than 1%). Occasionally, a friend or his 11-year-old brother will stop by. Rarely, someone walking past will join him. But as the rest of the nation erupts in fury, the 22-year-old is his town's only dedicated protester.

Richie had never heard of a protest in his hometown until five days after George Floyd's death, when he went downtown with a friend and a Black Lives Matter sign. "I was angry. It didn't seem like anybody else was speaking up," he says. "People were focusing on the looting and not why people were protesting in the first place."

He suspects that night was Tyrone's first-ever civil rights demonstration, except for "way back when the railroads were doing their union thing." At first, Richie planned a week of nightly protests. After seeing his town's response, he decided he couldn't stop.

"It makes people very angry here," he says. "The words 'Black Lives Matter.'"

Tyrone is a snowglobe of a town, both in looks and the idealized past it preserves. In the 1930s it was a wealthy rail hub, also producing paper and coal, with a population peak close to 10,000. The I-99 slices through the deceptively abundant valley of the Allegheny mountains where Tryone is nestled. From the highway, passersby see a gingerbread village of quaint, uniform Sears Roebuck homes built to house factory workers. Exit 48 deposits you right in the postcard-esque downtown, all brick storefronts, doily curtains and hand-painted signs.

"It's pretty to look at, but personally, I don't want to live here," Richie says. The town has a single supermarket, two bars, a dollar store and a rainbow of fast food restaurants, which Richie says constitute most of the town's nightlife and entertainment. Otherwise, for fun, there's the Walmart in Huntingdon, the mall in Altoona or Del Grosso's amusement park, which employs most teenagers in town each summer, except for this one.

American Eagle Paper Mill, one of the oldest mills in the country, sustained Tyrone until 2001 when it closed, reopening with smaller production in 2003. It's still one of the largest employers in town, and one of few places in Tyrone you can make above minimum wage — alongside the hospital, the school district, a machine parts manufacturer and Gardners Candies, the sweets factory where both Richie and his mother work. Pennsylvania's minimum wage is $7.25. Richie and his mother are both paid $10 an hour. The flow of heroin through town turned to meth sometime in Richie's memory.

Pennsylvania is littered with towns like Tyrone, that have asphyxiated as the extractive industries that made them rich — coal, steel, lumber, petroleum and natural gas — became obsolete or outsourced. The fantasy preserved there is one of industrial promise, the inherent goodness of orderly small-town life and unchallenged whiteness.

"N***** lover," "White power," "F*ggot," "Dumb bitch," "Get a job," "Get a life," "What about black on black crime?," "Baby killer," "How about pink floyd?" were all responses produced by Richie's protests within a week. Counter-protesters arrived on the third day, armed with thin blue lives flags and a Trump 2020 sign. One man walking past made a throat-slitting motion towards Richie. A popular way to express disapproval is called "rolling coal," which, Richie tells me, is when drivers configure their engines to release extra fuel so their cars spew black fumes when they hit the gas pedal.

Sometimes people will loop around the block for a second taunt. "I'd say 50% of people ignore me. 25% show support. And 25% hate it," Richie says. He's taken to keeping a list of all the insults and threats he hears in the Notes app of his phone. Not to prove what a martyr he is, but as evidence for skeptics. Thirty minutes later on night 18, when I joined Richie at the library, a woman swerves around the corner. "Fuck n*****s" she yells, laughing. "That's why I'm out here," Richie tells me.

Jaelyn Oliver, a 27-year-old cannabis cultivator and one of Tyrone's few Black residents, was preparing to move away with his wife and 18 month-year-old daughter when I spoke to him in June. He was born in Pittsburgh and moved here in sixth grade. He graduated from high school in Tyrone in 2011 and left to join the Navy, returning in 2015. He had intended to leave quickly after his service ended, but stayed five more years to care for his mother-in-law and step-mother.

"I could not be more excited to get the hell out of Tyrone," he says. Jaelyn counts six other Black families when he was growing up, most of which were mixed race kids being raised by a white parent. "It wasn't easy," he says, recounting the list of abuse he faced with detached clarity. "I've been jumped at football games. I've been threatened because I liked a girl who wasn't black. I've been told 'You take our wives, we take your lives.' I've had nooses hung in front of my locker. Pretty much the most grotesque things you can think of short of being hung up from a tree."

Jaelyn didn't know who Richie was until he saw a local news story about circulating on Facebook. "I saw a picture of these white kids holding a beautiful vigil for George Floyd. I heard about what happened with them being called 'n***** lovers' and having throat-slit symbols thrown at him. I felt genuinely hurt," he says. "They're just out here saying that we should be treated as equals."

"People have been systematically fed this bullshit their entire lives. They're defending everything they think they know."

Jaelyn views his neighbors with what it's easy to see as unearned empathy. "People here don't even know they're being racist," he says. "It's just ignorance. If you look at our history books, they still teach how great the south was with slavery, and the toll of the civil war on the south. People have been systematically fed this bullshit their entire lives. They're defending everything they think they know."

He understands why they're enraged by calls for Black empowerment. "You have people here who've done nothing but farm and work their entire lives," he says. "Hard-dog, Christian, sun-up, sun-down rednecks. When I say that, I mean the term. People's necks are sunburned because they grind every day of their lives. When they hear terms like 'white privilege' and 'systemic racism,' they don't understand, because they don't feel like they have any privilege. They don't have any power."

He and his brother attended one of the first marches calling for justice for George Floyd in Pittsburgh. Even as a queer person, when protesting in Tyrone, Richie has a level of safety Jaelyn could not expect. "Marching or protesting in Tyrone was never of interest for the African-American folks here," he says, suggesting a Black-led demonstration in Tyrone would have been met with violence. "You have to understand, for me, growing up here, that's the last situation I want to put myself in. It's not cowardice, it's being smart."

Richie's protests emboldened Jaelyn and vice versa. The day after Jaelyn heard about Richie, he called his brother Fuquan in Altoona, and the pair organized a march in Tyrone coinciding with Richie's fourth night. "For them to have the strength to do this," says Jaelyn. "I needed to show them we had their back. We wanted to show them that what they're doing is powerful. I could understand wanting to back down after being harassed, when you don't even have a dog in the fight." Richie's small crowd that night joined between 40 and 50 marchers, who crossed downtown to kneel for nine minutes in front of the police station in the middle of a rainstorm.

"That was when I decided I couldn't stop," says Richie. "The march showed that people cared, that I was making an impact. When Jaelyn showed up to invite me to the march, which was the first time any of the Black folks in town joined. He felt safe enough to come forward and I want Black people to feel safe. That's really what it was."

"That's what we're doing right now, we're shaking the very souls of these towns. It's happening all over the country."

"It's beautiful what Richie's doing. To be a constant reminder to this town," says Jaelyn. "Sometimes he stands right off I-99. If the first thing you see when you come into our town is 'Black Lives Matter,' and you don't believe in that, that's going to fuck with your soul. That's what we're doing right now, we're shaking the very souls of these towns. It's happening all over the country."

This year's mass movement for racial justice has secured serious commitments towards defunding the police in major cities. In Tyrone, the fight is simply about not letting people close their eyes. After a week, Richie noticed that traffic was dwindling on the intersection by the police station. Drivers were avoiding him, having realized he'd be there every night.

"People don't want to acknowledge what's going on," he says. "But you can't ignore it because you're uncomfortable." After that, he started hitting all the hot spots which include the Sheetz, the Burger King, the Pizza Hut, the library, the Epworth Manor Senior Living Center, a veteran's memorial, and the median right off the interstate as you pull into town. "No matter where you're going on any given evening, you'll see me," he says.

Richie is used to being alone, avoided and yelled at by strangers. He's trans nonbinary and prefers male pronouns, though he doesn't expect most people he interacts with will use them. In a different place, with his Sublime t-shirt, baggy shorts, Hot Topic baseball cap and forearm tattoo of the symbol for male gender, Richie might look like your average queer punk. But in Tyrone, where Richie says he's "one sixth of the queer community," there's nothing average about him.

Richie realized he was bisexual when he was 13. He briefly identified as a lesbian, then as agender, and finally as trans. He'd seen trans people on TV but had never met one before coming out. He was bullied throughout school and still experiences routine harassment in Tyrone. He was called a "faggot" the day before we first meet up, while shooting photos for this article.

"Nothing they say actually hurts me," he says, of those who harass him both at the protests and in daily life. Richie doesn't feel afraid while protesting, only when he walks home. In his experience, that's when people feel emboldened. "Once you've been called every slur in the book for a queer person, and had chocolate milk dumped on you in the cafeteria, not much phases you after that." He points to that particular middle school incident as a turning point. "It was then that I was like 'I can let these people control my life forever,' or I can own up to the fact that I'm queer and I'm weird, but I'm a good person. They can't hurt me, because at the end of the day, I'm going to bed knowing my heart's in the right place."

After years as an outsider in his hometown, Richie is at ease with isolation and discomfort. At his job, coworkers sometimes deliberately deadname him and use female pronouns. "I had someone straight up refuse and say, 'Well I respect you and your identity, but this is just how I feel,'" recounts Richie cheerfully. "Like 'I don't care how you feel Brenda!'" He walks it back. Brenda's usually really nice. It's easy to see how a person more accustomed to fitting in with their surroundings would have trouble disrupting them.

Richie is white. He's keenly aware of this and what it means, against the odds. In Tyrone, it's easy to go your entire life without having a conversation, let alone a meaningful relationship, with a person of color. Richie didn't until he moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania when he was 13. An hour south, Johnstown is four times the size and about 20 times as diverse as Tyrone. "Johnstown is the first place I encountered the concept of race," Richie says. On his first day eighth grade, when a Black girl in his homeroom started talking to him, grilling him about where he was from. "I was very nervous and shy. I was never good at making friends, so I wasn't responding like she wanted me to," he says.

She accused him of having a problem with her because she's Black. "She asked, 'Are you racist?'" Richie recounts. "I didn't know how to respond. I'd heard the term racism. But I'd never heard that question before."

Richie draws a direct line between what happened next to his protests. A Black student a seat over turned around and told the girl to stop, that Richie was clearly just uncomfortable. The student, who's nonbinary, is named Bee. They remain one of Richie's closest friends. "They took me under their wing. But they were never afraid to correct me when I said something out of line," says Richie. "I was so ignorant. Bee was really good about educating me."

Bee, who now lives in Philadelphia, one of the first cities where the protests took hold, was the first to tell Richie about George Floyd. "I felt this sickness," says Richie. "All I could think about was, 'Oh my god, what if Bee gets added to the list of names.'" Richie thinks it's easy for people in Tyrone to ignore violence against Black people when it's "just stuff on TV. They don't think, 'This could be your friend next.'"

The day after Richie learned about the protests in Philadelphia and Minneapolis, he and his mom drove 30 minutes north to State College, the affluent, mostly liberal town where Penn State University is located, to attend a Black Lives Matter march. "We were driving, and I realized, 'Why are we going there?' When we have a town right here to start something in?" He hosted his first protest in Tyrone that evening.

Traveling as far as Johnstown opened Richie's eyes. But he might not have ever gone downtown with his sign if he hadn't followed his girlfriend to Seattle after high school. Using savings, loans and scholarships, he enrolled at Seattle University and met more queer people than he'd known in his life. Richie says in Tyrone he and his friends mostly hung out inside, to avoid being targeted as a group. With glee, he recounts one instance when he and a female friend, not even a girlfriend, walking downtown holding hands, made out just for fun after a man yelled at them. He loved city life and public transit. In Tyrone, a culture of country roads, he's limited further by his fear of driving. "Living in Seattle changed everything," he says. "It pulled me out of my shell and made me more confident."

Richie became an activist because he left Tyrone, but he also became an activist because he's from Tyrone, radicalized by his own experiences. He got involved with an anarchist group on campus that got a Chase Bank shut down while protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline. Separately, he began organizing immigrant hotel workers with a labor group in Seattle. "I wanted to do that because I used to work in housekeeping," he says. "We went around with flyers in multiple languages, talking about what unions were and the benefits they deserved."

Richie made it through two semesters. He dropped out to save money after losing his scholarship. He drove back home across the country with his cat in December of 2018, but has plans to permanently return to Seattle as soon as he can afford to take online classes at nearby Penn State, get his grades back up and transfer back to his school. He sees a future for himself in activism, but has also considered becoming a psychologist. One day, he wants to write a novel that takes place in Tyrone in the '80s about two queer men falling in love.

"I want to be able to come home and feel just as safe and secure as anyone else. I'm pretty sure that's all anyone wants to do."

Even if Richie can't see a future for himself in Tyrone, he still thinks it's worth fighting for. "This is still my home town," Richie says. "Even if I go back to Seattle, when someone asks me where I'm from, I'm always going to say Tyrone. It's who I am. I want to be able to come home and feel just as safe and secure as anyone else. I'm pretty sure that's all anyone wants to do."

It was intuitive to Richie that supporting Black Lives Matter, a multi-racial, working class-led movement, is a route to one day feeling safe in his hometown. He's protesting to keep Bee's name off the list, but the Black Lives Matter coalition also demands trans rights and an end to the carceral system that criminalizes his neighbors' addictions. He mentions this intersectionality when talking about Tyrone's drug problems. "People end up in jail when they need care. People get demonized instead of supported," he says. "How does that help? The Black Lives Matter movement knows this. It's about Black lives but it's also about so many things. You can't prioritize it all at once. You start with a Black man with a cop's knee on his neck, begging for his mother." The fact that Richie's protests aren't selfless isn't shameful. It's what sustained him.

Richie's hair is purple now, and the election looms. He's working full time at the candy shop, saving money for a visit to Seattle next summer. The last protest he held was in late July, around the same time demonstrations tapered off nationally, interrupted by explosions in cities like Portland, Louisville and Philadelphia. Richie stopped going out after a pair of white men in their early twenties began to appear every time he'd protest, yelling threats from a confederate flag-emblazoned truck or circling him on bicycles.

"I'm disappointed they pushed me out," he says. "But they didn't win. They didn't stop me the first night or the second night or the fifteenth night. They didn't stop anything, they just slowed it down."

This summer's protests have further polarized Tyrone, like the rest of the country. But the change favors one side. Richie says you wouldn't have seen a single Hillary Clinton sign driving around Tyrone this time in 2016. Not because no one voted for her, but because their signs would have been torn down. Lately, Richie's seen Biden signs all over town, undisturbed. "People are speaking up and saying, 'Hey, we were born and raised here too. Tyrone doesn't belong to just one kind of person."

The outcome of an election between a moderate who thinks there's no excuse for looting and a fascist who threatens protesters with violence doesn't invite much hope. Richie has no delusions that he'll see Tyrone transform in his lifetime. Maybe not America either. The factors that entrench fear, racism and a scarcity mindset in his neighbors are out of his control, and yet he's not discouraged. He's never expected to win most of his battles. Even when outcomes remain hopelessly predetermined, even when you can't change minds, you can still force people to look and listen — even just from a passing car.

"When I feel despair," he says, "I think about how the people who cause change are the ones who never give up. It might not come for me, but I can make sure the next group of people get closer."

From the start, 2020 has felt like a pivotal turning point for America. Ahead of what could be the most consequential election in our lifetimes, many of us are starting to re-think our behaviors, question old assumptions and challenge longstanding institutions. Through it all, there are plenty of reasons to feel inspired.

Highlighting compelling people in pop culture, politics and the arts, PAPER will examine America in all of its splendor, grit and complexity, and search for the stories that give us hope, compel us to be better versions of ourselves and to understand America as the multi-faceted, dynamic place — and idea — that it is.

Photography: Nathaniel Smallwood