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Vandergrift braced for unrest, but protest remained peaceful

posted Jun 4, 2020, 11:34 PM by Joseph Gray

Police, residents and business owners in Vandergrift braced for unrest that never materialized.

A Black Lives Matter protest scheduled for Thursday had some in the borough of about 5,200 people on edge — despite the fact that the protest had formally been canceled after one of the organizers became the target of threats.

Still, many people said online they would show up anyway. Businesses in town took that to heart.

Several shops boarded up their windows and doors in preparation for a demonstration they feared could turn violent. Roadblocks were established, and state police and neighboring local departments were called in to provide assistance. Some residents said they saw as many as 50 police cars stationed around town.

And a small group of veterans stood guard at the Vandergrift Military Memorial, worried rioters would vandalize it. A few of the veterans were armed.

“I don’t mind the protesting,” said veteran Bob Serena, 68, of Vandergrift, who stood guard with his brother, Dan. “But I’ve seen them destroy too many monuments in cities where they protest, and they’re not destroying this one.”

It was all for naught.

By late Thursday afternoon, only about 30 protesters had arrived outside the Casino Theater.

Bearing posters, signs and an American flag, the protesters stood peacefully and chanted phrases like “black lives matter,” “no justice, no peace” and “I can’t breathe.” The latter phrase was uttered by George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes on Memorial Day, setting off protests across the country.

Vandergrift police officers meandered through the group of protesters, socializing with the activists. The day was overwhelmingly mellow.

Several business owners said they supported the peaceful demonstration, but felt the need to take precautions in case the protest escalated to rioting as protests have elsewhere, including Pittsburgh.

“We’ve seen what can happen,” said Eric Mikula, co-owner of Sweetlane Chocolate Shop on Grant Avenue. “It’s the potential for rioting.”

Mikula closed his store Thursday morning before the protest began. He boarded the windows with inch-thick plywood, reinforced with two-by-fours. He said he also planned to board up the windows of his home, a block away from the theater.

Some people said they feared “outside people” coming into Vandergrift to cause trouble. On social media, rumors circulated that the protest would draw agitators from the Ku Klux Klan and the anti-fascist Antifa movement, which President Trump said he would designate as a domestic terror group.

“It only takes one bad egg,” said Gert Keddie, owner of Keddie Chevrolet on Lincoln Street.

The car dealership moved all cars off its lot to another location, Keddie said. They spent all of Wednesday clearing out all the computers and taking anything of value out of the building, including credit card machines, vehicle titles and other important documents.

The precautions came as Westmoreland County prepared to enter the green phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan on Friday. Keddie had been planning to reopen the dealership for normal operations for the first time since mid-March. But fearing riots and looting, she said the dealership won’t reopen until Monday.

Marilee Kessler, a Vandergrift resident and organization chair for the Vandergrift Improvement Program, said the situation in town is a result of “misunderstanding and mistrust.” Kessler said she understands the apprehension from business owners after reading comments online from people threatening to riot.

“This is something serious that needs to be said,” she said. “But unfortunately the people who wanted to have something quiet and nice and respectful were hijacked.”

Vandergrift police Chief Joe Caporali said he thinks there could be a larger gathering over the weekend but, after such a mellow event on Thursday, there is little concern about mayhem. He said he was more uneasy about how an incoming heat wave could harm activists standing in the sun for hours.

Cicily Bailey, 19, one of the original organizers of the protest, did not attend Thursday’s event. She formally canceled the event after receiving harsh backlash and threatening messages.

“I’m keeping my word,” she said. “I’m not going down there.”

Teghan Simonton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Teghan at 724-226-4680, or via Twitter .