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Protesters gather outside courthouse to protest death of George Floyd

May 31, 2020 News Extra

What started out as concern for unrest at a social media-inspired event Sunday afternoon in downtown Butler, turned into a peaceful protest in wake of the death of George Floyd.

One hundred or so protesters — many of them holding signs in support of Floyd and Black Lives Matter — flanked both sides of Main Street in the shadows of the courthouse around 2 p.m.

Close by were numerous city and Butler Township police officers, county Sheriff Mike Slupe and a team of his deputies.

“I'm here to support Black Lives Matter,” said Alexa Birckbichler, of Butler, who held high a sign that read: “Silence is Violence.”

“I am a white person but I stand with the black community, and I think it's important that we, as Butler, stand with the black community because there's been so many injustice killings of black men,” she said. “Staying silent is more violence; that is, white oppression.”

Protests began in Minneapolis following Floyd's death May 24 after a police officer pressed a knee on his neck until he stopped breathing. Floyd was black and the officer is white.

Protests quickly spread to other U.S. cities, including Pittsburgh on Saturday, and many turned violent. A number of cities have sustained broken windows, burned-out buildings and ransacked stores.

“I've been watching those riots, livestreaming them down in Minneapolis,” said Jake, of Portersville, who did not want to give his last name. “It is a shame all the destruction that has come to their city. But I get where they're coming from.

“They have every right to speak up, I think, It's been a long time coming. Their voice hasn't been heard.”

He said he agrees with many of the protesters who have spoken out against police.

“There's a problem with police brutality against black people and all of that,” Jake said. “But it needs to start with the racist people being woken up. I'm a milennial and my wife here is from GenX, and we don't stand for racism. We don't like it. It makes me sick.”

The hard-to-miss police presence followed a Facebook posting that read: “Riot in butler May 31st at 2:00. meet at the diamond park.” The post was made at 1:17 a.m. by someone using the Facebook name “On Beav.”

Slupe said he deployed a number of deputies to the county courthouse later that morning in response to the post. He said authorities worked to determine both the identity of the person who made the post and the credibility of any threat.

“The unknown is what we're preparing for,” he said as the day moved closer to the afternoon. “We're preparing for a number of people who may want to cause damage or harm to property — and in our case, the county property.”

Slupe, said he learned about the social media post via text message Sunday morning from Butler Police Chief Bob O'Neill.

A city police officer said the department fielded a number of calls from concerned businesses as the post circulated.

Several city businesses, including Cummings Candy and Coffee on North Main Street, closed early as a precautionary measure. A Cummings employee said the store closed at 12:30 p.m. It normally would have closed at 1 p.m.

The Facebook post garnered a lot of attention from social media users. A police communications officer at the state police barracks in Butler said that as of noon, police had received more than 100 calls from the public.

“They wanted to know if we saw it (the posting). That's all,” the officer said. “We told them we were aware of it.”

Because of concern over the Facebook post, Slupe closed the county-owned Diamond Park to the protestors, stating that they did not have a permit.

He added, “We're also doing this for people's safety.”

He said he welcomed the protesters to use “the public sidewalks, just not in the park.”

At least 10 city police officers manned the streets around the vicinity of the protesters, while O'Neill headed a command post at the station. Butler Township police sent at least three additional officers.

Through the afternoon, the number of protesters swelled. Others — those supporting the police and curiosity seekers — also showed up.

Mark Swanwick of Butler heard about the event on Facebook. He said he was there to back the police.

He also noted that he is a native of Pittsburgh, where, he said, “all that (expletive) went down (Saturday).”

He acknowledged that while there are “bad cops,” they are the minority. “Most police are good,” he said.

A former Evans City man now living in Meridian, admitted, “I'm here for the show.”

He, too, learned of the protest on social media.

“I'm on the side of civility,” he said, adding that he served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. “The First Amendment, the Bills of Rights, I'm all about that. But the destruction of property is (expletive) ridiculous.”

Emma Kappler of Butler came to protest in support of Black Lives Matter and the public. She said she attends the University of Pittsburgh where she's studying political science and sociology.

“I know there's injustice in this system. I definitely think we need reform,” she said. She also blamed police for instigating violence at other rallies and protests.

“I need to be here to stick up for people. I can't just see this injustice and let it slide.”

Birckbichler, who said she is studying English as a student at St. John's University in New York City, pointed out, “This is a peaceful protest. We're not here to start anything.”