State College group Community & Campus in Unity wants you to report racist incidents to them
This summer, Terry Watson was walking from his car into a State College area gas station when a woman shouted a racist slur at him.
“I hear someone shouts out ‘Black N-word,’” Watson said.
But, she said the actual word.
Watson looked around and identified the shouter. It was an older white woman in a car in the gas station lot. Watson thought it was pretty bold for someone to be yelling at him like that in broad daylight. He wondered if she might be armed. He didn’t say anything and kept walking.
And at first, Watson did not report it.
“At first, I wasn't going to, just because of the work that I've done, I know that for a hate crime to be considered a hate crime, it has to be attached to a crime,” Watson said. “And yelling out words in this country, is not a crime.”
Racist slurs, degrading comments, hate symbols. They’re not always illegal, but they can make people of color in our communities feel unwelcome or unsafe. The State College group Community & Campus in Unity – or CCU – is hoping to convince people to report racist incidents like this to them, so they can intervene with education.
CCU was created in December of 2014, by longtime State College residents, Harold McKenzie and Tom King. King, who is white, was the State College police chief back then. He’s now retiring from being assistant borough manager. McKenzie, who is Black, was and is the pastor for Unity Church of Jesus Christ.
They were spurred to create the group by the unrest following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. King said about a dozen people gathered at McKenzie’s church for the group’s first meeting, including all four local police chiefs.
“We knew it was important to come together to say, what can we do proactively to try to have our community have a better relationship with law enforcement and not wait till there might be some kind of really unfortunate tragic situation,” King said.
Just a few months after that first meeting, McKenzie remembered State College police used their tasers for the first time, on a young Black woman.
“But over that three months, we had built a really good platform of conversation and beginning trust,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie said that foundation made it possible for key members of the group to get together to talk about the tasing.
“And we didn't all agree on how to approach it, we didn’t all agree on the policing in that situation, but we kept dialogue going,” McKenzie said.
Over the years since, CCU has widened its focus from just law enforcement to include educational institutions, businesses and government agencies. King said they’ve intervened when international students were treated badly at the post office, when a group of Latino students was mistreated at a restaurant, and when vendors were selling confederate flags and other racist items at a flea market.
“If there's mistreatment of persons of color, or other underrepresented groups, we want to do what we can to try to improve it,” King said. “And we want people to report those incidents. And we need to make it as easy to report those incidents to whomever it is, but bring them to our attention to see if there's a way we can intervene.”
They’ve intervened by offering support to those who experienced the racism, by connecting organizations with diversity training and by bringing attention to racist acts. When the vendors selling racist items wouldn’t stop, CCU put a letter condemning it in the newspaper with 100 signatures. McKenzie said they want to make the State College area a community where everyone can feel welcome.
“It can be somewhat of a misnomer: this is Happy Valley. Well, that's a matter of perspective. It’s not Happy Valley to you, if you feel like you're being discriminated against,” McKenzie said.
Nalini Krishnankutty joined CCU in 2016 when she saw a rise in anti-Asian hate during the presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
“We had friends who were just crossing the street on Atherton and somebody else walking by Talleyrand Park, being told by somebody in a car that's driving, by window rolled down, you know, just shouted out, ‘Go back home,’” Krishnankutty said.
She said she has seen another increase in anti-Asian hate with COVID.
In May, a man threw an object at an Asian woman in Ferguson Township and hit her in the back of the head. He also told her to go back to where she came from.
Krishnankutty said Asian people in the State College area can feel invisible, even though they’re 11% of the borough population and 16% of nearby Ferguson Township. She thinks groups like CCU asking Asian people to report hate incidents can make them feel more seen.
“I come back to visibility, because I think if somebody is made visible and somebody is made to feel important, then you are more likely to feel that your complaint is going to be heard,” Krishnankutty said. “It’s basically all of us telling the group that's impacted that it matters to us what's happening to you, and we are here and this is not okay.”
Terry Watson, the man who had the N-word yelled at him, is also a part of Community & Campus in Unity.
At first he only posted about the incident on Facebook. But he eventually emailed Patton Township Police Chief Tyler Jolley, who he knew from some of his past work.
“He responded to me right away,” Watson said. “First of all he apologized that this even happened. And then he assured me that he was going to assign this to one of his officers to follow up and investigate.”
Watson leads trainings for police on how to deal with situations just like this one. He says he’s being called in more and more.
“One thing that one thing that I'm constantly talking to police about, especially regarding these types of situations, is how they respond could even contribute to the trauma or lessen the trauma,” Watson said.
King and McKenzie recently decided it was time to step down as CCU co-chairs after seven years.
At a meeting at Tudek Park in State College, CCU members surprised them with awards for their work as “community change makers.”
And McKenzie announced one of the new co-chairs to the group.
“One of our passions is that CCU become more next-generational. And connected to that, we’re excited to say that Terry Watson has consented to serve as co-chair,” McKenzie said.
One initiative Watson’s already working on is adding a spot on the Community & Campus in Unity website where people can report hate crimes or incidents, like the one that happened to him.