Rally calling for Arnold mayor’s resignation goes on, but mayor not at city hall
Black and white. Young and old. Residents and non-residents. Elected officials.
Dozens of protesters gathered in front of Arnold city hall on Thursday to demand the resignation of Mayor Karen Peconi in response to recent Facebook posts by Peconi to her personal page that most would say were at least insensitive and, at worst, racist.
The crowd of 60 to 70 protesters chanted familiar phrases associated with recent protests such as “Black lives matter!” as well as newer phrases more closely associated with the mayor’s Facebook comments.
“Old Jim Crow, new Jim Crow, this racist mayor has got to go!” the protesters cried. “We raised our kids, we worked all night, we’re side-by-side and we’re here to fight!”
Peconi has been under fire for several days after she posted a video to Facebook that showed protesters being knocked down with powerful water cannons.
Her comments on the video suggested that the same thing should be done to those protesting the police killing of Antwon Rose, 17, in East Pittsburgh last week.
Apparently referring to a weekday morning protest in Pittsburgh, Peconi posted to Facebook that protesters must be unemployed because they were able to protest at 7 a.m. on a weekday.
Peconi has not responded for several requests for comment on the matter. She emailed an apology for her remarks early Wednesday morning, and has since deleted her personal Facebook page.
All four Arnold Council members and some city residents, though, say her apology was not enough and many have called for her to step down as mayor.
2 groups organized protest
The rally, a collaborative effort of two organizations — Voice of Westmoreland and Concerned People of Color of Arnold and New Kensington — started at noon, but people began arriving at city hall a half-hour before that.
Peconi wasn’t there. The door to her office was closed. City staff said Peconi called Thursday morning to inquire about some city business, but they hadn’t seen her.
Autumn Monaghan, the founder of Concerned POC of Arnold and New Kensington, said protesters planned to picket until 7 p.m.
“We just want people to see us,” said Monaghan, 39, of Harrison. “It’s not OK to be racist.”
Arnold police and firefighters watched the demonstration from across the street, where their stations are, as attendees sang, chanted and listened to speakers.
A few held “Black Lives Matter” flags and homemade signs that touted phrases such as “Would you turn a hose on us, Mayor Peconi?” and “Racist Mayor Must Go!” Others formed a circle and used a red, white and blue tarp to toss American-flag themed beach balls around.
No one who attended the rally was a “professional” demonstrator, though organizers did solicit the help of Pittsburgh resident Tracy Baton, who has organized a few Pittsburgh-area rallies, such as the Pittsburgh Women’s March.
Baton said Monaghan reached out to her for help because of her experience, and she happily agreed to come. She brought the “Black Lives Matter” flags, which she bought, and a megaphone.
“I was home and really excited when Autumn reached out to say that she wanted to know how to organize out here in Westmoreland County and to stand up and say that a racist mayor is unacceptable anywhere in Pennsylvania,” she said.
A number of other people also came from out of town, including Michelle Boyle, who used to do home health care work in Arnold.
Boyle, a nurse, said she finds the mayor’s comments disturbing and hoped the rally would shed light on the issue.
“I hope that people who vote for the mayor understand where she really stands,” said Boyle, 47, of Highland Park. “I worked in these communities and I know the amazing diversity … and amazing people who live in these communities. That is what should be represented by the mayor — not hate.”
Amy Stein, 47, of O’Hara came to the rally because Peconi’s comments made her worry for her children, who are black. She said Peconi needs to resign.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to have somebody leading a community who feels it’s acceptable to just quiet the citizens and expect us to not speak up when we see something wrong,” she said.
Arnold residents also expressed their disgust with Peconi.
The Rev. Ronald Simmons, 70, of Arnold grew up in Savannah, Ga., during the 1960s and remembers the tear gas cartridges and fire hoses used on protesters then.
A Vietnam War veteran, Simmons said Peconi’s comments sadden him, and he is praying for her.
“Anyone who feels that the rights that I was willing to go abroad and protect can no longer be expressed is not the person that I elected or voted for,” he said. “Obviously, I was misled.”
Jon McCabe, the Democrat nominee for state 54th House representative, held a “Black Lives Matter” flag.
The 54th District doesn’t include Arnold, but McCabe came because he said leaders need to be held accountable for their words.
“I think this gathering here today of all these people demonstrates that people want accountable leaders,” said McCabe, 22, of Lower Burrell. “This era of saying whatever you want and sweeping it under the rug is over.”
Philip McKinley, an Arnold councilman, also participated in the rally, which he said was peaceful. He held onto the tarp as people tossed the balls, and said his stance on Peconi has not changed.
“She’s got to go,” he said.
Groups request procedures review
In addition to Peconi’s resignation, protesters also asked for an administrative review of Arnold practices, such as police procedures.
They pointed out a case in which Peconi’s son, Arnold Patrolman Wesley Biricocchi, was accused of using excessive force during an arrest in New Kensington in January 2017. Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck decided not to prosecute Biricocchi and another police officer involved in that arrest.
“Just like light drives away rats and roaches and all other bad things, government needs sunshine,” Baton said. “Part of that sunshine is to say that, if we have leadership that is that fundamentally racist, what kind of practices have been in place because of it?”
Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4702, [email protected] or via Twitter @MaddyCzebsTrib.