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Zanelli’s BLM support causes friction

What would have normally been a cut and dried business meeting for the Lehigh County Commissioners turned into four-and-half hour meeting largely devoted to comments that Commissioner Amy Zanelli had posted May 1 on Facebook that had some citizens demanding her resignation or censure.

Zanelli had posted comments regarding the current George Floyd marches that asked her personal Facebook followers to, “Stop blaming people for looting in a country who’s [sic] greed was so boundless they captured, relocated, and enslaved entire generations. And when that country [became] one of the most successful in the world, how did we thank them? By making them perpetually ‘less-than.’”

“Unequal access to housing, education, jobs, voting, love, police protection...the denial of basic human rights and systemic poverty was, and is, their legacy. We have not recovered. In fact, we have devolved further placing the rights and interests of corporations above the people essentially legalizing the purchasing of politicians.”

“When nothing matters more than the almighty dollar...and every attempt at peaceful protest is mocked and ignored, what do you expect?”

A few people interpreted this as an endorsement of looting by protesters and began demanding online that Zanelli resign or that the Lehigh County Commissioners censure Zanelli, who is the president of the commissioners.

West Bethlehem resident Jean Mater said he was “troubled” because a petition to remove or censure Zanelli was an effort “to obfuscate the real issues.”

“I wish to stand strongly against someone [sending a petition like that] and simply ignoring what that [Zanelli’s] posting was about.” Mater said Zanelli’s point was about institutionalized racism and that Black lives matter.

“What Ms. Zanelli said was if you don’t look at the looting as a symptom, you are simply going in the wrong direction,” said Mater offering his interpretation of commissioner Zanelli’s posted comments.

Commissioner Nate Brown (R), who said he doesn’t have a Facebook account, took the floor in defense of Zanelli’s right to make statements.

“Whatever she said is under the First Amendment [of the U.S. Constitution]. You may agree with it or disagree with it, but she has the First Amendment right. She did nothing illegal there,” said Brown. “I will support her in that.”

Brown also said issues about Zanelli’s use of county-owned email accounts is an internal matter and needs to be looked at.

Brown was referring to the fact that Zanelli had used Facebook to share copies of emails calling for the censure on the official Lehigh County Commissioner’s official and public account.

He called on County Executive Philips Armstrong to bring his plans for a Lehigh County ethics committee to the commissioners. Armstrong said he expects an ethics committee to be “up and running this week.”

Commissioner Zakiya Smalls addressed Zanelli’s post. “We in our country have an issue with systemic racism. We have an issue with all lives mattering. Black lives right now are at the forefront of this. We cannot ignore this or push it under the rug by looking at [focusing on] looters and rioting. We have to look at the underlying issue here. And the underlying issue is when we are saying our Pledge of Allegiance, we are experiencing injustice for all instead of justice for all and it needs to be addressed in our county.”

A speaker identified as “Allison B” called in to say she “supports Amy [Commissioner Amy Zanelli]. We have to band together in order to bring about effective change. I think we lose sight of that when we engage in petitions to remove persons when they are trying to make an example of themselves for everyone.”

A woman whose name was unintelligible but identified herself as a Parkland School District teacher compared her school district and others like East Penn District with Allentown School District. She said she has 26 years’ experience first in Reading and later in Allentown. “I have seen systemic racism.”

She pointed out that affluent districts like East Penn have better results than Allentown. “People want to say that ‘all lives matter,’ but we need to look at the children’s lives. They [Allentown students] are not getting the same education as those living in South Whitehall or the Northwestern School District. We need to decide for equality and equity. The petty infighting between parties is to the detriment to your constituents and we all need to rise to serve.”

Alex (the last name was unintelligible on the Zoom connection) of Bethlehem called in her support of Zanelli’s comments, but went on to express some of her thoughts on the use of the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.”

“Why do white people have a problem with this?” asked Alex. “Would you want to be treated the way black people are treated in this country? Is that something you want? The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t about making black people better than anybody else. It’s about making sure that people’s lives matter equally. I just want people to reflect on why the statement Black Lives Matter bothers them so much.”

Deedrae Drysdale, who said she is a mother and a black woman, described connections between multi-level institutional racism and the mental health of the victims. She also told of a black mother with an emotionally immature son and felt she had to scare her son into fearing the police for his own safety.

“I am in agreement with your [Zanelli’s] Facebook comments and I am not in agreement with taking you out of your position.”

Christina Cardinal of Fountain Hill said she, as a white woman “growing up in this area, have learned over the years and working with my clients just how much privilege I have had, but I didn’t recognize because [racism] is so systemic and ingrained in our culture.

“They [black people] are done being murdered for the color of their skin.”

Teacher Kel Wetherhold called in to express frustration that he could not visit his 88-year-old father, a resident at Cedarbrook Nursing Home, due to the state’s coronavirus restrictions. Commissioner Brown said he plans to again introduce a resolution to see if he can the get the Lehigh County Commissioners, “in one voice,” to ask Governor Tom Wolf to ease restrictions related to the coronavirus. Brown’s previous efforts to pass such a resolution have failed.

Slatington Borough Council Vice President Jason Ruff said had just attended a Black Lives Matter rally in Slatington and had been moved by the people who came out in support. He said it was peaceful “beyond belief.”

“It was super cool because the police started to engage with the protesters and assured them the police were there to protect them. I just can’t say enough about how peaceful, productive and positive the protest was in Slatington.”

Bethlehem resident Angie Gillen told Zanelli, “You’re the kind of leader that we need.” She also described going to a CVS clinic for a covid-19 test and was required to swab her own nose.

Theresa LaFavor said she agrees with those who have described systemic racism in the schools.

Troy Stone, a local businessman and South Whitehall Township resident, objected to Zanelli’s post, saying that he saw her as “apparently or implicitly supporting rioting and looting. In my mind that hurts me because I see that as a wedge that’s driven deeper. I see anger, I see division that’s deeper than ever, I see black people’s businesses being destroyed, so when I see a post like that I don’t know how else to interpret it other than as an implicit acknowledgment that [looting and rioting] is understandable.

“That eliminates accountability and I don’t understand how anyone in authority could say that.

“We need leaders to help guide the public. We need change. I promote change. We need real justice. We need real equality. We need to break the huge gap in our school’s education. We need to fix that; they’re all schools here in Pennsylvania.

I’m angry. We’re angry. But I think the rioting and looting is what drives more hatred.

“The people in the group [who organized a petition calling for a censure of Zanelli] are upset about the implicit support or justification of the rioting and looting. It’s not about supporting Black Lives Matter.”

Catherine Dawson said protesters are not looters and suggested people stop conflating the two. “Conflating the two makes it very easy to disregard the conversation. Property is property and lives are lives. And conflating that is equally offensive. She suggested making discussion of what we are doing to combat racial inequality in the Lehigh Valley a standing agenda item on the Lehigh County Commissioner’s agenda.

Commissioners approved a resolution to buy almost an acre of property located in North Whitehall Township. The property, according to Director of General Services Rick Molchany, was appraised at $45,000 and will be used to “assist in completing the Jordan Greenway Trail.” He said he is working on plans for a second piece of property which he thought might be donated by the Jaindl Land Company. Molchany said that DCNR and Trexler Trust funds have been applied toward the project.

According to South Whitehall Township’s website, when completed the entire 14-mile Jordan Creek Greenway Trail will connect several regional parks to include Jordan Park, Jordan Creek Parkway, Covered Bridge Park and the Trexler Nature Preserve.

Northwestern Lehigh resident Stephanie Brown used the public comments portion of the agenda to complain about what she described as “disastrous” situation at the Trexlar Game Preserve area around the ford across Jordan Creek.

“It’s being used as a swimming pool,” said Brown. She was especially concerned that children were playing in the water with their heads just inches from car wheels as cars crossed the ford.

“There are multiple issues,” said Brown. She reported that too many cars are parked on the grass.

press photos by douglas gravesCommissioner Nate Brown, who said he doesn't have a Facebook account, took the floor in defense of Zanelli's right to make statements whether he agreed with them or not. “I support the First Amendment.”