By Put People First! PA South Central Healthcare Rights Committee

From late February to late March of this year in Lancaster County, PA, the ruling class strategy of deflection through divide and conquer tactics was carried out by City, County and State elected officials.  

  • February 27, 2024, Lancaster City Council Meeting: The County government Homeless Coalition share their “cost saving” proposal for the year to close down the only low barrier shelter in Lancaster City at the end of June 2024 
  • The City Council vote on a resolution that reaffirmed Lancaster City’s standing commitment to be a “Welcoming City” to undocumented immigrants
  • March 2024, Lancaster County Commissioners, Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino, attack the Drag Queen Story Hour organized by Lancaster Pride and the Lancaster Public Library, followed by a right wing bomb threat and protest by hate group Moms for Liberty is permitted
  • March 20th, 2024, Lancaster County Commissioners vote on a resolution declaring the county a “NON Sanctuary County,” and urge other counties to follow suit.

The community as a whole was unaware that these tactics of divide and conquer were being used.  Several community members and organizations took action against the attacks on their communities by only addressing what their sector of the class was experiencing instead of uniting together as one. 

Besides those under attack not being in step, some members of the working class fell for the fear tactics and false narratives, which led to the working class fighting each other. 

Imagine what we could have accomplished if we had ALL banded together based on our needs and against the ruling class agenda, instead of fighting each other.  

The Political Geography of Lancaster County

The political geography of Lancaster County is such that the Democratic Party has in recent decades controlled the Lancaster City Government and the Republican Party has in recent decades controlled the Lancaster County Government. In much the same way state politics pit Philly and Pittsburgh against the more rural and central parts of the state, the politics of Lancaster County pit the residents of Lancaster City against the residents of the rest of Lancaster County. Underneath this divide and conquer narrative and politics is the reality that across Lancaster County people are being hurt by the denial of their human rights to healthcare, housing, jobs at living wages, etc.    

Across Lancaster County & City both political parties have been united in and beholden to economic redevelopment that enables profits for the few and gentrifies the poor.  And in the lead up to elections, in particular national elections, both parties engage on issues in ways designed to rally “their base” to turn out on election day.    

In many ways the use of divide and conquer tactics – either via attack or defense – obscure these underlying economic and party interests.  

The Republican Party, under the sway of the distorted moral narrative of White Christian Nationalism, blames and scapegoats various segments of the working class for the ills facing society.  They refer to these populations as illegal, sinful and threats to social order.  

The Democratic Party, neoliberal at its core, feigns concern for the poor, but mostly offers patronizing sentiments (implicitly blaming the poor for their poverty), and leave the poor in the bleachers while the Democratic Party “fights” on their behalf. This leaves the poor demobilized and divided and blocks real organizing and coming together for the kinds of fundamental change our communities need.  

The Democratic Party has also taken to co-opting leaders who emerge in different fights into the Democratic Party as part of renewing their party’s connections to populations that have historically been part of the Democratic Party base.  When at times these leaders do not fall in line with the official Democratic Party establishment position on different issues, these leaders are thrown to the curb.  

Below we look at three examples of this divide and conquer politics at work…  

How Power Holders Divided the Working Class

The Attack on the Unhoused

The attacks on the different sectors of the working class began at the February 27, 2024 Lancaster City Council Meeting. At that meeting, the Homeless Coalition, run by the county government via the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority, shared their “cost saving” proposal for the year. They proposed a plan that would lead to closing down the only low barrier shelter in Lancaster City at the end of June 2024 and instead invest in outreach workers until the Otterbein Church shelter was ready in December. 

During the public comment section of the meeting several community members, who were part of a loose ad-hoc advocates collective, spoke out regarding concerns for the loss of shelter beds.  While the several Lancaster City Council members and the Mayor expressed concerns, they did nothing to stop the loss of these beds.  

The Attack on the Undocumented 

At that same Lancaster City Council meeting the Council voted on a resolution that reaffirmed Lancaster City’s standing commitment to a policy that allows local police and government officials to cooperate with ICE only when state and federal law requires such cooperation, but generally restricts police and local officials from asking immigrants for documentation. For such policies, Lancaster City has been certified as a “Welcoming City” since 2019.  

Immediately following the City Council meeting Lancaster County Commissioner Josh Parsons accused the Lancaster City Administration of making Lancaster City a “Sanctuary City.” He used social media and local mainstream media to spread false narratives and fear mongering tactics to paint immigrants as potentially dangerous and a strain on our local social service programs. 

In the subsequent days other local and state elected officials representing Lancaster County joined Parsons in the hateful attack on immigrants. While some in the community raised their voices in defense of immigrants, there was no general outcry against these attacks.  And many community residents fell for the hate rhetoric.   

On March 20th Lancaster County Commissioners voted on a resolution declaring the county a “NON Sanctuary County,” using the justification of the County’s need to “follow the law.” Now other townships and boroughs throughout Lancaster County are following suit.

The response of Lancaster city government has been to argue that they are not a “Sanctuary City,” rather than putting forward a strong stance in protection of the undocumented. 

The Attack on the LGBTQIA

The same County Commissioner, Josh Parsons, then attacked the Drag Queen Story Hour being organized by Lancaster Pride and hosted by the Lancaster Public Library. Parsons criticized the library, targeted the drag queens and expressed “concern” for the safety and wellbeing of the children. 

Many in the community at large were taken in by this attack and made their views known at a subsequent County Commissioners meeting and on social media, speaking to homosexuality and queerness as sins against God. They promoted the idea that townships, boroughs and school boards across the county should withhold funds from libraries that promoted pro-LGBTQ books and activities.  

The Lancaster Patriot used their media platform to rally their readers and viewers to oppose the LGBTQ community. Moms for Liberty, who have a concentration of chapters in the Southeast and South Central regions in Pennsylvania, organized a counter protest for the day of the Drag Queen Story Hour. On the night before the event, faith leaders and their congregations hosted a prayer rally in Ewell plaza outside the library in opposition. 

The City Administration’s granting of Moms for Liberty (a designated hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) a permit for a counter protest, stands in stark contrast to their unwillingness to allow the PA Homeless Union, PPF-PA and Food Not Bombs to organize and distribute food to the homeless in the downtown area.  

At the same time a sizable uproar began to build in defense of the Drag Queen Story Hour, and broader LGBTQ community. Those standing with the queer community also spoke out at the County Commissioner meetings, on social media, and planned a wall of love to be a buffer between those attending the story hour and the counter protests made up of mostly Christian Nationalists and hate groups.  

Ultimately the drag queen story hour was canceled and the wall of love never happened because of a bomb threat which targeted specific people, Lancaster Pride, Lancaster Public Library and Lancaster Newspapers. The day of the scheduled Drag Queen Story Hour a portion of Lancaster downtown was closed off, including Binns Park, Ewell Plaza and the Library. The closing off of these public spaces affected not only the queer community but also others who use the services of the library, including the unhoused who use the library and that area of the downtown as a refuge from the elements. Sad, because it was actually raining that day. 

From Scattered Silos to a Unified Front  

For the most part these attacks on different sections of our class led to a defensive response that was fairly siloed.  Organizations of the homeless, undocumented and LGBTQ (along with their allies) fought back simultaneously, but not in a coordinated way.  

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This began to shift at the Lancaster County Commissioners meeting on March 20. There, without any prior planning, advocates for all of these constituencies found each other filling the seats and testifying against the attacks. Seeing their own situation in each other’s fights. 

Our South Central PA Healthcare Rights Committee (SCPA HRC) was present in all of this.  Having established ourselves through organizing and previous moments of struggle (in particular the fight against the closing of St Joseph’s Hospital, against water shutoffs, and for the rights of the unhoused, decarceration and the rights of those held in Lancaster County Prison) we began to make the invisible, visible. 

In county and city meeting rooms, in one on one conversations, signal group communications, and on social media – and then in press conferences and major gatherings like the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival’s March 2nd convening in Harrisburg –  we called attention to how the attack on these three sections of the working class (and others) was meant to divide us, pit us against each other, leaving us less able to resist both the onslaught of divisive attacks (and siloed responses) and the forward march of the redevelopment machine.  

We moved to shift the narrative from the prevailing left vs right frame, to a rich vs poor frame. We engaged in the battle for the Bible, suggesting the hypocrisy of worshiping a homeless man on Sunday and then stepping over, vilifying and criminalizing him — and the refugee and LGBTQ —  on Monday.  

As we have in the past, we continue to fight for the unity of the leaders who emerged out of these different fronts of struggle. 

Combat Divide & Conquer Tactics by Uniting the Poor and Dispossessed: Lessons Learned

In Lancaster, power holders (or elected officials), both DP and RP, both City and County, and on all levels of government, engage and use divide and conquer tactics. These tactics are being used in heightened ways in the lead up to the 2024 presidential election. This is particularly so when it comes to potentially highly controversial issues that can be used by both parties to rally their bases.  Of late, the RP has led with divisive attacks and the DP has responded with divisive defenses. This same phenomena is playing out across all of South Central PA. We need to be prepared to understand this and not be diverted from our fundamental mission of uniting and organizing the poor.  

We need to see projects of survival (like our people’s clinics) and other basebuilding activities on the right to healthcare / medicaid for all just as vital now as we did when we took on UPMC and power holders over the closure of St. Joseph’s Hospital.  We need the rallying energy of a campaign that goes on the offense for our common needs and in doing so organizes and unites our class across lines of division.

We need to work hard in developing our 4 Cs of leadership and see our campaign plan through! 

There’s a war on the poor and dispossessed and we must unite, study together, and develop leaders across all lines of division. There’s potential in the South Central PA region for many different community based and statewide organizations to organize together, i.e there’s potential in forming and developing the “new and unsettling force” Martin Luther King Jr spoke of. We need to focus on and deepen our relationships with contacts we have already made.   

We must expand our work around the “Battle for the Bible” in the South Central PA region (known as the Bible belt of PA) and deepen our relationships with faith leaders that we’ve connected with over the years and more recently. We need to bring faith leaders and their congregations directly into the work of the PPF-PA SCPA Healthcare Rights Committee and or the PA Poor People’s Campaign. 

The attacks on our class, and the rallying of different sections of our class to either the MAGA RP or a “progressive” unrepentant liberal/neoliberal DP, will continue in a vicious cycle.  We must organize our class for the long haul to fight for fundamental systemic change, revolutionary change, not reform. We need to kill the system before it kills us.  

We need to be very vocal and relentlessly declare ourselves Poverty Abolitionists, especially in this region (our fight to abolish poverty is deeply connected to abolitionist fight to abolish slavery which was strong in this region).  

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