Gershon Simon has written one poem in his life.
Last summer, when protests occurred across the United States in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who lost consciousness when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes, Simon expressed his thoughts in “Why Can’t I?”
If a white man can run, why can’t I?
If a white man can protest in rage untouched, why can’t I?
If a white man can get recognition, why can’t I?
If a white man can resist arrest unharmed, why can’t I?
If a white man is innocent till proven guilty, why can’t I?
If a white man can walk away unarmed, why can’t I?
If a white man’s privileged, why can’t I?
If a white man is free, why can’t I?
If the white man’s ALIVE, why must I DIE?
“After all that happened with George Floyd, it kind of felt like the world was on fire, honestly,” Simon said.
“Everybody was feeling some type of way about it. That’s all you saw on social media when you got on your phone – more and more videos, more and more posts about it.
“That’s kind of what gave me the idea. I was like, ‘Everyone else is talking about it, so I might as well do something for my town to let them know that somebody cares.’ ”
‘People love it’
He printed out 500 copies and has been handing them out to people.
The poem also previously appeared in The Tribune-Democrat.
The response has been almost all positive.
“People love it,” Simon said. “People love it. But then there’s those people that don’t like it. That’s with everything in life. There’s always going to be somebody that tries to downgrade you.”
Reacting to Floyd’s death is now part of the coming of age for Simon, an 18-year-old recent Greater Johnstown High School graduate who is studying criminal justice at Penn State Altoona, and all young Black men in the United States.
Along with writing the poem, Simon attended a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Johnstown during the immediate aftermath of the Floyd incident.
“It honestly just felt good just to know that we were doing something like that in my town where I grew up at and that we had the capability of doing it,” Simon said. “It was good to see a lot of people that I knew out there. Everyone that was out there I pretty much knew. It was good. And I was even seeing people that I didn’t know, so that’s how you know it really meant something to everybody in the town.”
Police story: ‘Two sides’
Floyd’s death raised further concerns with Simon about what he considers to be inequities in the justice system.
“Right now, I feel like the criminal justice system is a little corrupt, because there’s two sides to it when it comes to race, I feel like,” Simon said.
“When you’re Black, it’s a completely different thing than if you’re a Caucasian person. It’s completely different. Everyone can see it.”
But, locally, he thinks relations between the Black community and Johnstown Police Department are good overall.
“I feel like, even with the local authorities and stuff like that, those cops, they’re cool with everyone in the town, as far as I know, because the town is so small,” Simon said. “You see those cops that are coming to the basketball games and going to every school’s basketball games. You see them around the town in Johnstown. You’ll see them in Westmont. You see those cops and stuff everywhere just because of how small Johnstown is.
“That’s why I feel like it’s better in Johnstown because it’s not a big town.”
He also points to the daily presence of a school resource officer at Greater Johnstown as a way for relationships to develop between law enforcement and the students who then become adults in the community.
For years, Officer Chad Miller served in that role before becoming a captain and now interim chief of the JPD.
“Officer Miller, everybody knows him,” Simon said. “If you went to Johnstown, you definitely know Officer Miller.
“He’s always been a chill, cool type of dude. He never gave anyone problems. He would swing through on random school days and spend a day at the school and just be with the kids. That’s what kind of officer he is. I like Officer Miller.”
‘Passionate and focused’
Miller called Simon “a great kid.”
“He was always a respectful kid,” Miller said. “He is passionate and focused and will be a great leader in the Johnstown community in the future.”
Simon also speaks highly about his uncle, Geroy Simon, and Greater Johnstown boys’ basketball head coach Ryan Durham.
Geroy Simon is one of the area’s most accomplished athletes ever, having been inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2017 as an all-time great receiver and a two-time Grey Cup champion.
“I’ve definitely been looking up to him for a while,” his nephew said.
Gershon Simon was a key player on Greater Johnstown’s basketball team in 2020, hitting a clutch late basket in a win over Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference title game, and scoring 10 points in a District 6, Class 5A championship game win over Hollidaysburg Area.
Simon called Coach Durham a leader who “always had a voice.”
“He just carries himself like very, very, very respectfully,” Simon said. “He respects everyone around him and himself. He always puts you before him. That’s kind of how I’m shaping myself to be. I always want to put everyone else before me. That’s how my coach was, so I’ve always looked up to him for that.”