'It got ugly': What happened when Black Lives Matter protests came to small town Ohio
BETHEL, Ohio - Donna Henson was sitting on her porch last weekend, as always in fine weather, watching dozens of her neighbors come by with bats in their hands or arms strapped to their sides.
They were married couples, friends and relatives, young and old people. Everyone drives along Union Street towards the city center.
The 78-year-old Henson suspected that they had heard the same rumors she had, namely, busloads of people coming to her city to join small protests against Black Lives Matter on Sunday and Monday. It was said that hundreds could come from Cincinnati, Columbus or Detroit.
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Henson was afraid and she suspected it was her neighbors too. If they didn't do anything, if they didn't show up armed and ready, the riots they'd seen on TV for weeks on distant American roads could come to Bethel, a village of 2,800.
"Everyone had a gun," said Henson on Tuesday, remembering the scene. "Like a cowboy show."
A movement that had invaded many of the country's major cities was about to reach a small town, a rural enclave where the message from demonstrators was heard not as a wake-up call or assembly cry, but as a challenge to a way of life .
In Bethel, peaceful demonstrators were viewed by some as no less than looters and rioters. They represented chaos, other people's problems from other places.
Demonstrators are calling for police reform, rejecting racism and criticizing President Donald Trump. Many from Bethel support the police, say that racism is not a problem here and raise “Trump 2020” flags in their front gardens.
"We just want it to stop," said Brad McCall, a carpenter and long-time resident who joined counter-protesters. “We have a peaceful city. We don't want our city to be destroyed. "
As it turned out, there were no busloads of demonstrators, no outside invasion. Police estimate that 80 to 100 people came to support Black Lives Matter, including the organizer, a 36-year-old replacement teacher from Bethel who makes handicrafts.
They were hit by the much larger crowd that Henson had seen from their porch. Hundreds of them, protestors and curious city dwellers, many with motorcycles and weapons.
Some shouted at the demonstrators to go, blocked their way as they marched, and pushed and pushed them to the ground. A man with a Confederate flag on his face tore open one of the protesters' signs as the crowd cheered.
"I felt like we were running a gantlet," said Lois Dennis, 63, who attended the demonstration with her daughter.
Counter-protesters watch a Black Lives Matter march as the curfew approaches June 15 in Bethel, Ohio. The protesters took to the streets after the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a white cop knelt on the back of his neck and ignored Floyd's requests that he be unable to breathe.
The images of the confrontation have gone viral on social media, also because few have seen anything like this since protests against Minneapolis' police murder of George Floyd began almost a month ago.
Suddenly, tiny Bethel was another act in an unfolding national drama. Critics called the city a racist backlog. Supporters praised the residents for defending themselves against ignorant demonstrators. The townspeople were largely overwhelmed by all the attention.
Previously, Bethel, about 30 miles east of Cincinnati, was primarily known as the home of Ulysses S. Grant's father, although the Union's 18th president and commander lived only a short time during the civil war. Bethel was also a stop on the subway, a piece of history that some demonstrators said was a logical choice for a Black Lives Matter rally.
The story didn't matter much last weekend. Counter-protesters said they did not understand why someone in a small town like this would want to protest the police brutality against African Americans.
According to the US census, Bethel is 97% white and almost 0.5% of the population identify themselves as black.
"Why bring it to Bethel?" McCall said. "Why not go to Chicago? See how many black people are killed in Chicago. Black people are not killed in Bethel. "
"You don't want change"
Sharon Middleton was listening on Tuesday afternoon when McCall had been speaking in a parking lot near the site of the protests in the past few days. Middleton was born and raised in Bethel and still lives in the house she grew up in.
She said the demonstrations were a mistake, but not for the same reason that McCall did so.
"It is not a tolerant community," she said.
Middleton, who is white, has been living with Jon Richardson, an African American, for years. She said most people don't give her problems, but some, including her mother, who hasn't spoken to her in months.
When she read about the protest against Black Lives Matter on Facebook, Middleton found that the protest organizers did not know their city as well as they did. "You were naive," she said. "They think they can make their Black Lives Matter mark and change people's minds."
Richardson said he went to protest and took some photos, but said he would not wear a sign. Since only a handful of the protesters were colored people, Richardson said, he would have noticed and been an easy target if things had gotten ugly.
"I live here," he said.
Counter-protesters confront protesters on June 15 in Bethel, Ohio.
Richardson said he saw neighbors at the protest who never carried weapons they were carrying for the first time. "Much of it is stupidity," he said.
For Middleton, arms and anger are all about fear of change. She said Bethel hadn't changed much in her life and that's fine for most of his residents. "You don't want a change," she said.
Richardson put his arm around Middleton and kissed her cheek.
"People are just people," she said. "He only has a little more melanin in his skin."
"A sad day for Bethel"
Chris Karnes did not live in Bethel as long as Middleton, but he said he was more hopeful that the city's residents could find common ground.
He moved here about 10 years ago with his wife, a native, and he likes the place. He said his neighbors were friendly, even if they didn't share his more liberal policies. "It's Trump Land," he said on Tuesday. "You have to learn to deal with the differences between people."
Karnes was not encouraged by the response to the protests. He saw people he knew, some better than others, who insulted and tried to intimidate demonstrators. He saw blows on a man with only a shield.
"You live in a small community like this, you get to know a lot of people," he said. "I don't know. It was a sad day for Bethel."
Wayne Sulken and Chris Karnes, both Bethel residents, shake hands after a discussion in the Bethel Municipal Building parking lot on Tuesday, June 16.
As he spoke, Wayne Sulken, who has lived in Bethel for almost 30 years, parked his pickup and got out. He listened to Karnes for a few minutes before speaking.
"I know it was getting ugly," he said. "But there were thugs on both sides."
Sulken said he went to the protests Sunday and Monday and brought his pistol with him on Monday so as not to cause problems but to keep the peace. He said that was why most of the residents showed up: they had heard that outsiders would come to shake things up.
"We didn't know what would happen," said Sulken. "Are our houses burned down? Are our businesses looted? We heard the rumors that they would invite them. "
Sulken told Karnes that he believed outsiders were behind the protests, namely Antifa, a loose anti-fascist group that Trump blamed for protests and riots. Whoever was behind it, said Sulken, the Bethel residents didn't want any part of it.
Karnes and Sulken were on opposite sides of the protest, but they agreed on a Tuesday afternoon deal. Type of.
"The worst is the impression the world has of Bethel," said Karnes. "I would say it was the acts of some violent people."
"On both sides," said Sulken.
"Ahhhhh," Karnes said, shaking her head. "I thought you could say that."
Before they parted, the two men shook hands. Karnes went to his house a few blocks away and Sulken got back into his pickup truck.
Hope for more conversations, less trouble
As the evening approached Tuesday, Bethel Police Chief Steve Teague responded to a noise complaint about a man using a megaphone opposite the Grant Memorial building, where protesters had gathered earlier.
He found an African American shouting "Black Lives Matter" on the sidewalk. He told him about the complaint and asked him to stop.
Then the two sat down on the stairs with a few other Bethel residents and talked about what was going on.
"Everyone was respectful," said Teague. "We welcome them all as long as they are peaceful."
"We'll welcome them all as long as they're peaceful," said Steve Teague, Bethel, Ohio chief of police.
He said most were. Despite the images being shared on social media, most of the interactions were non-violent and few counter-protesters were brought into contact with demonstrators.
Teague, a former engine designer at GE, has been the boss in Bethel for a year. The last few days are different from everything he has to do at work, and he knows that it doesn't look good for the city he's been in for six years.
He received emails and texts from people he had never met from across the country and said, "I can't believe your city is racist."
"These people have a 15 second clip and they judge our entire city," said Teague. "It's just not right."
Donna Henson was back on her porch a few blocks away, watching the evening fall on an empty Union Street. It was a nice afternoon again.
She was sitting next to her boyfriend Mike Luck, surrounded by flower boxes and an American flag waving in the wind. Her dog, a Pekingese named Goldie, roamed the porch.
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Henson said she watched the protests on TV for weeks and had difficulty understanding why everyone was so upset for so long. She has lived in Clermont County all her life, and so far the protests and riots seemed to be far away, like someone else's problem.
"I've never been with blacks," she said. "I just wish everyone could get along."
She said she was horrified by the video of George Floyd's death, but she wants the protests to end. She wants her city to be back to normal, as it always was.
Featuring: Erin Glynn and Cameron Knight
Follow the reporter Dan Horn on Twitter: @danhornnews
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Bethel, Ohio Protests: Black Lives Matter meets small town America
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