A small and peaceful demonstration in an Ohio town to support the Black Lives Matter movement at the weekend was overwhelmed when hundreds of counter-protesters – some armed with rifles or baseball bats – harassed the group.
Alicia Gee, a 36-year-old substitute school teacher, expected about 50 people to attend a demonstration – the first protest she had ever organized, she told the Cincinnati Enquirer – but almost twice as many turned out.
The rally was intended to show solidarity with the minority black community in Bethel, a mostly white town of about 2,800 people 30 miles east of Cincinnati, she added.
But the small group of protesters were overwhelmed when roughly 700 counter-protesters turned up to show their opposition to the kind of rallies and marches against racism and police brutality sweeping the nation since the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in May.
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Gee’s gathering demonstrated the renewed reach of the Black Lives Matter movement to small, majority white towns in the midwest that haven’t seen protests in years, spurred by recent, high-profile examples of killings of black people by white police officers or armed individuals acting as vigilantes.
Some small towns holding rallies now did not see such events after the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Gee referenced violent tragedies such as the alleged murder of Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the shooting death of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police, and the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by two armed white men in Georgia.
She said in a Facebook post before the rally that such brutality made it “perfectly clear to me it’s time for my comfort to be put by the wayside. It is time for me to use my body, my voice, and my privl
She said in a Facebook post that such brutality made it “perfectly clear to me it’s time for my comfort to be put by the wayside, it is time for me to use my body, my voice, and my privilege to show my town that it is not ‘fine,’ that it’s not just ‘city folks’ that have the right to peacefully assemble, and that Black Lives Matter even if there are just a few in our town.”
But the demonstration was engulfed by a combination of armed gun-rights defenders, “back the blue” pro-police groups and about 250 people on motorcycles, which forced the group to move two blocks from its original location and led to tumult.
Videos from what turned into a two-hour clash, several of which circulated on Twitter and Facebook, show the counter-protesters shouting racial slurs and “all lives matter” and accosting demonstrators.
“They were grabbing me, and grabbing my mom, and they just seemed to have no respect for the law,” Andrea Dennis, a Bethel resident whose Facebook live from the demonstration shows a man ripping a fellow demonstrator’s sign from her hands, told the Enquirer.
Bethel police said they were investigating 10 “incidents” from Sunday afternoon.
In another Facebook live video, Heather Bratton, also from Bethel, asserts “this is my hometown too!” to a white women who repeatedly uses the N-word.
A few counter-demonstrators “started coming over and ripping signs out of our hands, ripping the hats and masks off of our faces, ripping things out of our pockets,” wrote demonstrator Abbi Remers on Facebook, along with a photo of a man’s bloody cheek, a bloodied mask, and video of men shouting “This ain’t Seattle!” and “This is a Republican state!”
Another widely circulated video shows a man wearing what appears to be a Confederate flag bandana sucker-punching a protester in the back of the head in front of a police officer, who makes no arrest attempt. The video drew condemnation from Ohio senator Sherrod Brown.
“These officers’ inaction is shameful,” Brown tweeted. “This is why we need the Justice in Policing Act – to hold police accountable,” he added, referring to legislation introduced by House Democrats earlier this month.
In a virtual village council meeting on Tuesday, Bethel police chief Steve Teague said the officer present had not witnessed the incident because his attention was pulled to the side. All six of Bethel’s officers were present on Sunday, Teague said, as well as some county deputies.
On Wednesday, Bethel police issued an arrest warrant for assault, citing the video as evidence.
Because of tension and intimidation on Sunday, Gee said in a Facebook live video posted Monday that she did not plan to schedule another demonstration. “I want us to heal, I want our community to heal, I want peace and love to be spread,” she said. “And I’m worried that what we saw yesterday with more counter-protesters coming out – I’m worried that’s going to happen again.”
By Monday evening, Bethel mayor Jay Noble imposed a 9pm curfew, citing “the threat of continued and escalating violence.”
Gee urged supporters to “not come to Bethel right now”, in a chilling echo of so-called “sundown towns” – majority-white towns where black people were evicted, barred from buying property, and banned after dark by threat of violence earlier in the 20th century.
“It is not a time for any type of Black Lives Matter supporters to be in Bethel right now,” Gee said. “It’s not safe.”
“Our purpose was to show our community that it cares,” she said. “That it loves the people within our community, and right now, that cannot happen.”