What happened when Black Lives Matter protests came to small town Ohio


BETHEL, Ohio – Donna Henson sat on her front porch last weekend, as she always does when the weather is nice, and watched dozens of her neighbors walk by with bats in their hands or guns strapped to their sides.

They were married couples, friends and relatives, young people and old. All heading up Union Street, toward the center of town.

Henson, 78, figured they’d heard the same rumors she had, the ones about busloads of people coming to her town to join small Black Lives Matter protests on Sunday and Monday. Word was hundreds could arrive from Cincinnati or Columbus or Detroit.

Henson was afraid, and she guessed her neighbors were, too. If they didn’t do something, if they didn’t show up armed and ready, the unrest they’d seen on TV for weeks on far off American streets could come to Bethel, a village of 2,800.

“Everybody had a gun,” Henson said Tuesday, recalling the scene. “Like a cowboy show.”

A movement that had swept into many of the nation’s big cities was about to reach a small town, a rural enclave where the message from demonstrators would be heard not as a wake-up call or a rallying cry but as a challenge to a way of life.

In Bethel, peaceful protesters would be seen by some as no different from looters and rioters. They represented chaos, the problems of other people from other places.

The protesters call for police reform, decry racism and criticize President Donald Trump. Many from Bethel support the police, say racism isn’t a problem here and fly “Trump 2020” flags in their front yards.

“We just want it to stop,” said Brad McCall, a carpenter and longtime resident who joined counterprotesters. “We got a peaceful town. We don’t want our town destroyed.”

As it turned out, there were no busloads of protesters, there was no invasion by outsiders. Police estimated 80 to 100 people showed up to support Black Lives Matter, including the organizer, a 36-year-old substitute teacher from Bethel who makes arts and crafts.

They were met by the much larger crowd Henson had seen from her front porch. Hundreds of them, counterprotesters and curious townspeople, many on motorcycles and brandishing weapons.

Some yelled at the protesters to leave, blocked their way when they were marching and pushed and shoved them to the ground. A man with a Confederate flag covering his face ripped up one of the protesters’ signs while the crowd cheered.

“I felt like we were walking a gantlet,” said Lois Dennis, 63, who attended the demonstration with her daughter.

Counterprotesters watch a Black Lives Matter march as curfew approaches June 15 in Bethel, Ohio. Protesters took to the streets after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 in Minneapolis after a white police officer kneeled on his neck, ignoring Floyd's pleas that he could not breathe.
Counterprotesters watch a Black Lives Matter march as curfew approaches June 15 in Bethel, Ohio. Protesters took to the streets after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 in Minneapolis after a white police officer kneeled on his neck, ignoring Floyd’s pleas that he could not breathe.

Images of the confrontation went viral on social media, in part because few had seen anything quite like it since the protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis began almost a month ago.

Suddenly, tiny Bethel was another act in an unfolding national drama. Critics called the town a racist backwater. Supporters praised residents for standing up to ignorant protesters. Townspeople, for the most part, were stunned by all the attention.

Before this, Bethel, about 30 miles east of Cincinnati, was known mostly as the home of Ulysses S. Grant’s father, though the nation’s 18th president and commander of Union forces during the Civil War lived here only a short time. Bethel also was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a bit of history some protesters said made it a logical choice for a Black Lives Matter rally.

History didn’t matter much last weekend. Counterprotesters said they didn’t understand why anyone would want to protest police brutality against African Americans in a small town like this one.

Bethel is 97% white, according to the U.S. Census, and almost 0.5% of the population identifies as Black.

“Why bring it to Bethel?” McCall said. “Why not go to Chicago? Look how many Black people are getting killed in Chicago. Black people are not getting killed in Bethel.”

‘They don’t want change’

Sharon Middleton listened Tuesday afternoon as McCall spoke in a parking lot not far from the site of the protests the previous 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 McCall did.

“It’s not a tolerant community,” she said.

Middleton, who is white, has been living for years with Jon Richardson, an African American man. She said most people don’t give her trouble about it, but some do, including her mother, who hasn’t spoken to her in months.

When she read about the Black Lives Matter protest on Facebook, Middleton figured the protest organizers didn’t know her town as well as she did. “They were naïve,” she said. “They think they can put their Black Lives Matter signs up and change people’s minds.”

Richardson said he went to the protest and took some photos, but he said he wasn’t going to carry a sign. Since only a handful of the protesters were people of color, Richardson said, he would’ve stood out and been an easy target if things got ugly.

“I live here,” he said.

Counterprotesters confront demonstrators June 15 in Bethel, Ohio.
Counterprotesters confront demonstrators June 15 in Bethel, Ohio.

Richardson said he saw neighbors who never carry guns carrying them for the first time at the protest. “A lot of it is foolishness,” he said.

For Middleton, the guns and the anger are all about the fear of change. She said Bethel hasn’t changed much in her lifetime and that’s fine with most of its residents. “They don’t want change,” she said.

Richardson put his arm around Middleton and kissed her cheek.

“People are just people,” she said. “He just has a little more melanin in his skin.”

‘A sad day for Bethel’

Chris Karnes hasn’t lived in Bethel as long as Middleton, but he said he’s more hopeful the town’s residents can find common ground.

He moved here with his wife, a native, about 10 years ago, and he likes the place. He said his neighbors are friendly, even if they don’t share his more liberal politics. “It’s Trump country,” he said Tuesday. “You have to learn to live with people’s differences.”

Karnes wasn’t encouraged by the response to the protests. He saw people he knew, some better than others, swearing at protesters and trying to intimidate them. He saw punches thrown at a man who did nothing but carry a sign.

“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 having a discussion in the parking lot of the Bethel Municipal Building on Tuesday, June 16.
Wayne Sulken and Chris Karnes, both Bethel residents, shake hands after having a discussion in the parking lot of the Bethel Municipal Building on Tuesday, June 16.

As he spoke, Wayne Sulken, who’s 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 got ugly,” he said. “But there were thugs on both sides.”

Sulken said he went to the protests Sunday and Monday, bringing his pistol Monday, not to cause trouble but to keep the peace. He said that’s why most residents showed up: They had heard outsiders were coming to stir things up.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Sulken said. “Are our homes going to get burned down? Are our stores going to get looted? We heard the rumors they were going to bus them in.

Sulken told Karnes he thought outsiders were behind the protests, namely antifa, a loose-knit anti-fascist group Trump has blamed for protests and unrest. Whoever was behind it, Sulken said, Bethel residents didn’t want any part of it.

Karnes and Sulken were on opposite sides of the protest, but they agreed on one thing Tuesday afternoon. Sort of.

“The worst thing is the impression the world is getting from Bethel,” Karnes said. “I’d say it was the actions of a few violent individuals.”

“On both sides,” Sulken said.

“Ahhhhh,” Karnes said, shaking his head. “I thought you might say that.”

Before parting ways, the two men shook hands. Karnes walked toward his home a few blocks away and Sulken climbed back into his pickup.

Hope for more conversations, less anger

As evening approached Tuesday, Bethel Police Chief Steve Teague responded to a noise complaint about a man with a bullhorn across the street from the Grant Memorial building, where protesters had gathered on previous days.

He found an African American man 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 steps with a few other Bethel residents and talked about what was happening.

“Everybody was respectful,” Teague said. “We welcome all of them, as long as they’re peaceful.”

“We welcome all of them, as long as they’re peaceful,” says Steve Teague, police chief of Bethel, Ohio.
“We welcome all of them, as long as they’re peaceful,” says Steve Teague, police chief of Bethel, Ohio.

He said most have been. Despite the images circulating on social media, Teague said, most interactions were nonviolent and only a few counterprotesters got physical with demonstrators.

Teague, a former jet engine designer at GE, has been chief in Bethel for a year. The past few days are unlike anything he’s faced on the job, and he knows it doesn’t look good for the town he’s called home for the past six years.

He got emails and texts from people he’s never met from all over the country, saying, “I can’t believe your town is racist.”

“Those people have a 15-second clip, and they’re judging our entire town,” Teague said. “That’s just not right.”

A few blocks away, Donna Henson was on her front porch again, watching evening fall on an empty Union Street. It was another beautiful afternoon.

She sat next to her boyfriend, Mike Luck, surrounded by flower boxes and an American flag flapping in the breeze. Her dog, a Pekingese named Goldie, roamed the porch.

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Henson said she’s watched the protests on TV for weeks and struggles to understand why everyone has been so upset for so long. She’s lived in Clermont County her whole life and, until now, the protests and unrest had seemed distant, like someone else’s problem.

“I’ve never been around Black people,” she said. “I just wish everybody could get along.”

She said she was appalled by the video of George Floyd’s death, but she wants the protests to end. She wants her town to get back to normal, back to the way it’s always been.

Contributing: Erin Glynn and Cameron Knight 

Follow 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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