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The Battle for Small-Town America

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We tend to generalize our discussions of American politics into liberal cities and conservative small towns. But of course it’s far more complicated than that. When I was spending time in small-town western Pennsylvania, almost everyone I knew was left-of-center, though you saw plenty of Confederate flags too. Even in a 75% Trump county, 1 out of every 4 people is someone who believes in peace and justice.

Thus, I can’t recommend enough this Anne Helen Petersen article at Buzzfeed on Black Lives Matter protests in Bethel, Ohio. A couple of excerpts:

On one side of the street, they saw around 50 Bethel residents — teachers, city council members, hairdressers, retirees — who’d shown up for the BLM demonstration. On the other, there were hundreds of people, including representatives from four different biker gangs, who, at the invitation of a local construction worker, had come to “protect” the town from looters and rioters and rumored antifa. Ultimately, the number of people “uptown,” as Bethel residents refer to the center of the village, swelled to over 800.

Watching footage of the day, you can see the energy grow darker and heavier. You can hear a man yell you came to the wrong fucking town,” a woman scream you’re supporting the goddamn niggers,” another man threaten to “break your fucking jaw, bitch.” You can see rifles and handguns and a literal bag full of baseball bats. You can see a woman in a pink sweatshirt repeatedly calling a Black woman the n-word. You can see people grabbing sign after sign from the pro-BLM demonstrators and ripping them to shreds. You can see a biker come up behind Nick Reardon and punch him directly in the skull. And you can see the police officers watching the encounter do nothing.

“People were screaming at us to go back where we came from,” Anwen Darcy, who attended the demonstration with her mom and sister, recalled. “But I was looking around, and I saw Mrs. Dennis, who’d been a teacher for 30 years. I saw my mom, who’d been on the PTA for years and served as the drama director. I saw the woman who ran all the prom fundraisers and a city councilman. The people yelling at us weren’t from here, because if they were, they would’ve known we were home.”

A lot of people have stories like Lois’s. Some of those stories are about how a place like Bethel, whose official slogan is “small town, big heart,” have ignored or left unexamined years of overt and covert racism. But others have different stories: of what it felt like to be the only Black person, the only Filipino family, the only mixed kid in your class. Stories of isolation, and fear, and of trying to make yourself invisible.

The people who showed up to “protect” the town say a Black Lives Matter demonstration doesn’t belong in a place like Bethel, Ohio. There’s no need, they say, for those sorts of conversations. Others blame the demonstrators for giving Bethel a bad name: for the dozens of articles in the national press, the outsiders flooding local Facebook comment sections, the Wikipedia entry for the village briefly changed to describe it as “composed of many, many racists.” After what happened on June 14, the village instituted a curfew — the first anyone in town can remember.

“I’ve known Lois Dennis and her husband my whole life,” Andrew Stober, who runs the Facebook Group “Bethel Bitching Together,” told me. “I love them and respect them. But was it really the right thing to do, bringing that protest here? It’s okay to have one of those in the city, but in a predominantly white town — what they were doing was basically doing was inviting racists in.”

If there hadn’t been a protest, the reasoning goes, there wouldn’t have been a problem, and everything in Bethel would’ve been like it always has been: just fine. But what happened on that Sunday afternoon showed just how unsustainable that belief has become.

On the bus to away football games, a former cheerleader reported, the players would talk about “beating those niggers” on the opposing team. An administrator at a local school, according to one former teacher, used to brag about going to the “race riots” in the ‘60s with baseball bats. Another teacher posted on Facebook that just this year, a white student told a student of color that “his family would have owned her,” while another raised his fist, in class, and yelled “white power!”

Guadalupe Rodriguez, who graduated from high school this spring, arrived in Bethel in third grade. “For years I would tell myself that people didn’t really do much, they just made fun of my name,” she said. “But I guess I just got used to it. Now that I’ve grown up, I realize how differently I was treated. There are so many people in the community who supported me, but then there was this whole other group of people that just didn’t think I should exist.”

The shock of these stories has faded for many white residents — or has just been ignored. They maintain that Bethel is not racist; there’s no need for any fundamental reexamination of how power and race align in a town that’s more than 96% white. “Mayhem, racism, and anger does not describe this village in any way,” Village Council member Bryan Coogan told me in an email. “I have lived all over this great country and moved to Bethel to stay away from just the sort of stuff I just described.”

As Joe Manning, a local ironworker upset by the demonstration, put it on Facebook: “There hasn’t been any trouble in this town until all this shit started. I just don’t understand why people don’t just keep to themselves.”

This is definitely a read the whole story deal. The people standing up for injustice in a town like Bethel, well, they are pretty brave, much more so than doing so in Providence or Eugene, let’s say. And there are actually kind of a lot of these brave people. Not as many as there are fascists, not by any means. But still, there are a lot.

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