Illustration: Paul Hoppe

Our Little Town of Bethel

A Black Lives Matter confrontation pitted neighbor against neighbor — and displayed the raw power of a social media flash mob

Steven “The Worldwalker” Newman found himself in some unnerving situations while circumnavigating the globe on foot as a young vagabond and writer. On a journey that began on April 1, 1983 — because people said he was a fool to do it — and ended on the same day four years later, he saw British troops patrolling the streets of Belfast in armored vehicles, narrowly escaped a robbery by machete-wielding bandits in Thailand, and was arrested and beaten by Turkish police as he made his way toward the Iranian border.

But none of this shook his faith in humanity like the sight he witnessed recently in the small hamlet of Bethel, Ohio — the town where he’d spent his formative years. It was from Bethel that he’d set off on his adventure, and it was Bethel that greeted him with a hero’s welcome on his return. The town had thrown a parade in his honor, and to this day visitors are greeted by six-foot-tall engraved wooden signs proclaiming the rural burg the “Home of the Worldwalker.”

Last month, Bethel acquired another, less illustrious claim to fame when it became the site of a violent political clash that made national news. On June 14, a modest event intended to “honor Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the many others who have lost their lives due to systematic oppression and racism” turned into an ugly spectacle of bigotry, generating a cavalcade of stomach-turning viral videos and headlines casting Bethel as a modern exemplar of the racist hostility of the nation’s rural white working class.

Alicia Gee, the 36-year-old substitute teacher who organized the demonstration, is white, as are 97.3% of Bethel’s residents, according to the most recent census (Blacks made up just 0.4% of the population). But as James Baldwin famously put it, America’s racial sickness is “not the Negro problem, it’s the white problem.” Gee had never heard the Baldwin quote, but she’d embraced its spirit nonetheless — recognizing a truth that has only recently become evident to so many white Americans just like her: Assigning the task of confronting racism to those most victimized by it heaps insult onto injury. If America was ever going to heal, white people would need to step up. In the three weeks since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, Gee had seen other mostly white towns in her corner of Appalachia show their support for the BLM movement. Why not Bethel?

As much as Bethelites tend to express affection for their town, they seem to view the place through two distinct sets of lenses. Some see it as an agreeable refuge; other as an imperiled redoubt.

The vision, hatched by Gee and her colleagues in a local art collective, was as restrained and nonconfrontational as a rally could be. They planned to stand on the sidewalk of a downtown block, hold hand-lettered signs for no more than an hour, and go home. They wouldn’t disrupt traffic or get in people’s faces. They wouldn’t make it about themselves; as allies, they’d stand in “solidarity.” They’d be thoughtful and polite. They’d bring masks and bottled water for anyone who came without. They might try out a few chants, but nothing inflammatory (“No justice, no peace,” for instance, was deemed too bellicose by the group; “say his/her name” seemed reasonable). Gee even reached out to the police department in advance to outline the group’s intentions and arrived early to mark out six-foot intervals with chalk for social distancing.

She needn’t have bothered. An hour or so before the appointed 3 p.m. start time, Gee began getting reports that an armada of custom Harleys had been rumbling into town and now lined the rally site in front of the Grant Memorial Building. The bikes belonged to members of so-called “one percenter” motorcycle clubs based in the area, including Iron Horsemen, MFMGs, Lords of Chaos, and Aeolus, many toting weapons and looking eager to throw down.

Gee made a quick pivot, moving the protest two blocks down Plane Street, and began frantically texting and messaging everyone she knew about the change. Then she took her spot among her fellow protesters, who would eventually number about 75, and held up her sign. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” it read. “Ensure justice for those being crushed. — Proverbs 31:8”

The Village of Bethel is a dot on the Ohio map, home to just 2,700 people at last count, although the surrounding township comprises 13,000. The town was originally founded by an abolitionist, Obed Denham, and residents aided escaping slaves who managed to cross the Ohio River. Ulysses S. Grant lived in the town for a summer, before going on to command the Union Army. Many of June 14th’s altercations took place in front of the stately Grant Memorial Building, which houses the Bethel Museum, administered by the Bethel Historical Society, and is named in Grant’s honor. These days, the area’s politics are solidly conservative. More than 68% of surrounding Clermont County voted for Trump in 2016, and in 2018, Republicans drew more than twice as many votes as Democrats in statewide races.

As much as Bethelites tend to express affection for their town, they seem to view the place through two distinct sets of lenses. Some see it as an agreeable refuge; other as an imperiled redoubt.

If Gee and Newman, who now lives about an hour away, represent the former, Lonnie Meade, a 42-year-old flooring installer and drag racer, falls squarely into the latter camp. Within minutes of hearing about the proposed demonstration, Meade stepped into his backyard, flipped on his smartphone camera and delivered an impassioned social media call to arms. “They’re supposed to be bringing Black Lives Matter and some anti-police group to Bethel, and they’re going to line the street with their signs and do whatever they’re going to do,” he reported. “I hope we outnumber those people a thousand to one and not let that shit happen here in our little town of Bethel.”

Seeming to misconstrue the demonstration as an attack on Bethel itself, he went on: “There’s no way this town is full of hate or has a bad cop problem.” A Black family lived within half a mile of his home, he added. “They walk their dog, they ride their bikes. Nobody messes with them, we wave to each other.” Meade’s nostrils flared a bit as he added sternly, “There’s no hate out here.”

Meade’s video was widely shared, and soon local Facebook groups were filled with fevered imaginings about an invading antifa horde. Similar fantasies about “busloads” of rioters have swept through a number of localities in recent weeks, from Philadelphia to Sioux Falls. Some appear to have been intentional hoaxes, while others seemingly spring from free-floating anxiety, a cocktail of coronavirus, economic devastation, and political dysfunction, not to mention the long-standing racial tensions regularly stoked by the President, and of course a splash of Facebook.

Steven Newman, now 66, heard the rumors — it seemed like everyone heard the rumors — and he admits they gave him pause. Cable news had been filled with images of burning buildings and looted stores around the country. Back in the early ’70s, he’d covered riots in Cincinnati and Athens, Ohio, as a young reporter, and he knew anything could happen. Bethel didn’t seem a likely flashpoint, but if mayhem broke out, Newman thought, the Bethel Museum would seem “an obvious target for anyone who’s intent on bringing down the establishment.”

For Newman, the worry was personal: Among the museum’s holdings, in addition to some pioneer tools, a buckboard wagon, items salvaged from the shoe factory that once fueled the town’s economy, and a collection of military artifacts, visitors can peruse a display devoted to the Worldwalker’s backpacks and notebooks. “Those are irreplaceable,” he says.

The bikes belonged to members of so-called “one percenter” motorcycle clubs based in the area, many toting weapons and looking eager to throw down.

Newman serves on the board of the museum, and he was relieved to hear that several of his colleagues had pledged to protect the town’s patrimony, by force if necessary. But when he headed to Bethel on Sunday afternoon to check things out, he went not as a partisan but as an observer. “My old reporting instincts kicked in,” he says.

What he saw on June 14 shook his conception of Bethel. “It was very, very disheartening and saddening to me to see this peaceful little village occupied by bikers carrying weapons,” he says. There were baseball bats, chains, and brass knuckles, as well as knives and AR-15s. Some guys had multiple magazines at the ready, as if preparing for a lengthy engagement. Newman approached one of the counterprotesters, a man carrying a three-foot metal spike, and asked if he was prepared to use it. The man responded affirmatively. “I felt disgusted that we had reached the point in our history where people would have no compunction about hurting or killing or maiming one of their fellow countrymen,” Newman says.

Though he’s well over six feet tall, Newman is an unthreatening presence — it’s a skill you pick up traveling the world alone. During the protest, he remained unobtrusive. “I listened. I watched. I didn’t yell out or criticize anyone,” he says. “And I saw people whom I knew from the village shouting out some of the most vile, racist things that could come out of a person’s mouth, and that broke my heart.” (Among other things, he says, he heard the n-word employed a dozen times, sometimes directed at the only two Black demonstrators he encountered that day.)

The experience brought back “painful memories,” he says, “feelings I hadn’t had in awhile.” At one point, when Newman was passing through Eastern Turkey on his way to Iran — a country he was determined to visit despite the anti-American fervor of the Khomeini era — he was accused of being a spy, not to mention a Jew. “I can remember the people lined up along the street, yelling ‘Yahudi! Yahudi!’” he says. “And I’m not Jewish, but I remember the hatred, the venom in peoples’ voices. Little kids would come up and kick me; people threw rocks at me. That was something I would never have expected to see back in my hometown, but there were shadows of that — the same emotions, the same ignorance, the same bigotry.”

At one point on that Sunday afternoon, he saw a young mother among the BLM supporters accompanied by her two grade-school age daughters who were holding up hand-drawn signs. “I remember some of the older people, people I knew, yelling at the mother, screaming, saying, ‘How dare you bring your children to something like this?’ just cursing her. The little girls were cowering there so lost and confused, and they looked like they were about to cry.” This was the moment Newman put aside his objectivity. “I got down on my knee and looked at them and held their hands and said, ‘Don’t let the shouting scare you.’ I said, ‘What you’re doing is right. Keep doing what you’re doing.’”

For the most part, Gee and her fellow BLM demonstrators spent the hour unmolested at their new location in front of the Community Christian Church, right across from the gun shop, Gunslingers Outpost. But not everyone had gotten word about the change of venue, and the little girls Newman saw weren’t the only demonstrators who found themselves surrounded by hostile crowds of bikers and sneering townspeople. After one young woman was assaulted by a mob, her sign torn to pieces and thrown in the street, she came back minutes later and kept marching. A man stood placidly as a counterprotester, wearing what looked like a Confederate flag do-rag, sucker-punched him hard in the back of the head right in front of a police sergeant. (The video, which was condemned by Sen. Sherrod Brown, appears to back up the officer’s explanation that he’d glanced away at the moment the punch was thrown; a warrant has been issued for the perpetrator’s arrest.) One woman seemed to relish the opportunity to toss the n-word at a person of color. A group of men blocked a mother and daughter from a patch of sidewalk while another cop stood idly by and Hank Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” blared from a nearby speaker. Another group was viciously attacked. A man reported being viciously beaten by four assailants. And with just 10 minutes to go before Gee had planned to pack it in, she too was physically confronted by counterprotesters, her sign ripped from her hands.

“Those are Jesus’ words!” she found herself yelling, despite knowing from years of Bible study that Proverbs is in the Hebrew Bible and long predates Jesus. “It was all I could think of to say.”

There seemed to be a pattern to the assaults. “They preyed on the weak,” notes Ryan Malott, lead singer for the band 500 Miles to Memphis. A Bethel native who now lives in Kentucky, he showed up to offer his support. “I’m six foot, and no one messed with me or any of my guy friends that were bigger,” he says. “The people I watched get their asses beat were small dudes and teenage girls.”

As the demonstration and counterprotest roiled the town, Lonnie Meade strolled up and down Plane Street with his phone out, offering his spin on Facebook Live. He wore a backwards baseball cap and had an American flag on a pole balanced on his shoulder. His wide, round face, accented with an Honest Abe beard, filled the frame, and his eyes, when he removed his mirrored glasses, had a gleeful sparkle. Every couple of yards, well-wishers approached to report having seen his original video and to offer their sincere gratitude for “doing what you’re doing” and “spreading the word.”

“Are you the one I saw the video on?” an older woman asked him. “I liked it and commented on it!”

“Thanks for representin’, brother,” a guy told him. “’Preciate your support,” Meade replied.

As for the chaos, Meade pinned it exclusively on the demonstrators. “All the violence has come from the left and the Black Lives Matter group,” he said. “Don’t let anybody lie to you about who was causing the violence today. … I’m sure they’re going to try and twist it.” At one point, he claimed, “Some antifa dude punched a woman in the face, and these guys absolutely beat this guy up!” Someone asked if he got the alleged incident on video. “I wasn’t live for that,” he replied. “And I’m kind of glad I wasn’t, because that’s not what we’re here for today.”

Newman approached one of the counterprotesters, a man carrying a three-foot metal spike, and asked if he was prepared to use it. The man responded affirmatively.

It’s hard to tell, watching the videos, if Meade really believes any of what he’s saying or if he just wishes it were true. Nobody I spoke to claimed an allegiance with antifa, although most would no doubt oppose fascism. In hours of video later posted on social media — by protesters as well as counterprotesters — I saw no evidence of rioters bussed into town from outside. But some of the 700 or so counterprotesters who showed up in defense of Bethel did seem to sincerely believe busloads of violent protesters had amassed outside the town limits. “I don’t know what they’re thinking… ” one counterprotester muttered of the would-be enemy in a conversation captured by Meade’s phone. As he struggled to wrap his head around the diabolical cunning of the mythical antifa, the man sounded positively dumbfounded. “They’re sending their girls. The guys ain’t even coming down here. They’re sending their girls!”

I reached out to Meade at the Facebook page for his flooring company, and after a brief exchange, he declined to be interviewed or to provide any evidence for his claims about violent Black Lives Matter protesters or antifa. “Everything I say gets twisted,” he explained.

Following the rally, Meade again took to Facebook Live for a victory lap. “I’m literally just a country boy that’s proud of his hometown,” he said, “and so many people responded to my video that it warms a guy’s heart.”

Declaring it “a great day to be an American,” he explained that even though he believes “in my heart that every American has a right to protest,” there are limits. “Once you start labeling yourself as antifa and Black Lives Matter … we don’t view you as Americans. That’s the bottom line, that’s the hardcore truth. We view you as domestic terrorists.” The President, he pointed out, said so himself.

On Monday, Bethel was again on high alert. Despite the ample video evidence that the previous day’s mayhem was overwhelmingly attributable to the biker gangs who’d showed up to “defend” the town, many residents once again convinced themselves a leftist invasion was at hand. Alicia Gee spent the morning on social media begging BLM supporters to steer clear of Bethel for their own safety. Nonetheless, an email blast sent to local business owners by Mike Salvatore, a firearms safety instructor, proprietor of the Gunslingers Outpost, and retired sergeant with the Los Angeles Co. Sheriff’s Department, warned: “UNCONFIRMED SOURCES INDICATED SEVERAL BUS LOADS OF PROTESTORS ARE IN ROUTE NOW TO BETHEL FROM COLUMBUS TO DEMONSTRATE!”

Although that alert, too, proved to be overblown, demonstrators, counterprotesters and townspeople once again filled Plane Street on Monday afternoon, though in considerably fewer numbers. And in addition to several more altercations, there were some tentative attempts at dialogue.

While an onlooker captured the exchange on video, Brandon Grant, a high school basketball coach in nearby Felicity, tried his best to speak honestly about his experience as a Black man with whomever happened by. Careful to appear unthreatening, his shoulders raised and palms facing up in a sustained shrug, he established his bona fides as a lifelong resident of southwest Ohio, explained why Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem, and talked about what it feels like for a Black man to be pulled over by police.

“We don’t view you as Americans. That’s the bottom line, that’s the hardcore truth. We view you as domestic terrorists.”

Though the conversation grew uncomfortable at times, Grant felt he had no choice. “It was like, ‘Okay, there’s people who are non-Black that’s fighting for our cause, and being in this area, I knew I had to go up there,” he explains.

In the days and weeks that followed, Bethelites continued trying to process what had happened. At least one counterprotester, a middle school social studies teacher, was under investigation after she was heard using a racial slur. Fencing went up along both sides of Plane Street, presumably to protect the neighborhood businesses from the same antifa rioters who had failed to materialize on Sunday and Monday. Despite all the warnings, it seemed, members of the mysterious group had never really shown the slightest interest in Bethel, Ohio. Some residents even seemed irked by this fact — and frustrated by the lack of intensity on the other side: “Peaceful protest?” a man said, with evident outrage on a Monday livestream. “I’m sick of losing my country one peaceful protest at a time.”

On Tuesday, a Bob Evans server named Rachel Lamb launched a Facebook event designed to foster more conversation about race among the town’s residents. “Rural America needs some healing,” she wrote. “We need to talk to each other.” A few dozen people showed up, all of them BLM supporters, and more events are planned.

The police department fielded some angry calls from people who’d seen the videos and wondered why they hadn’t intervened more forcefully to protect a peaceful demonstration. At a meeting of the town safety committee held a few weeks later, the chief of police announced that his department had eventually made seven or eight arrests. His officers, he assured the board, were all in good spirits, although one had temporarily relocated due to “trolls” posting his home address. The chief also reported that he’d let the six-person department know that psychological counseling was available should they need it.

Alicia Gee and her friends in the art collective have been talking about how to follow up the June rally. They’re determined to keep up the fight but haven’t settled on the best approach. “One of the things that is holding us back is figuring out how, whatever we plan next, what can we do to make sure we stay safe, and keep whoever’s coming to join us safe?” (Last week, a threat made by a purported Klan member forced the cancellation of a BLM parade in nearby Yellow Springs.)

Lonnie Meade deleted his Facebook videos and seems to be laying low for the time being. One local source said he’d heard some of the bikers were pissed at Meade, annoyed they’d come all the way out to Bethel spoiling for a fight, only to be greeted by some kids holding signs. But another source cast doubt on the rumor, on the theory that bikers are always happy to take a ride, especially on a nice day.

As for Steven Newman, he was still processing things, trying to figure out how to square what he’d seen in June with the experiences he’d had during his four-year walkabout. “When I went on that trip, I made a pact with myself to trust everybody,” he recalls. “I tried not to have preconceptions about people or to look down on anybody, and it worked out great.” Almost everywhere he went, with the exception of that one Turkish village, strangers rolled out the red carpet. More than 400 families invited him to stay in their homes. At remote villages in India, he found himself surrounded by as many as a thousand people. “Everyone wanted to take me home, feed me, wash my clothes, introduce me to uncles, aunts, school teachers. Children would be pulling the hairs on my arms and legs for souvenirs. It was phenomenal.”

Of course, he knows now that white privilege played a role in that. “Honestly, my being six-foot-three and having golden red hair and blue eyes and extremely white skin was a huge advantage,” he admits.

Despite the chaos he witnessed last month, the Worldwalker still credits Bethel, Ohio, with giving him the confidence to do what he did. “You can’t really set out to walk around the world all alone, especially in a very violent, troubled world full of disasters and wars and physical violence, unless you have a certain degree of trust. Bethel gave me that. It was a very peaceful, very safe, very gentle sort of community to grow up in. It had a lot of goodness to give to me as I was growing up.

“It’s not a bad, backwards, evil place,” he adds. “It’s really not.”

Medium editor-at-large, with bylines in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times and numerous other publications. ¶ aarongell.com

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