BETHEL, Ohio – Donna Henson sat on her front porch this 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 in Bethel, Ohio. Word was hundreds could be arriving 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 protests and unrest they’d seen on TV for weeks on far off American streets could come here, 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 much 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 than looters and rioters. They represented chaos, the problems of other people from other places.
While the protesters called for police reform, complained about racism and criticized 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, no invasion by outsiders. Police estimated between 80 and 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, however, 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 gauntlet,” said Lois Dennis, 63, who attended the demonstration with her daughter.
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. Fans 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 only lived here a short time. It also was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, a bit of history some protesters thought made it a logical choice for a Black Lives Matter rally.
History didn’t matter much this weekend, though. Counterprotesters complained often that 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 just under 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.”
Fear and resistance to 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, went to high school here and still lives in the house she grew up in.
She thought 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 local 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.
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.
Minutes later, Richardson walked over to Middleton, put his arm around her and gave her a kiss on the 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 for as long as Middleton, but he said he’s more hopeful the town’s residents can find some 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.”
But 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.”
As he spoke, Wayne Sulken, who’s lived in Bethel for almost 30 years, parked his pickup truck 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 protest on Sunday and Monday, bringing his pistol on 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 town 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, the loose-knit anti-fascist group Trump has blamed, with little evidence, 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’s police chief, Steve Teague, responded to a noise complaint about a man with a bullhorn across the street from the Grant Memorial building on Plane Street, 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 in town.
“Everybody was respectful,” Teague said. “We welcome all of them, as long as they’re peaceful.”
And he said most have been. Despite the images circulating on social media, Teague said, most interactions were non-violent and only a few counterprotesters got physical with demonstrators.
Teague, a former jet engine designer at GE who changed careers, 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’s been getting emails and texts from people he’s never met from all over the country, saying things like, “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, this time watching evening fall on an empty Union Street. It was another beautiful afternoon and she was hopeful it would be a quiet one.
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.
Henson said she’s been watching the protests on TV for weeks and struggles sometimes 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 have 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 being choked to 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.
Erin Glynn and Cameron Knight contributed to this report
Follow reporter Dan Horn on Twitter: @danhornnews