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.”
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.”
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.
— USA today