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Counterprotesters in Bethel, Ohio, watch a Black Lives Matter protest.

Can the White People of Small-Town America Get Behind the Movement for Black Lives?

The George Floyd protests have spread to the heavily white areas of rural Ohio. Only time will tell whether the alliance will last.

Counterprotesters in Bethel, Ohio, watch a Black Lives Matter protest.

In rural Fairfield County, Ohio, just outside downtown Millersport, a nine-year-old boy named Elijah Monroe held up a sign on the side of the road that read, “Justice for George.” 

Millersport has a population of 1,044 people, according to Census data, and is 98 percent white. It hosts a Sweet Corn Festival every year, where tables are lined up and folks gorge on corn. The village is located on the shores of Buckeye Lake and is about five miles from the town of the same name, where the Ku Klux Klan held large summer rallies during its resurgence in the 1920s.

The sun blazed in a clear June sky. Just down the road, green wheat swayed in the hot wind. Elijah was joined by his mother, Caitlyn, and his three younger siblings, including a baby asleep and strapped to his mother’s chest. 

Elijah didn’t say much; he mostly stood there with his sign, determined. His mother said he was upset when he heard about the death of George Floyd. He wanted to join the protests. But it’s a long drive to Columbus, where all the protests were happening, with four kids. So he organized his own protest and asked his mom to post about it on Facebook. 

It was the first protest that Elijah—who loves video games and fishing—had ever organized. As a matter of fact, it was the first he had ever attended. “I want them to know I’m on their side,” he told his mother. 

Most people seemed to support him. Drivers-by honked their horns and waved. A teacher who saw his invitation even showed up and stood with him for a while. But his mother told me that, after I had left, a man slowed down and started yelling at them. He said that this sort of protest was going to get them killed.

Millersport isn’t the only place in Ohio where protests have occurred. There have been rallies, vigils, and marches in Chillicothe, Portsmouth, Mount Vernon, Newark, Marietta, Bethel, and dozens of other communities across Ohio. 

It is rare to see protests like this in rural America, especially in places with so many white faces—and all of the above towns are in counties that went for Donald Trump in 2016. But there the protesters are, lamenting the death of a man who lived far away. They are joining a movement for black lives that stretches back to Ferguson and Baltimore—to Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, and Michael Brown. Young people, especially, have grown up with social media and have watched black people dying at the hands of police officers. And they are tired of it. 

Clearly something new is afoot. In a Monmouth University poll conducted shortly after George Floyd’s death, 76 percent of respondents (and 71 percent of white respondents) said that racism and ethnic discrimination are a “big problem” in the United States, an increase of 25 percent from January 2015. An overwhelming majority said that protesters’ anger was partially or fully justified. The protests that have swept the country, particularly in large urban centers, have been emphatically multiracial. The protests in rural Ohio, in contrast, have been predominantly white, revealing the potential value of what has been called white allyship—and how far white people still have to go when it comes to racial justice.

That is not to say that the protests in rural Ohio have been monolithically white. In places like Warren, Newark, Coshocton, Zanesville, and Nelsonville, young black organizers helped bring hundreds of people out to protests. The energy at each march was palpable—the exhilaration of young people finding a collective voice. In Mount Vernon, some 700 protesters circled the town square, before a group of maybe 50 people broke off and marched out to the highway, toward the edge of town. “Did you watch me start this?” beamed Justin, a dreadlocked 21-year-old. “I started this! I started this movement.” Justin told me he was surprised to see something like this in Mount Vernon, which is 96 percent white. As a black man in this town, he spoke of being stopped by police for no reason at all. 

In Ohio, racism is baked into political and social structures. From 2013 to 2019, 37 percent of people killed by police in Ohio were black, in a state where black people make up only 12 percent of the population. Writing for Ohio Capital Journal, Rob Moore noted that the statistic “makes Ohio a top 10 worst state for racial disparities in police killings and constitutes a bigger disparity than all of its neighboring states.”

And according to the Prison Policy Initiative in 2010, African Americans made up only 12 percent of the state’s population but 43 percent of people in its jails and prisons. By comparison, 81 percent of Ohioans were tallied as white that year, but white people made up only 52 percent of Ohio’s incarcerated population. According to Harm Reduction Ohio, black people died from overdose at a rate of 37.6 per 100,000 people, while white people died at a rate of 33.4 per 100,000.

Ohio Democrats recently introduced legislation that would declare racism a health crisis—which Columbus’s Franklin County already did. But state government remains well behind the curve. On June 12, in the midst of all the protests, at a time when statues of Confederate figures are being brought down across the South and Nascar has banned Confederate flags from races, the Ohio House voted down an amendment that would have prevented the sale or display of the flag at county fairs.

There is opposition on the ground as well. In Lancaster, Ohio, the hometown of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, I attended a socially distanced protest in the parking lot of the Fairfield County Job and Family Services. The noonday heat and humidity were miserable. People were spread out across the parking lot, sitting in lawn chairs or on the hot asphalt, all of them adhering to the six-feet rule made visible by dozens of chalked X’s. 

The event, which came a few days after a group of black ministers held a rally in the center of town, was organized by a group called the Instigators, a “coalition of Ohio citizens responding to the systemic silence in rural communities about issues of race & injustice to marginalized people,” according to its Facebook page. 

Shortly after I arrived, a guy driving a white Chevy dually truck with two Trump flags attached got into a brief shouting match with a protester. Flag guy told me he was there to see this “so-called peaceful protest” in person. I asked him if there had been any violent protests in Lancaster. He replied, “No comment.”

That was just the beginning of a low and steady hum of pushback. There were shouts of “white power” from people driving by, a guy in a truck who circled the block shouting, “All lives matter,” and a white man wearing a MAGA hat, complaining on his phone about people “flapping their jowls.” 

One of the organizers, a tall and thin 23-year-old white man named Alex Gaddis, told me that white participation was crucial to the movement. He said, “I know that until white culture in a place like Lancaster, Ohio, is challenged, the Black Lives Matter movement can’t succeed [here]. Black lives can’t be allowed to matter until the white complacency in a place like Lancaster is toppled.” 

On the highway we were standing next to, a white man stared at us and revved his motorcycle. 

George Floyd’s death may have been the catalyst for the protests in these small, mostly white towns, but it was not the sole cause. A group of six teenagers in Mount Vernon, four of them white, noted that young people live, in part, through social media. As a result, they see themselves as part of a larger context than their hometown—as part of a space with no boundaries. They have known about the Movement for Black Lives for years now. And, they said, they see the world differently from their parents. Recent polls confirmed that younger people do, in fact, see racial diversity as good for society, and a little over half of those surveyed believe that racial discrimination prevents African Americans from succeeding. “Some people,” one of the group told me, “act like this happened all of a sudden, but this has been brewing since the founding of this country.”

Kelly Capatosto, a senior research associate with the Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, was born in West Liberty, Ohio, a village of nearly two thousand people. She said she’s excited to see all these protests taking place in rural areas that, because of gerrymandering, hold more power than most people realize. They are also areas where awareness about racial inequality has historically been low. “In America it is so easy for someone to exit college or high school while still being completely unaware of the nonwhite experience, of the experience of black, brown, and Native Americans,” she said. 

Social media has provided the perspectives of black and brown and indigenous scholars and activists. Social media has also helped create a ready common language for talking about racism—about institutional, systemic racism and the pitfalls of white allyship. So many of the young people I spoke to said that addressing racism must come before everything else if we’re going to move forward as a nation.

Capatosto agreed that the challenge for young people in mostly white areas is to engage with and center black and brown voices: “How do you speak in places that aren’t diverse and not make it about white guilt or co-opting a movement? There’s a lot of humility that needs to be taken.”

I heard this sentiment echoed at almost all of the protests I went to, especially from so-called Generation Z: that white people must do the work of understanding how white supremacy functions in their lives.

I saw this work in real time at a protest in Newark, Ohio. The day before the protest, rumors spread that antifa activists were being bused in to turn the protest violent. A group from out of town, calling themselves the Ohio Patriots, arrived instead. They wore military-style uniforms and carried guns. They positioned themselves around the square ostensibly to protect the community from outside agitators.

At one point, an Ohio Patriot told the crowd he was there to make sure there was no looting or rioting. “We stand united with each and every one of you. Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter,” he said. 

In response, a white woman protester walked up to the microphone and reminded the crowd that it was “Blackout Tuesday,” which meant that white people were supposed to be quiet. “We need to shut up and listen,” she said. “Shut up and listen. That’s it.” 

Then a young biracial woman named Rylei Nami stood up and said, “Yes, all lives matter. But,” she spoke loudly and emphatically, “all lives cannot matter until black lives matter, too! Say it with me!” The audience shouted her words back. 

Social media is not the only force that has radicalized young white Ohioans. In 2018, 3,764 Ohioans died of a drug overdose. Preliminary reports indicate that the number will be over 4,000 for 2019. The ongoing overdose crisis, which is at root a crisis about health and poverty, has morphed into a criminal justice problem—a phenomenon that people of color are intimately familiar with. The state’s criminal justice system is bursting at the seams. A recent study by the Vera Institute concluded that, in 1983, 25,005 people were in jails and prisons in Ohio. In 2015, that figure jumped to 70,258 people—an increase of 181 percent. The study noted that rural Ohio counties, on a per capita basis, send the most people to prisons and jails.

Amanda Kiger-Stoffel, who helps lead a network of activists called UnHarming Ohio that works to address the effects of the drug war in the state, said that poor and working-class white people, especially those with substance use problems, are oftentimes victims of police violence. They have seen the damage the drug war has done firsthand. Kiger-Stoffel said her group is working to build a bridge between small towns and cities to end the drug war.  “We have to start naming this monster,” she said, “and naming it for what it is and take it out.” 

Part of this work has been to get white people to recognize their common cause with people of color—a complicated task in small, mostly white towns in the so-called Rust Belt. She has had to become a de facto anti-racist educator. 

Kiger-Stoffel’s hometown of East Liverpool is on the eastern edge of the state, on the banks of the Ohio River. On the last Saturday in May, Kiger-Stoffel was marching with, as she describes it, a “rag-tag group of mostly white people” to protest the killing of George Floyd. “It was the first time in the River Valley that there had been anything that spoke up for black lives that I could remember,” she said. “I was glad to be a catalyst for this, but I was also embarrassed.” 

The protest was organized by Thomas Powell, 24, a young white activist and rapper. Powell has close-cropped brown hair and a lip piercing. He told me the protest was the first time he’d ever done any kind of activism. He was energized by the experience. East Liverpool, he said, is a hard place to live, and he wants to change that. More than a quarter of its approximately 11,000 residents live below the poverty level, and the town’s population has been declining for years.

Powell told me that he came from a racist household, that his parents once shut down a birthday party when he was a child because he invited a black friend. When he was 13, he said, he was sent to a juvenile detention facility and later spent two years in prison. It was eye-opening, he said. So many people inside were black.

And then he saw the video of George Floyd, pressed to the pavement by Derek Chauvin. His son looked over his shoulder and asked Powell if Floyd was a bad guy. That shook him.

He created a Facebook event and invited everyone he knew to come to a rally in support of the Movement for Black Lives. He was criticized online, and some of his black friends told him they felt unsafe about going. “And I would never ask them to do it. I mean, I was nervous that something was going to pop off,” he said. But in the end, he said, “it was beautiful.” He was so amped that he joined a group traveling to a protest in Youngstown the next day and livestreamed the event. Some of his managers saw what he was doing and commented on the stream. He had called in sick from the restaurant, where he was a grill cook, two days in a row. Before he could be fired, he quit. “I’ve found my calling,” he told me.

Elijah, the nine-year-old boy from Fairfield County, organized another protest on June 13. This time, despite a steady rain all morning and a cold chill that belied the calendar, about 30 people showed up—including the Instigators activist group and a young black organizer named Joshua Jenkins from Newark, who later helped organize a Juneteenth celebration there. They gave him fist and elbow bumps, they told him he was brave, and they stood there, by his side, in the rain. As the family was leaving, a local police officer parked in the lot appeared to be writing down plate numbers.

The low hum of pushback. 

A day later, that low hum turned into a roar in Bethel, a tiny Appalachian town about two and a half hours south. 

A group of community members had organized a demonstration in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives. They worked with the police and town officials to ensure that the event would go off smoothly. Instead, about 800 counterprotesters, comprised of out-of-town motorcycle gangs and others, showed up and overwhelmed a small group of protesters. They tore up signs, shouted racial slurs, threw punches, pushed, shoved, and menaced. The violence was recorded and shared on social media. 

In a Facebook Live stream from the event, counterprotesters can be seen shouting, “USA!” They mingle with the crowd, trying to intimidate. In the shadow of Grant Memorial building—named after Ulysses S. Grant, who once lived in Bethel—a woman in a tie-dyed hoodie looks at the signs protesters are holding. “I like your sign,” she says. Then she grabs one and tears it up, “Don’t like that one.” Then a man with a Confederate flag bandanna over his face (one of the few counterprotesters actually wearing a face covering), grabs another poster and rips it up. Cars and motorcycles rev. The woman streaming the video says, “People need to see this.”  

Someone shouts at the protesters, “Don’t you guys know where Cincinnati is?” A woman responds, “I live around the corner. You fucking know me!” 

According to Alicia Gee, a 36-year-old white woman who helped organized the Bethel protest, most of the counterprotesters that Sunday were from out of town. “The majority of them I hadn’t seen in my life,” she said. 

Gee, a teacher, wears bright red glasses and has a great laugh. She was born and raised in Bethel and felt it was important for people in the community to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter: “For me it’s supporting our black brothers and sisters and to help their voices be amplified. I don’t think it is my job to speak for them, to put words in their mouths.”

White people have eyes, she said, and they can see the systemic racism and the violence for themselves. “When I look at the problems we’re talking about in my community, in other Appalachian towns, you can hear the same things in the city from [people of color]. There’s generational poverty in both places. We’re victims of capitalism.” In Ohio, white people and black people alike have been hit hard by deindustrialization, austerity measures, and now Covid-19 (though the pandemic has hit black populations harder). She agreed that, on top of that, black people also have to deal with white supremacy. 

Gee said that it can’t end here—that white people need to teach themselves and each other how to be anti-racist. A young black pastor named Casanova Green, who helped organize a rally in Lancaster, said, “I read something somewhere that said we don’t want allies. We want co-conspirators. I want people who can use their privilege to do better, to ask questions. Allies can back out at any time. You know? We used to say when I was growing up, ‘You wanted the smoke? Well here it is.’”