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.’”