WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — When Jessica Shayan saw on Facebook that the national group CPD Action, a sister organization of the Center for Popular Democracy, had planned a march to coincide with President Trump and House and Senate Republicans visiting the Greenbrier Resort for an annual policy retreat, she was alarmed.
She had seen where that group and others had organized thousands of demonstrators in Philadelphia in 2017, the site of last year’s Republican retreat.
Members of the Greater Greenbrier County Indivisible group and Women’s March group — who refer to themselves as the Greenbrier Huddle for short — had been working on their own plans for activities in response to the retreat, which included a march. Shayan met with a representative of CPD and showed him the size of the town. She pointed out that the Greenbrier Hotel Corporation is the No. 1 employer in the county.
“We have to be respectful of that,” said Jessica Shayan, an organizer from Lewisburg. “People’s jobs are their lifelines.
In addition to asking outside groups to be respectful, the Greenbrier Huddle decided to show their gratitude to the people of White Sulphur Springs for hosting the demonstration by raising money to give to the community swimming pool. As of Friday, they’d raised over $2,500.
Continuing their theme of respect, members of the Greenbrier Huddle asked everyone participating in the week’s resistance activities to focus on issues rather than attacking specific politicians.
On Wednesday, a couple of dozen protesters gathered on a piece of property near the Greenbrier Valley Airport to hold up signs that tackled issues ranging from health insurance for the children of the working poor to the opioid epidemic as Vice President Mike Pence’s motorcade passed on the way to the retreat.
Earlier that day, some members of the Greenbrier Huddle had put additional issue-driven signs on a piece of private property on Route 60 in Caldwell, West Virginia closer to the Greenbrier Resort. The group had earlier received a request from someone who wanted to put a 30-foot inflatable chicken with hair that resembled the president’s there, but the members declined.
“As much as any of us don’t like him and his administration, we’re trying to be better than that and not put something hateful like that out there,” Shayan said.
Even without the chicken many of the signs had been torn down by that evening. Members who gathered to put the signs back up said they received heckling from passersby, including one person who told them to “go home.”
“We are being perceived as being from away,” a member wrote on the group’s Facebook page. Showing they were locals was important since outsiders with no connection to the community could draw some flak from some West Virginians.
To battle that perception, the Greenbrier Huddle asked local folks to wear blue and gold — the colors of the West Virginia University Mountaineers — to Thursday’s march, which they had dubbed the No Hate in My Holler march.
Several buses did bring in out-of-state demonstrators Thursday afternoon to Memorial Park, the start of the march. But there was also a large turnout of West Virginian activists. Estimates of the total marchers varied from 450 to near a thousand.
“I know there were some people from Upshur County yesterday,” Shalom Tazewell, a member of the Summers County Huddle, said Thursday. “There were people from Kanawha County. I think there are some folks coming in from Pocahontas County. Mercer County is bringing a bus. Raleigh County a bus. Certainly, from the southern part of West Virginia, there will be a huge number of people.”
Turner Sharp, from Parkersburg, came Thursday dressed like the Monopoly Man, complete with a bow tie and a gold-tipped cane, both made out of duct tape. He carried a sign that read “GOP: Party of the 1 %.”
“Everybody thinks everybody in West Virginia is for Trump and they’re not,” he said.
LaSaine Latimore traveled from Pittsburgh with others from One Pennsylvania, an organization that strives to empower poor and working-class activists, to march, even though she has a bad back and had to use a walker.
“We want to show the world that we disagree with what the GOP and Trump are doing,” she said.
Jerri Gillespie stood outside of Gillespie’s Flowers and Productions on Main Street watching as the protestors walked by chanting things like, “Fight! Fight! Fight! Healthcare is a human right.” “I find it very interesting,” she said of the march. “I don’t know how much good it does.”
Gillespie puzzled over how so many people managed to get off work in the middle of the day.
Across the street, Gene Thompson, who stood with a handful of other Trump supporters, claimed many of the demonstrators’ job that day was to march.
“Most of these people have been given $100 to walk up and down the street,” said Thompson, who lives in an upscale community built on the grounds of the Greenbrier, and who did not provide any evidence for his claim.
Marti Cordes, a nurse who traveled to West Virginia from Lincoln, Vermont, laughed at the suggestion that she was being paid.
“I work full time and then some,” she said. “This is what I do on my days off because it’s important.”
When the marchers made it to the gates of the Greenbrier Resort, Jennifer Epps-Addison with the CPD took on the role of emcee, introducing regional leaders like Emily Thompson, the Planned Parenthood South Atlantic Field Organizer, and Freeda Cathcart, an Indivisible Virginia organizer from Roanoke, who spoke as a swath of state police troopers surrounded them.
And then, just as the rain was about to start, everyone walked back to the park and went home.
White Sulphur Mayor Bruce Bowling posted a statement on his Facebook page Friday expressing relief that everything had gone well.
“Yesterday was quite an experience. It was not an ordinary situation for a small town government to tackle and I am so proud of the White Sulphur Springs Police Department and other local law enforcement and [the] City of White Sulphur Springs [West Virginia] for making it run so smoothly,” he wrote. “.. . We were all able to find a middle ground; their right to assemble peacefully was not infringed on but we were able to set the direction and boundaries of the event, keeping it respectful of the town, our citizens and the hotel’s guests.”
Though she’d initially been hesitant about the bussed-in protesters, Shayan was happy on Friday that they’d attended. “My fellow West Virginians are re-energized in our resistance.”
Beth JoJack is a freelance writer who lives in Roanoke, Virginia.