The plan, according to a Facebook post, was to meet in the East Preston School parking lot at noon. The school district superintendent had given the organizers permission to park there, as long as the protest itself stayed on the sidewalk.
At 11:59 a.m., the parking lot was empty. Across the street, however, a dozen or so trucks were pulling into a gravel lot behind the town’s fire station and ambulance bay, and a handful of older men stood in the shade of the fire department’s sign. “LORDY LORDY LOOK WHO’S FORTY,” the sign exclaimed. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY SAM.” An unmarked police SUV idled next to a bearded man in camo pants, a cigar and bottle of Brisk iced tea in one hand and an SKS rifle with a bayonet mounted on the barrel in the other.
“We’ve got over 100 snipers out here,” the rifle-toting man boasted. Some around him referenced rumors from Facebook that a bus from Baltimore, Maryland, was bringing people hellbent on destroying as much of Terra Alta as possible.
Before driving away, the sheriff’s deputy told the man that he appreciated him, “being out here today.”
There were no snipers. There was no bus.
Instead, the height of the first civil rights march in Terra Alta, West Virginia, history – as far as anyone can tell – was marked by 36 people stretching about a block, carrying signs with slogans ubiquitous to Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country. One sign reminded Terra Alta’s residents — 98 percent of whom are white — that non-white children also attend East Preston School, the PreK-8 grade school where the rally began. The woman behind the protest was an East Preston School alumni, Lexus Friend.
Since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May, Friend and other activists have organized protests against police violence and racism in Morgantown, West Virginia, about 30 miles to the north east where she now lives, but she felt called to march through Terra Alta. Terra Alta, a rural mountain community of about 1,700 residents, and Morgantown, an increasingly diverse college town of about 30,000 (whose population doubles when West Virginia University students return to campus each fall) are vastly different.
“People keep asking me, ‘Why Terra Alta? You don’t even live here anymore,’” Friend said. “This was the place I first moved to in West Virginia. This is where I first remember experiencing racism.”
Friend gestured toward East Preston School’s front door. “This was my school. There was me, my friend and her brother and we were the only Black people in the school. I have a daughter now, and I refuse to settle and let these kids experience the things that I have, especially in this town,” Friend said.
The presence of armed men alarmed her – “It’s everyday life for a Black person in America” – but she knew there would be some resistance – she’d received threats on Facebook as soon as she posted a flyer publicizing the demonstration a few days earlier.
By 12:15 p.m., a few cars trickled into the school parking lot. Under the watchful eyes of the men across the street, the demonstrators pulled out homemade signs, and Friend stacked coolers of snacks and water bottles in the shade of a nearby tree. They looked uneasily across the street at the armed men waiting for them, but nevertheless, they quickly lined up with their signs, chanting the names of Black Americans killed by police in high-profile instances across America: Breanna Taylor, George Floyd, Treyvon Martin, and others.
Cars rolled between the two groups, occasionally honking and shouting support for one side or the other. A young boy, who looked dressed for church not a march in the 90 degree heat, arrived with his mother to join the BLM demonstrators. He would spend most of the day asking everyone he could if they wanted a spritz of hand sanitizer and offering water bottles. After the passenger of a passing car yelled, “get the f**k out of town,” directly at him, a look of fear flashed in his eyes.
In the days leading up to the demonstration in Terra Alta, a handful of local residents spread unfounded rumors about Friend and the planned BLM march, claiming their intent was to destroy property.
Jay Bolyard, a lifelong Preston County resident who recently retired, was one of the first to camp out across from the school parking lot where the protesters gathered. He claimed he was there not to intimidate or harass the protesters, but to express his political beliefs as well and “keep an eye on things.”
“All Americans have a right to protest,” Bolyard was quick to explain, especially those he disagreed with. But those Facebook rumors had put some locals on the defensive.
“I wanted to see what was going on,” Bolyard explained during a phone interview a few days after the protest. “On social media, there were all these accusations that they would burn down the school, burn down the fire department. I was sitting there reading this and thought, ‘I have to go.’”
According to Frank X. Walker, an Appalachian writer, professor, activist and founder of the Affrilachian Poets, this is a common motivation for many who oppose Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country.
“The armed counter protestors that show up to these kinds of events all over America, especially in the mountain South this year, have come for one of two reasons. One, they are terribly misinformed and have been made to believe that there is some outside force coming to take what’s theirs,” he said, “or two, it’s their intent by threats of their arms to intimidate anything that would detract or represent change away from a power structure that’s about all the power belonging to white men.”
Black Appalachians have long faced attempts to white-wash the region’s history, which may contribute to the widespread resistance to the Black Lives Matter movement in overwhelmingly white, rural communities. “The biggest lie told in Appalachia is that there are no Black people in Appalachia,” Walker said.
“We’ve got to talk about Booker T. Washington,” the famous abolitionist born in Virginia who grew up in West Virginia after the Civil War, he said. “We’ve got to talk about Carter G. Woodson,” a West Virginia coal miner who would go on to become a historian and is widely regarded as the father of Black history in America. “We’re not talking about the Black Appalachians who laid the foundation of the blues,” many of them in coal camps in southern West Virginia. “These are all individuals from Appalachia,” Walker pointed out, “they didn’t just show up yesterday.”
In part because rural America is overwhelmingly white, it almost exclusively experienced the start of the Black Lives Matter movement this year through the chaotic scenes from Minneapolis, Louisville, Seattle and Washington, D.C., that have played out on Fox, CNN and MSNBC for weeks. The video rolls as pundits and television experts jockey to provide the most alarming takes on what these marches, rallies and protests mean for America.
Interactions between BLM activists and groups of armed counter protesters are usually tense scenes of screamed threats and occasionally open violence. Cars have rammed through protests, injuring and sometimes killing people. In some cities, protesters have destroyed monuments to Confederate leaders, slave holders and statues of Christopher Columbus, whose legacy as the first European to “discover” America has become complicated by renewed attention to his role in colonialism and the genocide of America’s indigenous populations.
These highly publicized incidents have fueled rampant speculation on social media about BLM marches and rallies from big cities to small towns and inspired a group of men in Terra Alta to show up to its first, small demonstration. Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation and the most extreme ends of American politics is well documented. It’s often difficult to parse fact from fiction, especially when trusted friends and respected community members share – whether intentional or not – the misinformation.
But as with many things seen on TV, reality proved differently in Terra Alta that Friday.
“You Have To Be Willing”
After an hour of chanting and waving signs, four of the protesters broke off from the main group and crossed the street. Sydney Spaulding, Stormi Martin, Marcus Jones and Friend walked calmly toward their detractors. Both sides of the street went quiet for a moment as they approached the men who’d been expecting a violent mob. After a tense beat, Friend began to speak to the men who’d only moments earlier been taunting her and the others gathered.
“You have to be willing,” Friend said later, her voice cracking slightly as she reflected on the walk across the street directly toward a man holding a rifle intended to be used against her if he felt threatened, “because anything could happen. I think about making it home to my daughter, but then again, I think of the world she’s growing up in. I don’t want her to have to do the things that I’m doing now.”
Bolyard braced himself for a confrontation, he reflected later, but then was struck by the youth in the faces he saw staring back at him. Though tempers flared at first, Friend and Bolyard kept their respective sides from letting their anger rule the day. As he put it, “It’s like when a radiator hose blows; at first you get all the steam coming out, but after a while it calms down.”
In stark contrast to the violent altercations between BLM activists and counter protesters that have been shown on cable news and social media, there was an abundance of patience and listening in the ensuing conversations. Loud chants and taunts gave way to quiet chatter, briefly punctured by a passing car’s horn and the pair of evangelicals who set up a tent nearby to preach, calling all those present to embrace a relationship with Jesus. When Bolyard mentioned that it was difficult for him to stand and talk, the three women from the BLM group quickly moved toward his camp chair, gathering around him as they shared their perspectives on what brought them all out that day.
Many of the counter protesters took great offense at the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” suggesting that “All Lives Matter” was more egalitarian, and less divisive. The BLM activists explained that the statement was not prioritizing one race over the other, but is intended to draw attention to the fact that Black Americans are not treated equally. While not landing on deaf ears — though Jay admitted he’s quite hard of hearing — it was very much a point that neither side seemed willing to budge on.
There was one point of agreement between both sides, though, “the media” was to blame for many of the misunderstandings and ill will they felt toward the other side, though which “media” was hard to discern.
Distrust in America’s media institutions has increased dramatically since 2016, when the President campaigned against “fake news.” Years of unrelenting accusations that America’s most prominent journalistic outlets, like the New York Times and Washington Post, are not trustworthy sources for information have had their intended effect: Americans are less trustful of media outlets across the board. According to the Pew Research Center, Republicans have a far deeper distrust in journalists themselves, with 31 percent saying they believe journalists have “very low ethical standards.” In rural communities across Appalachia, the distrust in news outlets – especially national ones – is hardly a partisan issue and began long before the 2016 presidential election.
“Appalachia has a kind of an unbalanced relationship with national media because they are always taking Appalachia in unfair terms and castigating details,” Walker said. “It always makes Appalachians look like a caricature and a stereotype.” Articles about the Appalachian region in major news outlets are almost exclusively pessimistic, revolving around the fall of the coal industry and the impact of the national opioid crisis on rural mountain communities, but little else. “So, I think Appalchians in general have a right to be distrustful of national media,” he continued.
News coverage of chaotic protests with thousands of activists and hundreds of police are often confusing, offering little clarity into the how and why of these events. It’s easier to mistake fact for fiction when it’s shrouded in tear gas clouds. With both protestors and law enforcement under masks protecting them from both COVID-19 and tear gas, it’s difficult to see oneself in the person on the other side of a protest line. But Terra Alta’s BLM protest offered a drastically different experience with civil disobedience for the town’s residents. According to Walker, this isn’t an isolated case.
“I’ve heard of 30 or 40 gatherings in small towns just in Kentucky and West Virginia,” Walker said, “and what made those things worked well is when the counter protestors showed up and challenged the protestors only to find out that, ‘wait a minute, I went to school with you or your daughter or your son.’”
“Recognizing the faces of those on the other side changes everything,” he said.
“I think it’s easy to take up arms against some foreign enemy,” Walker said, “but when you sit down and talk to your neighbor, well that’s different and that’s what’s made these small town gatherings work. People show up to these small gatherings and think, ‘I know everybody here.’”
At 3 p.m.,the BLM demonstrators in Terra Alta made a brief retreat to sit under a row of trees where they’d staged their water bottles and snacks. A few demonstrators spoke, one offering advice on how to win over local support.
“Stop calling them all racist,” one woman lectured — more flies with honey, and as Terra Alta’s first and only civil rights activists, she pointed out, their behavior in person and online would be scrutinized and held to a higher standard.
The demonstrators guzzled water as the sun began crawling west, curling under the merciful shade of the trees. Then they marched.
Heading west on East State Street, their signs held over their heads, their voices grew in volume with each step.
“No justice,” Lexus shouted. The protesters behind her dutifully replied, “no peace!”
A motorcycle roared up and down past the parade, eyeballing each of the activists from behind a 111%er bandana. A blue and white Ford Mustang whose driver had been friendly with the armed counter protestors crawled alongside the marchers for a few blocks at a time, another reminder that Lexus and her compatriots were not wholly welcomed to Terra Alta.
But a few blocks later, a woman waved from her front porch, her smile warm with recognition as she called out, “Hey, Lexus!”
It was a poignant reminder, just as Walker noted, that this was Friend’s town too, and as people came out on porches and stoops to see what the commotion was on a Friday afternoon, at least half seemed to recognize the marchers, or at least supported the cause with a wave, a raised fist, or joining in with the marcher’s chants.
The march stopped at the Mountaineer Mart on West State Street for some refreshments and a quick rest in the air conditioning before turning around and marching the mile or so back to where they started. There were rumors that an armed man with a bayonet was coming to make sure the demonstrators didn’t ransack the town’s veterans’ memorial – another social media rumor – but he didn’t show.
A cheer went up as the group of around 30 people made it back to the school parking lot — Terra Alta’s first civil rights march in recorded history had gone off without a hitch. With the exception of a few sunburnt necks, no one was injured. Most of the day had been spent engaging in spirited debate with those who’d come expecting violence, and as Friend and her fellow activists took a symbolic knee in front of the school Friend had once attended, where Black and multiracial students would return once school begins again, some of those who’d come out to oppose the protest made their way over to offer hand shakes and farewells.
Spaulding admitted that protesting can take its toll and be discouraging — especially when their signs are met with guns and angry threats. “But then I realize every single time that I can’t get discouraged, can’t get upset, can’t get tired because we’re doing this for the lives of people that were lost,” she said. “Honestly, just picturing George Floyd taking his last breath in the street instantly revitalizes me, and the passion comes right back, no matter how scared I get.”
“I hope my role was to let them know that instead of hate, it’s better to have debate,” Bolyard mused later of his presence at the BLM event. “If I look back on 2020, hopefully I did something to help smooth the ripples.”
Spaulding laughed, “We all, at some point, came to an agreement on something today and that was powerful. That’s why I can definitely go home happy after this and feel like I accomplished something.”
Chris Jones is a Report for America corps member covering domestic extremism for 100 Days in Appalachia. Click here to help support his investigative reporting through the Ground Truth Project.