In Appalachia, United, We’re Not

Delegate Danielle Walker speaks through a microphone behind a Black Lives Matter flag during a march in Kingwood, West Virginia on September 12, 2020. Photo: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, America watched as tensions rose in big cities and small towns across the country. 

In Preston County, West Virginia, a summer of fairly amicable marches and rallies gave way to tense stand-offs between BLM marchers and counter protestors – like one in Kingwood on September 12.

The morning of the rally, West Virginia House of Delegates member Danielle Walker strapped on her body armor under a T-shirt that read “You Can’t Silence Love.” Walker put the vest on for the first time that day at the behest of her volunteer security team, who armed themselves to march alongside her. 

Walker is from Monongalia County, next door to Preston, but was invited to the march by local activists and lifelong Kingwood resident Frank Goines. In the weeks before the march, Goines had called local law enforcement agencies to let them know what he was organizing, to assure them. 

“I was just trying to make them comfortable, to let them know nothing illegal was going to happen,” Goines said. “I had no intention on doing anything illegal or inviting anyone that was having any intentions on doing anything illegal.”

But Goines’s group of about a dozen white women, a handful of Black locals and a few children weren’t the only ones who gathered near the baseball field in Kingwood that September morning. Across the field, some 50 armed counter protestors gathered with their Trump flags, Make America Great Again hats, loaded rifles in hand and pistols on their hips. 

The BLM marchers only made it a block before being surrounded by counter protestors, who shouted racial slurs again and again. Below is what happened that day, as well as reaction from Walker, Goines and the incoming Sheriff-elect, Republican Mo Pritt.

Below is a segment from the November 14, 2020, episode of Reveal, “United, We’re Not.” You can listen to the entire episode here.

This is a segment from the November 14, 2020, episode of Reveal, “United, We’re Not.”

The September Black Lives Matter march in Kingwood started with gatherings on either end of the town’s baseball field, BLM marchers on one end, armed counter protestors on the other.

Photo: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia

Delegate Danielle Walker says the Kingwood march was the first time she wore her body armor in public, after her volunteer security team saw threats for potential violence that day. Here, she adjusts her hair while putting on the plated vest in her home later.

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

I wear [body armor] when I drive. I wear it when I check my mail. I wear it when I take out the dog. It felt like shackles and chains was being placed on my body once again. It breaks my mother’s heart, when she goes to give me an embrace.

– West virginia delegate danielle walker

Walker speaks to her son while she wears the body armor that has become part of her daily routine.

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

Frank Goines invited Walker to the Kingwood event. Here, he stands in front of a chapel that was once the schoolhouse his grandmother attended in Kingwood. His family has lived there since his great-great-grandmother – who’d been enslaved in Virginia – moved in the 1890s.

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

Before the September march, counter protestors load their firearms. Many carried loaded rifles, shotguns, almost all of them with a pistol on their hip.

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

More than 50 counter protestors gathered as the BLM marchers unfurled their signs across the ballfield. Many of the counter protestors traveled from Pennsylvania and Maryland, expecting bus loads of BLM activists from Pittsburgh and Baltimore they’d seen rumored on social media.

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

I knew it was just going to take that one person, that had never handled a firearm or that didn’t care whether they went to jail or not. But I just knew it took one shot. I was going to be number one on that list of targets from that side because one I was the one that organized it.

– kingwood native and blm organizer frank goines

As the small group of BLM marchers headed out for their five block march, they were met by the shouts and racial slurs of counter protestors. One here is pictured wearing a Nazi SS shirt with a swastika tattooed on his hand.

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

As the marchers made their way up the sidewalk, they were surrounded by counter protestors who stood shoulder to shoulder, armed and attempting to drown out the BLM marchers with their own shouting.

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

The counter protestors chants included vulgar language, especially targeting Black marchers with shouts of the N word over and over again.

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

During the march, Del. Danielle Walker attempted to find common ground with one counter protestor, looking for a way to march together. He would not concede to her attempt for everyone to chant, “All Lives Matter, especially Black Lives.”

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been called a n—– before. But the tone and the voices and the anger in the eyes. And the clenched fist and the wrinkles of the forehead hurt more at that moment than those words. The hands on the guns in the holsters. The fingers on the trigger. That was real.

– West Virginia Delegate Danielle Walker

In the background, local law enforcement watch as BLM marchers move past the Preston County Courthouse, with counter protestors watching over them.

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

Mo Pritt is the Sheriff-elect of Preston County and was one of the officers standing outside the courthouse that day. As tensions rose, Pritt and his fellow law enforcement did not intercede, except to direct traffic.

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

From our perspective, could we done anything differently? Yeah. But to me, nobody was hurt other than maybe their feelings, both sides, and they all went home and we all went home.”

– Preston County Sheriff-elect Mo Pritt

Organizer Frank Goines and Del. Danielle Walker walk arm in arm during the BLM march as a member of Delegate Walker’s security team keeps counter protestors away from her. Walker wears her body armor under her shirt.

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

The body armor started on September 12 and it hasn’t stopped. The threats come every time a news article comes. A threat comes every time I participate in a protest, march or even a vigil, the threat comes if someone writes an opinion editorial about me in the newspaper.

– west virginia delegate danielle walker

A woman and her son stand in front of armed counter protestors as they yell at BLM marchers in Kingwood. Many of the locals that attended thanked their fellow counter protestors from out of state for coming to “protect their community.”

Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

This article was co-published with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Jesse Wright produced the audio piece, along with Katharine Mieszkowski from Reveal. Brett Myers with Reveal edited the story. Kayla Gagnon contributed to this article.

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.

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