Why not here? Black Lives Matter in rural Ohio
It’s about 7 in the evening and a group of some 50 demonstrators, the diehards from a crowd estimated around 350 at its height, are lying face down in the grass of the courthouse square in Coshocton, Ohio. They lie prostrate in solidarity with George Floyd, a black man whose death at the hands of white Minneapolis police officers was filmed and viewed by people around the world.
For more than an hour protesters have listened to heartfelt and sometimes passionate speeches decrying racism in the United States and in their community. They have marched in circles around the courthouse chanting, “George Floyd.” They have been loud and seen.
And now, there’s an eerie stillness, 50 people face down on the ground, a stone’s throw from the town’s gorgeous, second-empire red-brick courthouse, in the shade of hardwoods in full June growth.
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Coshocton is about an hour and a half east of Columbus and home to some 11,000 people, 96 percent of whom are white. Only 2 percent identify as black. Even here, people are stepping out of their homes and into the streets. They are doing it at great risk to themselves — we are still in the midst of a pandemic, after all — but also because in these places it is difficult to hide. Neighbors drive by and peer into crowds that are much smaller than those in Columbus or Brooklyn or Minneapolis. And in some of these places, as was the case of Coshocton, protesters are threatened online before they even walk out into the streets.
And yet, in these small towns, they still protest. In recent days, I’ve attended demonstrations in Zanesville, Millersport, Newark, Granville, Mount Vernon, Lancaster, Nelsonville and, now, Coshocton, a protest organized by Monique Weatherwax and Javanna Ramsey, two young Black women from the community.
Ramsey is on one knee, filming the scene on her phone Weatherwax is in the crowd. The silence is broken with shouts of “I can’t breathe” and “Say his name! George Floyd!” It gets louder and louder.
After about nine minutes — the amount of time that Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck — the protesters stand up, brush themselves off and, to my surprise, begin marching around the courthouse again.
When Weatherwax and Ramsey saw the video of the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests spreading like a fevered wind across the nation, they were activated. Ramsey, 24, says her first thought was, “Why not here?”
These two women, friends since high school, had never imagined organizing an anti-racism protest in their town. Weatherwax, 23, moved to Coshocton when she was 10.
“In a small town like Coshocton, I don’t think people are aware of the racial issues. … We don’t have cops shooting unarmed people,” Weatherwax said, but racism is real. For her, it means enduring uncomfortable glances while in public. It means living with assumptions. And when she was a high school cheerleader, it meant being told to straighten her hair for games.
Weatherwax’s hope when planning the event was that it would be a space for people to begin talking about these things. “It’s internal hurting. I’m not being beaten up in the streets, but a 13-year-old being told she has to straighten her hair to look like the other white girls…” she said, trailing off. “But now, as an adult with my own daughters with curly hair, I make sure to tell them, ‘Your curls are so beautiful.’”
Perceptions like these shape the lives of people of color in small towns, she said. They affect where people work and live, and where they feel safe.
In the week before the protest, the two friends worked with the county commissioners and the sheriff’s office to ensure the event was secure. Weatherwax told theCoshocton Tribune they had “received a warning from the Ku Klux Klan of a counter protest.” She kept her eye on social media and made sure that a few allies with concealed carry firearms were present.
Ramsey said some of the comments on social media made her nervous, but she was surprised that so many people turned out. “I didn’t expect the diverse group — people from all walks of life. People who have different experiences that see it like I do,” she said. “I love my community. I love the atmosphere. I love what we could be.”
Both women are hoping they can work to create events that bring people from different parts of town together. Beyond that, Ramsey said, they are also interested in “ways to think about police reform. We’re all about every police officer [wearing] body cams.”
Another protester, a Black man named Michael, carried a sign that read, “Trials in the Courts, not Trials in the streets.” Michael is tired of systemic issues that prevent him from moving forward. Because he has a record, he said, he can’t get a good job. In some ways, he feels he was groomed for this life being profiled as a young man.
Michael was surprised to see many white people out here “for the right cause” because, he said, “it’s usually the Klan up here.” Indeed, in 1993, there was a Klan rally at this courthouse with seven Klansmen in robes and more than 1,000 counter demonstrators.
Like many communities in the United States, if you dig around enough, you’ll discover a complicated history of race and violence. Coshocton developed on former Lenape lands, was intimately involved in the Underground Railroad and was the site of the mob lynching of a Black man named Henry Howard in 1885 — on the courthouse square, no less.
In 2016, I interviewed a Coshocton woman named Lulu Williams, 95 at the time, who heard as a child that a local jeweler kept one of Howard’s toes on display in his store. Williams said she had good memories from her childhood, but she also remembered the stories of violence and racism. She knew that her grandmother was enslaved in Kentucky, remembers that some businesses wouldn’t serve Black people, and that some places were off limits to Black people after sunset.
Tim Kettler, a white man in his 60s and an organizer with the Ohio Poor People’s Campaign, has been an activist for many years. But tonight he’s excited to see “not the usual suspects.” “It’s young people, and it’s community-generated,” he said of the crowd, many of whom “watched a young man get murdered on television” and couldn’t turn away.
“People are finding their sense of justice,” said Kettler, who noted a shift even among white residents. “In Appalachia, white privilege isn’t so shiny,” he said. “Sixty percent of our state’s impoverished people are in Appalachia, and Appalachia has always been perceived as the ‘other.’” But, he said, some white people are asking, what if I didn’t have white privilege? He’s hopeful that some white people are starting to see common cause with the movement for Black lives.
Indeed, from a scan of the crowd, it’s easy to find many young white people. I join the marchers and bump into Tim Kettler’s son, Malcolm, 28, wearing a tie-dyed shirt and a gray bandana over his mouth and nose while carrying a sign that reads, “I should be home stoned, but instead it’s 2020 and we’re still protesting racism!” But he doesn’t think it’s his time to speak right now. This, he said, is a space for Black people to speak.
Malcom believes there’s a lot of closeted racism in Coshocton, and that some young people are taught to be racist. “That hatred can be stopped,” he said. “This shit’s taught.”
Unsurprisingly, this is not Malcolm’s first protest. He said he’s been to 15 or 16, his first being an anti-war demonstration in the early 2000s with his dad. As he speaks, three young white women walk by and tell us this is their first protest.
“They’re getting a taste of what it’s really like,” Malcolm said. “I hope it empowers them to do more, to change the world.”
I catch up with the three women, who are all surprised the protest is so peaceful; they were worried about violent counter-protesters. They’re all in their mid-20s. “We have people that we love from the Black community, and it’s not about us. It’s about supporting them,” said Shelby Matchett, a thin, dark-haired woman wearing a red shirt with the slogan “Kind people are my kind of people.” Matchett said, “[I hope] that in 40 years we’re not watching our grandkids do the same thing we did, like our grandparents are watching us do the same thing they did.”
An older Black woman named Karen Jackson said she’s glad to see white people finally standing up. “We’re tired,” she said. “We’re tapped out.”
The young contingent continues to march around the square. It’s now after 8 o’clock, and Ryan Reese is standing with his 8-year-old son. Reese had attended a protest a few days earlier in Beaver Creek, Ohio, the town where John Crawford III was shot and killed by police in a Wal-Mart in 2014.
Reese was a little nervous about bringing his son. “I’m his voice right now, because if I don’t speak, who will?” he said. “I don’t want him to have to explain to his kids these things that are wrong with the world.”
They stand in the cool evening as young people keep marching, around and around and around. People drive by, honking and shouting their support. Monique Weatherwax is at the front of the group. No one seems to be getting tired.