by KATE SHUNNEY
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an updated version of the Messenger story posted on August 21.
Community fears about violence and an influx of unknown protestors were widespread last week ahead of a planned Black Lives Matter rally in Berkeley Springs State Park, and a counter-protest the grew up in response to the Friday evening event.
Downtown business owners reported cancellations of Friday night reservations, and local people worried about online chatter that rally attendees and counter protestors would clash.
Despite a tense atmosphere and verbal confrontations that marked the two-hour event, the feared violence didn’t materialize. Many who witnessed the competing protests credited law enforcement officers from multiple agencies for keeping the peace and settling tensions downtown.
A heavy police presence around the park served, at times, as a physical barrier between the two groups — those who rallied in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement and crowds of people who shouted out competing slogans and heckled speakers at the Berkeley Springs State Park gazebo.
Black Lives Matter speakers were partially drown out as counter-protestors shouted for speakers to “Go home” and “Shut up.” Shouting and verbal sparring between the protestors once or twice escalated into shoving, but police officers moved between parties, separating them without force.
The majority of Black Lives Matter supporters stayed to the north of the gazebo as counter-protestors moved into the park at the start of the event, many waving American flags and several hoisting Trump flags in the air.
Organizers of the counter-protest appeared to be members of motorcycle groups, some of which had set out for the rally from Martinsburg. One rally attendee said he was one of 30 to 40 vehicles in a caravan from
Martinsburg to Berkeley Springs on Friday afternoon.
Those protesting the Black Lives Matter rally were both in the park and across U.S. 522 from the park along Washington Street. A line of motorcycles was parked along the front of the park, a “Black Out” tractor trailer was stationed directly opposite the gazebo and played loud music at intervals during the rally. Many people stood waving American flags, while others held signs that said “All Lives Matter” and “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”
Inside the park, those supporting Black Lives Matter held signs and applauded for speakers and tried to chant over the sounds of heckling.
Organizers struggled to recapture the attention of the crowds several times as arguments broke out and counter-protestors chanted “U.S.A” and “All Lives Matter.” Counter-protestors clearly outnumbered Black Lives Matter rally supporters.
At one point, a counter protestor wearing a motorcycle vest told a member of his group that they could “flank” the Black Lives Matter group easily.
Ellen Lachewitz said she came to the rally in support of Black Lives Matter to listen and learn, and take action for equality.
“Our history has done a grave disservice to people of color,” she said.
Bear Thompson of Berkeley Springs said he came to take a stand against the Black Lives Matter rally “to make sure this town doesn’t turn into Portland.”
Tom Hall waved an American flag along the front of the park.
“What you see going on here is not the American way,” he said of the Black Lives Matter rally.
He said the Berkeley Springs community is not home to many people of color, and the rally didn’t belong there.
“I’m here because I believe Black lives matter and we all need to work for more justice for all,” Kate Lehman said.
Jim Stewart said he had come to support “All Lives Matter” and Morgan County. He had been in the Martinsburg area and ended up returning to Berkeley Springs amid 30 or 40 vehicles and motorcycles flying flags and heading to the counter protest. Stewart said he and his wife hadn’t intended to come, but joined the group.
From the gazebo, rally organizer Larry Schultz said the crowd was watching Black Lives Matter messages being shouted down, representing the larger issues of racism in the country.
“Who’s going to stand up for them?” Schultz said, referring to “marginalized” groups and
people of color.
“We are,” some in the audience responded.
An Army veteran from Martinsburg said he had come to speak against Black Lives Matter, which he said had once been a good idea. He said the group was now trying to shift America into a Marxist country. The man told Black Lives Matter speakers to stop talking about race and focus on everyone being Americans.
Adonijah Gilmore of Berkeley County spoke to the crowd over shouts, calling on all parties to be “brothers and sisters” in fighting poverty, being more Christ-like, thinking critically and not believing media misrepresentations about others.
“We are not here to say Black lives matter more than anyone else,” Gilmore said. “Brothers and sisters, we have this movement not to continue the hate, but to stand with each other.”
“I’m sure everyone here wants to end every form of discrimination. What are you going to do about it?” he asked the crowd.
Black Lives Matter rally speakers ended their event early, with Sammi Brown urging supporters to be safe as they returned home.
Some rally attendees asked police to escort them out of the park.
Rally organizer Katie Spriggs said the rally was meant to show support for community members of color, and to denounce racial stereotyping and acts of bigotry. She said she was disappointed that message was met with such strong resistance, with counter-protestors drowning out black voices.
Crowds continued to gather along the edges of the state park, waving flags and talking, with police remaining in the area as groups moved out of the main park.
Prior to the rallies, police had arrested David F. DeGraw, 55, of Berkeley Springs, charging him with making terroristic threats related to the event.
Officers represented multiple police agencies, including the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department, Berkeley Springs Police Department, West Virginia State Police, Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department, DNR Police and others.
Morgan County Sheriff K.C. Bohrer and Berkeley Springs Police Chief Tony Link put extensive planning into a police plan for the public event, they said. In addition to officers in the park, two law enforcement officers were posted on the top of the Morgan County Courthouse to monitor the event.
Sheriff Bohrer said local police agencies were bolstered by officers from Berkeley, Jefferson, Hampshire, Hardy County Sheriff’s Departments, Frederick County (Va) Sheriff’s Department and Natural Resources Police.
“Had we not had the resources, things could have quickly become dangerous and people hurt,” he said.