At 4:00 p.m. on Friday, August 21, the town of Berkeley Springs, sitting in the mountains of Morgan County, West Virginia, was mostly quiet. Many of its small shops were getting ready to close at the end of another slow day under the pandemic. There was, however, a nervous tone among those who were out on the street that afternoon. Most were talking about the Black lives matter rally set for 6:00 p.m. and what they had seen online about who was coming to town to oppose it.
Berkeley Springs and the surrounding area are visibly split. The downtown is filled with natural grocers with vegetarian cafes, a natural healing center and several art studios surrounding a park that is home to the famous Berkeley Springs for which the town is named. Many of these shops and townspeople show their support for the LGBTQ community and the movement for Black lives through flags and signs.
Just a minute down the road the streets become rougher and many of the storefronts are empty. Confederate, Trump, and blue lives matter flags are seen everywhere in front yards and flying from the back of trucks. That Friday the two worlds would meet in that downtown park.
A group of young organizers from the area planned the rally almost a month in advance as a follow up to a successful, peaceful rally the month before in the same town. This was one of many Black lives matter events to occur in the tip of the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia since May when protests and revolt swept across the entire country. For many in the area, this is the first they have seen protests in their streets and communities. The state authorities have responded with brutal arrests of protesters. Eight, including one PSL member, were arrested in May at a rally in another nearby town, Martinsburg. The local community was divided in their response, though there had been little in-person confrontation. That would change with this event.
By 5:00 p.m., organizers for the event were setting up in the park. They set up signs to remember Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, while demanding an end to police brutality and racism. On the sidewalk and in parking lots around the park, a much different scene was developing. Confederate flags were waving as chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump!” were starting among a quickly growing crowd.
The build up to this event online had been fraught. Threats of violence against rally goers were common in online groups from around the area. Concern for safety mixed with determination to show up and stand against the intimidation were common among progressives.
The demonstration begins
Despite this tense atmosphere, by 6:00 p.m. the anti-racist rally had gathered nearly 100 people. The counter protesters, many openly armed with rifles and handguns, were numbering in the hundreds and spreading around the outside of the park to surround the rally. State authorities from local, county and state levels were on hand. Many officers were wearing the same Blue Lives Matter flag on their riot gear that was being flown by the counter protesters.
As soon as the first speaker starter, the counter protest pushed into the park to confront the rally. Police quickly moved to separate the two crowds as counter protesters spit at and threatened the rally goers. The outnumbered rally participants bravely stood their ground, matching the chants of “U S A” and “TRUMP” with chants of “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE.” Rally speakers, including local activists, politicians and a long-time labor organizer continued to make speeches while counter-protesters taunted them with racial and homophobic slurs.
Racism serves the rich
More and more the counter protesters pushed into the crowd from all sides. Police did little to confront the threats and physical aggression of the counter-protesters but were quick to push back rally goers who would not back down. Still the anti-racists held their own. Heated exchanges happened all along the line as the two groups came face to face.
A common thread could be heard in these arguments. Those attending the Black lives matter rally talked not just about police brutality and violence visited upon people of color but also how poverty and the lack of resources made the problems worse. Many counter-protesters would answer with a similar refrain about how they are poor, how no one helps them and so why should they be forced to give what little they have to help others.
West Virginia is one of the nation’s poorest states. It ranks near the bottom of every list of social indicators from education, to health care, to income, to drug abuse and mental health. Poverty is inherent to the capitalist system and beneficial to the ruling capitalist class that lives in luxury above and on the backs of all working people. In the conditions of that poverty, racism becomes extremely useful for turning even the poorest white people against Black workers for fear of losing what little they already get to survive and as a means to exercise some power in a world in which they are mostly powerless.
Here, on the front lines, we could see plainly poverty and racism being used as a tool to separate working people. White supremacist ideology had fooled the counter-protesters into siding with the police that protect the wealth and power of their own exploiters. Breaking this dynamic is one of the most complex challenges for revolutionaries in the United States, and can only be accomplished through a combination of militant action against racism and socialist agitation on the common interests of all workers in combating capitalism.
Eventually, the violence of the right-wing crowd became overwhelming. The anti-racists stood in solidarity with each other and made sure everyone made it out of the park together even as reactionaries continued to spit at and provoke them. Though the day ended with the Black lives matter rally leaving the park, the people who were there felt rightfully proud for standing up for each other in the face of the police and the right wing. Already the calls for more events and rallies are being made and the struggle continues!