CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Hundreds of people gathered at the West Virginia State Capitol complex Sunday with most taking part in a Black Lives Matter demonstration on the steps of the Capitol building.
A second group consisted of men in camouflage uniforms claimed they were at the Capitol to protect free speech, while a separate dozen people were gathered around the statue of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in support of preserving the statue on the corner of Kanawha Boulevard and California Avenue.
Around 400 demonstrators were on the northern side of the Capitol to speak out against racial discrimination in West Virginia and the United States. According to a Call to Action for Racial Equality representative, the organization and Black Lives Matter: West Virginia had been planning an event for months, but plans for a rally were moved forward following the violent Aug. 12 protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which one woman died and dozens were injured.
The event was originally scheduled for Aug. 22 on the West Virginia State University campus in Institute, but it was changed to Sunday at the Capitol following increased interest.
CARE executive director Gabrielle Chapman told the crowd addressing racism in the United States is a “huge task,” and the audience has not done enough by solely attending the rally. She noted her international academic studies as a reference for more action.
“It was overseas that I realized white supremacy and racism affected not only black and brown people in the United States but across the world,” she said. “Something became clear to me when I got back: if it was anyone that had the insight, the grit, the resiliency to eradicate this form of oppression, it would be the black American.”
Chapman added that African-Americans have successfully challenged racism in the past and will continue to do so.
“We carry a single existence that is really unique,” she said. “We’re different than any demographic that I have really encountered, and something special grips the people who come from the deepest, hidden layer of what I call ‘the belly of the beast.’ In most cases, black folks in West Virginia feel forgotten, silenced and they’re deemed voiceless.”
Members of Women’s March of West Virginia, the American Liberties Civil Union of West Virginia, Mountaineers for Progress and the West Virginia Council of Churches were also present.
Julia Hamilton with Mountaineers for Progress said in a state with a majority-white population, it is easy to overlook problems facing those with different ethnicities.
“When these progressive groups were first birthed around the state, there were great meetings and they had great numbers but were largely white,” she said. “We had initial discussions about what trouble we have with police, and we quickly found that we, as white people, generally don’t have any issues and we don’t see anything as being a big issue.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, West Virginia’s population is 93.6 percent white.
Hamilton, an educator, said she often hears from children who do not feel safe around police officers.
“We have a school that I work with that has 43 different languages spoken there,” she said. “Their idea of the police and their experiences with them are very different than mine.”
CARE has been one of the organizations working with the Charleston Police Department in better addressing race in the community.
During the Black Lives Matter rally, more than 50 members of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, West Virginia Light Foot Militia, Three Percent Republic and the Oath Keepers were organized around the Capitol complex, some of whom were armed.
According to Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia Commander Officer Christian Yingling, the militia members were not there to protest the rally, but rather protect the right to hold said event.
“These folks want to be heard and we want to make sure they’re heard,” he said. “We want to make sure that everybody gets to celebrate their constitutional right and can do it without fear of being physically accosting.”
Yingling said he was in Charlottesville during the “Unite the Rally” white supremacist rally, which he described as “an absolute nightmare.” He said since the event, his organization has been unfairly labeled as racist despite helping both rally attendees and the counter-protesters.
“We may not always agree with what people say, but that doesn’t change the right that they have to say it,” he said. “There is no call for violence. We are educated adults in an educated society.”
An additional dozen people were gathered around the “Stonewall” Jackson statue in support of keeping the structure. Around 200 people held a rally around the statue on Aug. 13 in support of its removal. The Black Lives Matter rally was not related to that event.
“In order to have peace, you’ve got to talk,” said Chuck Reynolds, of Fraziers Bottom. “I wouldn’t try to force what I believe on them, and they should try to force what I believe on me. If we each believe in different things that’s OK, but don’t hate each other.”
Reynolds said he supports racial equality, but Jackson, who was born in Clarksburg, deserves the statue on the Capitol grounds for his role in American history.
“If they want to install a statue of Martin Luther King, we wouldn’t object,” he said, pointing next to the Jackson statue. “It’s part of history.”
West Virginia State Police and Capitol Police officers were present throughout the property during the events. No arrests were reported.